This past week in our elders’ meeting, I raised a personal goal in a discussion about our preaching and teaching within the life of the church. As a pastor, I’m always trying to become a better communicator and in order to become better, it’s essential to evaluate, discuss, and consider ways to improve. I explained that I was seeking to preach shorter sermons in general, but specifically on Sunday evenings. Why would I talk about sermon length in our elders’ meeting? Is this really an important issue worthy of time and consideration? I think so, and I also believe it’s not merely pragmatic chatter.
The Goal of a Sermon: Discipleship
The primary goal of most sermons is focused on discipleship. It’s not entertainment. In Ephesians 4:12, Paul provides a helpful element for pastors to consider when preaching any sermon. The goal is to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). When I stand in the pulpit, I understand that I’m not tasked with getting a certain number of laughs from the congregation. When crafting the sermon, it’s essential to manage time properly and include the necessary information that will cause people to know God and glorify Him with their lives. Three main elements must take place in the preaching of the Word, or it isn’t preaching.
- Read the text of Scripture.
- Explain the Scripture.
- Apply the Scripture.
When you factor in the opening introduction to the sermon, the illustrations that aid in explaining the text, and a conclusion, it’s important to chart out how long this process will take in delivering the sermon. Any flight must have a flight plan, and that same thing is true for every sermon. The sermon plan will involve knowing the text and knowing the congregation at the same time.
Five Considerations for Lengthy Sermons
I enjoy listening to preaching and some of the men who have shaped me the most preach long sermons. As a result, I have adopted that same approach and my sermons typically range from 45-60 minutes. I feel most comfortable in the 50-55 minute range, but I have also come to realize that a shorter sermon might be more beneficial. Below are some dangers to consider regarding long sermons (sermons over 50-60 minutes).
- Is my congregation accustomed to listening and following a longer sermon? Enduring and following are two different things.
- Is my long sermon necessary or am I merely attempting to imitate the pattern of the Puritans? Longer sermons are not more holy.
- Could I remove some unnecessary phrases and repetitions in order to tighten up the sermon for a more efficient delivery?
- Have I considered the value of my congregation’s time?
- If the people stop listening at 45 minutes each week, what value is there in going another 15 minutes? If the people aren’t receiving the information, I’m not really making disciples.
The Goal of Shorter Sermons
I would like to see my preaching range decrease to around 40-45 minutes for a Sunday morning sermon and 35-40 minutes for a Sunday evening sermon. The purpose in the goal is not merely pragmatic, it’s actually based on a desire to see the people I shepherd grow in grace. If my sermon is too long, they may find themselves considering the clock rather than the Word of God. If I can preach a well prepared sermon – packed with the necessary truth – in a shorter time frame, it may allow for deeper consideration and evaluation of the truth rather than the clock.
My ultimate goal in preaching shorter sermons is to make the congregation happy in God – not happy with the clock. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Length is the enemy of strength. The delivery of a discourse is like the boiling of an egg; it is remarkably easy to overdo it, and so to spoil it.” He went on to say, “The speaker’s time should be measured out by wisdom.”  It is my ultimate desire to labor in the pulpit for the church’s joy in Christ (2 Cor. 1:24). I don’t want my sermons to get in the way. To that end, I evaluate and examine my preaching often in order to become a more effective preacher. Perhaps a shorter sermon could benefit your church too.
In making adjustments to your sermon length, avoid the danger of pragmatism. Don’t try to gain ground by appealing to a corrupt desire. Remember, to preach a good sermon on a paragraph of the Bible requires time. John MacArthur writes, “Rarely does a man preaching twenty-five to thirty minutes do doctrinal exposition.”  Be wise in how long and how short you preach, and whatever you do — preach the text faithfully.
- Charles Spurgeon, “Advice Gratis,” – The Sword and the Trowel, 1872.
- John MacArthur, “Frequently Asked Questions about Expository Preaching,” in Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992), 339.