How Many Minutes Should a 26–year–old Preach? (4 Myths about Sermon Length)
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “We are generally longest when we have least to say. A man with a great deal of well–prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it.”1
Now, to be clear: that’s Spurgeon, not Bible. In fact, you’ll search in vain for a biblically decreed word count for sermons. Nonetheless, I do think a few myths abound concerning the length of them, in particular among those who take theology seriously. I’ll address four below.
Myth #1: The longer the sermon, the more holy the preacher
Few state this one aloud. But more implicitly, often expressed in the snide derision of what we call, “sermonettes,” this myth beckons young ears. Or it manifests itself in the hallowed conference speaker that preaches magnum opi with regularity. We respect his ministry; he preaches longer than my congregation prefers; I follow Apollos.
But we know better. It’s no skill to merely speak for long periods of time. Any one of us can filibuster a congregation.
This post isn’t arguing that there’s no such thing as a sermonette; rather it asserts some of them last over an hour. Furthermore, the amount of time one spends behind a pulpit is no barometer for that preacher’s holiness.
Myth #2: The longer the sermon, the more holy the congregation
That sentence might be true on occasion, but the effect of the predicate is not necessarily the cause of the subject.
Any quick reading of Edwards or Calvin makes plain, maybe by that quick reading, our current era’s ever–diminishing attention span. Therefore, as exegetes of the effects of broader culture, pastors ought to challenge congregations to concentrate longer than the thousands of disconnected pieces of byte–size info that week conditioned them for. The Bible does prescribe meditation. Thoughtful sermons often function as a form of corporate meditation. Rather than swiping by, the church ought to linger over the word.
But just because the preacher stands longer, it doesn’t follow that more sitting served his hearers. Many of the sermons I’d classify as verbose have been full of tangents and redundancies, with lots of repetition and rabbits, while resembling the unloading of information’s dump truck rather than the crystallized thesis of the text. As a reflective exercise, the preacher might ask himself: would the congregation have been better served by 35 minutes of rapt attention than 55+ minutes of drifting because the sermon lacked focus? “The longer the sermon, the more holy the congregation” leaves out a central variable: the preacher.
Myth #3: I don’t need to edit my sermon
That central variable ushers us to the next myth. While I might’ve led you to think the main concern of this brief article was a sermon not–so–brief, the essence of it is the necessity of ruthlessly editing. I write this tongue–in–cheek; but if Luke edited Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, maybe we should edit ours. Antoine de Saint–Exupery asserted, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Stephen Olford contended, “Exposition is the art of elimination.”
Longer sermons aren’t necessarily the enemy of the church’s good. In fact, sermons can be lengthy meditations without being too long. They usually become too long when they’re not edited well.
Myth #4: Everyone should preach the same amount of time
What follows is my opinion alone. It does not reflect the views of my employer, my alma mater, or Founders Ministries. But I do think it’s an idea worth considering. And my 6–year– old loves it.
Here’s my admittedly odd thesis: Maybe preachers in their twenties and thirties should attempt to preach the number of minutes that correspond to the number of years they’ve been alive. So a 26–year–old would attempt to preach 26 minutes, a 32–year–old 32 minutes, etc.
Why? First, why should someone who’s stood behind a pulpit 25 years teach the same amount of time as someone who’s only done so 25 times? If it’s true that generally the more you preach, the more effectively you do so, the more experienced should get more airtime. A young man with the faintest trace of humility would admit that. Second, being asked to preach shorter sermons early on will force the pastor to edit relentlessly. He’ll learn to maximize every verb. Rabbits will be ignored. Then, as the pastor ages, he’ll more likely carry that 25–minute discipline into his 38 or 39–minute sermon. Third, just selfishly, as we mature people care less and less about our birthday. Each year’s extra minute would give us something to look forward to.
Of course, eventually a pastor should settle into an amount of time he preaches each week, a duration that both challenges the congregation to meditate on a text sans haste while simultaneously forcing the pastor to choose each word wisely. (Sidenote: Spurgeon asserted that anyone who preached over 45 minutes must assume he’s a genius.)
I’m not saying we need less of the word; I’m saying we need more of it. Prior to each Sunday, we delete those sentences and stories that do not illuminate the central idea of the text. Our red pen attacks draft after draft to rid proclamation of the dross of pontification. Because the appropriate length of a sermon is the amount of time it takes to effectively communicate that sermon’s text.