December 2, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: January 18, 2016

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For the next few weeks, I will run iMonk posts that Michael wrote back in 2006. His subject was “the sermon,” and the series was called “What’s Wrong with the Sermon?” Here is Michael’s explanation of the approach he took:

In this series of posts I will be examining the sermon as it is currently done in evangelicalism. My method will be a bit backwards. I am going to examine the most frequent criticisms of sermons- something I hear all the time from my peers and student listeners- and see if there is truth in the criticisms.

• • •

What’s wrong with the sermon?
(1) The sermon was too long

Well…you have to admit that you haven’t heard someone say the sermon was too short lately.

I discovered a long time ago that my audience at the OBI chapel is well aware of the tendency of preachers to go on and on and on. I appreciate the fact that, in 14+ years of preaching at our school, I have, with their help, honed my sermons down from the 40+ minutes that comes naturally to me to 20-25 minutes. I think it has made me a much better preacher.

But what about the criticism itself? How long should a sermon be?

Like most things related to preaching, scripture really doesn’t help us much. Paul preached at least one person to death, and it is hard to imagine that, if the Sermon on the Mount really was a sermon, Jesus could have done it in less than an hour. Other Biblical sermons seem very short. “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be destroyed.” Or “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Studies in communication remind us that the average person has an attention span well less than 20 minutes. My audience of students probably has half that, and considering a bunch of them have an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, I feel the pressure to say something before the ten minute bell. Plus, I’m the last thing before lunch. Sort of like giving a presentation to the bull just before the gate opens.

My Reformed friends tend to believe that the Puritans had the right idea, with sermons in the 1-2 hour range proving one has taken the inerrant Word of God seriously. Spurgeon’s sermons, unedited, are usually in the range of an hour. John Macarthur seems to handle his messages in just under an hour, and Mark Dever is the same.

Reformed preachers tend to be exegetical in the pulpit, with much attention paid to every word, phrase and grammatical turn. The Reformers are cited as the Fathers of this sort of preaching, and those who stand in their shadow are adamant that if you can’t tough it out for an hour, you may not really believe in the truthfulness and centrality of the Word.

Preachers who are more involved with the “spiritual birth” of the sermon in the pulpit than in the study, such as Baptist revivalists or Pentecostals, usually preach for 45 minutes to an hour plus. This is pragmatic, however, as it may take a while for the Spirit to really get moving. Invitationalists of every sort need a generous amount of time to persuade listeners to make some kind of public response. Questioning the length of these sermons is tantamount to saying God doesn’t know what he is doing.

Mainline Protestants vary more widely in the length of sermons. The more a church gives serious attention to liturgy and the Eucharist, the less time will typically be given to the sermon. There is clearly a sacramental aspect to the sermon in evangelicalism, and that sacramental sense is larger and more diffused in the “higher” forms of liturgy.

There is little exegesis in the pulpit of most mainline preachers, though many of these preachers are expert students of the Word. The emphasis is more on the practical application of the text, and generally much less is attempted in the way of building systematic theology from the text. The applications may sometimes, as a result, seem unhinged from the context and unnaturally “hinged” to the bumper of the latest political or social cause.

So one might find an evangelical Methodist preacher in a rural area preaching for 40 minutes, while a high church Methodist in an urban area would preach for 20. Lectionary preachers tend to be shorter, and expository, “series” preachers tend to be longer.

Does education affect sermon length? I am tempted to say that the uneducated mountain preachers around me preach very long sermons, but many educated preachers do as well. I would say that education has the potential to make a preacher more aware of what good communication should be, while a lack of education may leave a preacher with the unquestioned assumptions of his own context and tradition.

Has technology affected the length of sermons? I think so. The powerpoint/dvd using preachers that I am hearing are much more casual and conversational in presentation, and that makes for longer sermons. I contend that these tools have, on the whole, made preaching worse, even if they have made the presentations more “interesting” to audiences shaped by television. Add to this the tendency of contemporary preachers to use rambling personal anecdotes, object lessons and humorous “breaks” to prepare for serious applications, and you have the 45-minute sermon that really doesn’t say a lot once its done.

Obviously, the length of sermons is highly variable. There is no simple answer to the question, “How long should a sermon be?” Still, I do have some convictions.

23510229171_b724d311e0_zA. A sermon ought to move rapidly enough that one doesn’t need an hour to get around to saying something worthwhile. Gain a sense of the movement of a sermon in a short period of time. Be able to “feel” it. Become confident that you can “feel” five minutes passing. In the country, we call preachers with no sense of time “dawdlers.” A sermon that goes somewhere at a decent clip is almost always more interesting than a pointless ramble.

B. Exegesis is for the study, not for the pulpit. Do your work before you get there and make the results usable in the most efficient form. Don’t reteach New Testament Intro or Greek just because you are using a verse from First Corinthians. Many sermons exhaust the congregation before the preacher ever gets near the application or message. Start a class if you have the need to say more about background.

C. When time in the study makes a sermon longer, a preacher is still learning. When time in the study begins to make a sermon shorter, the preacher is gaining the skill of communicating. Editing is the mark of maturity. A preacher who knows his own tendencies can restrain them by careful preparation, right down to the length of the sermon.

D. There is a big difference between a well-placed illustration and an open-ended anecdotal story. Of course, some good sermons contain useful personal stories, but I believe a good preacher limits these to instances where the personal story- told in a compact way- is the best illustration. Preaching is not the soap opera of the preacher’s own life. It is the Good News of the Gospel. Excessive amounts of time should not be devoted to “cute” or humorous personal anecdotes, even if people enjoy hearing about the preacher’s personal life. Discipline yourself to talk about Jesus and the Gospel more than anything else.

E. Organizing a sermon tightly will make it more timely and more time conscious. Introduction, three to five major points, conclusion. This is and always will be a good method. At the most, this type of sermon should take 30 minutes. More than that and too much is being done. I have frequently planned one sermon, and turned it into three sermons of 20 minutes each. That’s far more merciful than the original message would have been if delivered. (I once heard a preacher do a sermon on John 9 that would have easily been redone as half a year of preaching.)

F. Twenty minutes is a long time to most people. If it insults our ego that people really don’t want to hear us talk for an hour, we should be more honest. Sometimes we are repeating ourselves, stalling and not getting to the point. No one is rude to tell us to get down to business and not waste their time….or our own, for that matter. We are the heralds of the King!

E. There are issues of ego in many lengthy sermons, but there are also issues of theology. Protestants have typically been critical of the briefer “homilies” in Catholic and mainline churches. But these traditions have worship services that “preach” in many diverse ways that are often not appreciated. Length is length. It isn’t scholarship or proof of intense devotion to inerrancy. And bulletin to many young preachers: your hero may be interesting for an hour- chances are you aren’t. Trim it.

F. Lectionary preachers are very often good models of shorter, better aimed sermons. Listen to some good lectionary preachers and see how they approach a text with the application up front, in mind, and ready for use from almost the beginning of the sermon. Lectionary texts often allow the preacher to be much more economical, and to reach the goal of putting a single scriptural insight into the minds of the hearer. Many evangelical sermons simply try to do to much.

G. Preaching is communication. Length often is an attempt to make up for effectiveness in other areas. The myth is that if I just say enough, I will get through. You don’t preach through walls. People hear, by the Spirit’s work, the walls fall or the listener walks around it. The truth is that if we haven’t said something worthwhile pretty soon, no one cares, and going on and on won’t help that.

Don’t get to the point that Tony Campolo said happened to him in one Black church. He was going on and on, and a large matron of the church stood, waved a handkerchief and began shouting “Help him, Jesus! Help him, Jesus!”

H. Be sure that a sermon isn’t just economical and on-target; be sure it is also relevant. Sermons answering every objection of Arminians are great….for someone…somewhere. The preacher is to serve the Word to the congregation, not force the congregation to swallow the preacher’s version of “the word.”

Bottom line: Say it in 20-25 minutes, and consider using a more pointed, compact and organized approach.


  1. Reformed preachers tend to be exegetical in the pulpit, with much attention paid to every word, phrase and grammatical turn. The Reformers are cited as the Fathers of this sort of preaching, and those who stand in their shadow are adamant that if you can’t tough it out for an hour, you may not really believe in the truthfulness and centrality of the Word.

    And even an hour-long sermon waa considered by some TRs I knew to be a cultural accommodation. They longed wistully for the Puritan days, when each service (Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and mid week) had a 3-4 hour sermon, attendance mandatory.

  2. My patience with so called sermons is running on fumes. After hearing good homilies, seven or eight minutes, ten at a stretch, a twenty-five minute sermon becomes painful. I can be polite for twenty minutes usually, but what’s the point of listening to something for that long that you have to be polite about. Yes, I understand there are cultural expectations that differ from church to church and denomination to denomination. Romans probably have this down better than anyone else, but then they turn around and bar me from their table. Go figure.

    The folks that put the lectionary together did a pretty good job. Each Sunday there are four excerpts from the Bible that more or less hang together with a common theme. A good homily ties that theme up in a small package that a person can drop in their pocket and take home with them. Ideally that package ought to contain good news, something that makes you glad you heard it, something that lifts the heart and spirit. I have learned that often this has little or nothing to do with what is called The Gospel.

    I don’t need to be scolded or manipulated or persuaded or sold a program. If I want to be educated, I’ll read a book. If I want contact with the best minds of my generation I’ll go online. If I want fellowship in the name of Jesus with people who seem to live in the same world I do, I’ll come here. What I can’t get here is real time prayer and blessing and communion with God in Word and Bread and Wine. How I wish I had a nearby spoken service without all the extraneous religious trappings and holdovers from previous times when folks didn’t know any better or needed a social boost.

    • –> “My patience with so called sermons is running on fumes.”

      Yep. Current pastor preaches for 45-50 minutes every Sunday. I find myself getting increasingly irritated. Then I wonder, “Am I the only one?” His problem is he crams in too many good points. All I need is 5 good points, not 10. It’s like going sightseeing: five good views in 4 hours is perfect; by the tenth good view in 4 additional hours I’m just looking to go home!

      • Then I wonder, “Am I the only one?”

        Look around and count how many are flipping through their smart phones.

        • Amazingly, when I look around I see people who seem genuinely interested. That’s the weird rub in this.

          I’m going to chat about it with our board’s leadership lead. Wish me luck…

          • >>All I need is 5 good points . . .

            Five? Please! What is your point? Not you, Rick, the preacher. What is the point of all this? Why does everyone go all round Robin’s barn and never mention what the point is? Could it possibly be that they don’t know what the point is? How long does it take to make a point? And not just the point of the sermon or homily. Increasingly I am asking myself, and occasionally others, just what is the point of gathering together like this? Oh, to worship? Well what exactly is the point of that? Who does that benefit? And how? Probably it would be just as well if you didn’t bring my concerns up with your board just yet. Their answer may be what you observed, that some folks are benefiting and approving, and why should they be deprived for your lack of interest. or perhaps we should say, backsliding. This may help explain the rise of the Dones. Good luck indeed!

          • Why does everyone go all round Robin’s barn and never mention what the point is?

            Because they’re discussing a finite text about a finite God within a finite worldview while trying to fill an (in)finite amount of time talking about it in their lives.

            It’s depths are truly endless. It’s like nerds discussing canon reboot after reboot.

      • I’ve come to think that a sermon should have one point.

  3. The fellowship i meet with regularly is a house-church. Sometimes several of the men preach/teach, sometimes one or occasionally none. The emphasis is on the table. Coming from a Reformed background, the brevity of the preaching/teaching time has been something to get used to, but it is also something i appreciate. What is said is typically very to the point, often born out of conversations either from our body of believers or with others. While i am aware that for growing families with little ones this might not seem ideal as people often feel the need for a more regimented program of preaching that helps form young people’s or young believers’ minds, i truly do sense that the format helps us grow in ways that a preaching/preacher-centered approach makes impossible. I have to talk to people at church, or at least listen to them. Conversation is essential and unavoidable, whether it’s about overtly spiritual matters or not. It’s about life. Our life. I’m learning that life together is an overtly spiritual experience. I never got that from years of hour+ sermons.

  4. Dan from Georgia says

    Just what I was wondering. Why, especially as an evangelical, do sermons have to be 45+ minutes long. I don’t have ADD/ADHD, I am fairly intelligent, a college graduate, make a good living, and even I can’t stomach someone “preaching” that long. Boy do I really miss the days as a Lutheran when the sermon went 10-15 minutes max.

  5. This is one reason, among many of course, why we left our Baptist church. The overseers kept telling the preacher to cut the sermon down (he ALWAYS went over the allotted 45 minutes) to 20-25 minutes–and he would not. Not coming under authority was an issue for us; lack of respect of people’s time–Sunday school teachers, those coming for the next service had no place to park, etc–cuz he just liked to hear himself preach. I don’t have ADD-ADHD either, but even I know that my limit is 20 minutes. This made for Communion being an afterthought and a ‘hurry up and do it’ when it was Communion Sunday, which absolutely drove me crazy….as if it’s not that important, cuz the rambling preacher is important….not.
    But seriously, any evangelical church has a 45 minute rule, which is so ridiculous. I’m so checked out halfway through, that by the end I cannot even remember the good point(s) that were initially made.
    Now I am at a Lutheran church by me, and love the liturgy, the Table, the hymns, and the 10-15 minute (ok, on occasion 20, but rarely) sermon….which is always preceded by the children’s sermon (what evangelical church does that????) which is so fabulous to enjoy watching the children engage with the pastor!
    Don’t miss evangelical sermons or services AT ALL.
    Love the entire worship service; I leave knowing I’ve worshipped, and not necessarily ‘gotten something out of the teaching’ or heard ‘good teaching’ which is all some people are concerned with.

  6. I have many times heard real wisdom at silent Quaker meetings, when someone felt led to stand up and speak — perhaps just a sentence or two, but then I had a long stretch of quiet to think about it.

    • + 1

    • One of my frustrations with worshiping in liturgical churches is that I wish they would put more “space” around the Scripture readings. First, I wish they would introduce each one with a brief explanation of its background (the ELCA has a resource for this, but I rarely hear it used). Second, I wish readers would receive at least a little training to help them read better, to insert appropriate pauses and to emphasize important phrases. Third, I would like to see a moment of meditation after each reading, perhaps assisted by a brief instrumental interlude, so that the congregation has at least a few seconds to absorb the text.

      If churches would give just a bit more time and thought into these readings, they could speak as powerfully, or more so, than the sermon.

      The best readings I have heard have been in Episcopal churches, where they have a more doxological understanding of reading the Bible.

  7. I need to figure out how to slip this to my current pastor, who I love dearly, but his 45-50 minute sermons drive me nuts.

  8. I have absolutely no problem with sermons that go between 1 and 2 hours. I love to sit and listen to excellent teaching from the Word. The problem is I’ve never heard a sermon that long that was worth the time. And I’ve heard thousands of them, from some of the supposed best.

    Though I’m not certain of how much we can know for sure about this, I believe apostolic and early church preaching was quite lengthy. At the time of the Reformation I believe a solid hour was not uncommon or considered unreasonable. I have heard that in some early traditions, various clergy present would all give a sermon in ascending rank and with increasing depth and length. I would personally have no problem staying in church for a 2+ hour worship service. IMO, it’s the most important thing I do every week, and a great worship service saturated with the Gospel, serving you a feast of grace, makes you reluctant to go home and is worth taking time for.

    Unfortunately, there aren’t preachers worth listening to for that long. Nearly every sermon I have ever heard that went over 30 minutes was full of wasted time. I don’t mean to be hard on preachers, I imagine it is a difficult task to do every week. But it is better to take just a little time and fill it with something very worth hearing. And spend more of the sermon prep time reflecting on the purpose of preaching and developing a better philosophy of what constitutes good preaching. I feel there is an epidemic lack thereof, but I suspect there has always been, which is why genuinely golden tongues make such a splash in church history.

    • One problem we face is that we no longer live in an oral society, and whatever orality there is (and there is plenty) is more about concise rhetoric than it is about more leisurely analysis.

      Perhaps churches could get more creative by altering the liturgy to allow for the sermon to be broken up into segments that fit into various parts of the service.

      I did something like this yesterday, when I preached in an ELCA service where they were not having communion. I gave my sermon, and then later, after the hymn of the day, the creed, the prayers, and the offering, where the benediction was scheduled I instead gave a 5-minute application of the Scripture on which I had preached, in preparation for us being sent out with the recessional hymn and dismissal.

      I’m sure there are other points in the service where a word of preaching could make a memorable point as well.

      • One problem we face is that we no longer live in an oral society, and whatever orality there is (and there is plenty) is more about concise rhetoric than it is about more leisurely analysis.

        think we all get that – even the TRs I went to seminary with got that. The difference is, they believed that that was something to be resisted and directly challenged as opposed to being accommodated.

      • Please stretch for the reading of God’s Word.

        You may be seated.

    • David Cornwell says

      I’ve never heard a long sermon that was worth listening to. In our culture most are best culled down to about 20 minutes, and probably 12-15 would be better. This forces good prep and conciseness of thought. Unless a preacher has a big staff and spends all of his time in the study, I’m not sure how any of them can preach 45 or 60 minute sermons and do a good job. Maybe my idea of preaching is different from others. Some teaching lectures can be long, but for the most part this should not be during worship service.

  9. I can easily listen to a two hour sermon just like a two hour movie if it is compelling and challenging. As it is we get about 10 to 12 minutes and sometimes I can’t take it anymore. A couple of our priests are bad speakers that say little of any depth and then repeat it a few times. I know it’s not their forté and I know the mass is about more than that. Still it makes me nutty.

  10. David Cornwell says

    This is a fascinating subject. A few thoughts follow:

    Length of preaching, in many ways, is culturally shaped. In previous eras a sermon could be very long, and still hold the attention of the people. However now, in our cultural context, there are many competitive modes of communication. People seem to think in “sound bite” segments. One sentence or phrase can become memorable. To me this partly means that pastors need to know the people of the parish in order to be properly prepared to preach. They need to know where they are in life, and how they are in body and soul. This will help shape the sermon to the social/spiritual context of the parish.

    Preaching is an integral part of the worship service, not the “main event.”

    Some preachers ooze ego in their preaching. I mean it’s all over them including hair , clothing, and body language. These guys are not difficult to pick out. They are show-offs, prancing and strutting for the view of all, tramping down the Word of God in order to bring us their latest insight on cussing in the pulpit, sermon series on sex, God’s will for us to be rich, or a word direct from God (often used in raising money).

    I personally know one or two preachers who are able to use humor in preaching, but most seem to miserably and embarrassingly fail. Pastors should hone their skills in proclaiming the Word of God, not being comedians.

  11. I wonder if preaching and teaching are getting mixed up. I am by training a professor (not currently in that vocation). A 90 minute class with mostly lecture time is common. But the objective is different from a Sunday. When I taught, there was a body of information my students did not know. The lecture brought that to their attention. I was not expecting or even wanting an obvious change in their lives. I did not expect to be part of their spiritual formation except lightly and indirectly.

    When I speak to a group about churchy matters, my only concern is to point to Jesus. Whatever the wrapping is, I want my audience to hear about Jesus. I may lean on my teaching abilities, but the objective is very different.

    What do congregants expect? My father frequently taught long, 45 minute teachings from the pulpit at a church in Taiwan. It’s a different cultural milieu but from what I gather, he was well respected and appreciated for his teaching. But I think for him and the congregation teaching and not preaching was the expectation and need.

    In addition to the personal foibles and fallacies of the preachers being referred to here is the conflict between what the preacher is trying to do and what the congregation wants or needs.

  12. OT, random thought that hopefully isn’t too political or controversial or anything.

    Perhaps one of the reasons there are so many dechurched millennials, nones and dones…is that most were raised in an american religion that says “Jesus loves you”, uses middle class values as success or confirmation (nice house, awesome vacations, cars, etc)(hashtag #blessed) that our parents had because “Jesus loves us”, and that when we grow up and don’t have those things because of economy or whatever…suddenly there is no god and jesus doesn’t love us.

    Am I on a right mental track?

  13. “To counterbalance last week’s twenty-one point sermon, today’s sermon will be pointless.”

    – Father Faber comic strip, ca. 1985 (???)

  14. To me a sermon is kind of like flying an airplane. You want a good take off, a good flight, a good landing, and you don’t want any of this to take any longer than it really ought to. Most of the time getting the sermon off the ground isn’t a problem. But I’ve seen a lot of preachers who just didn’t seem to know how to land the thing so they just keep circling and circling. And of course there are also other preachers who have no idea where they are going or where they should land.

  15. Depends on the context. If you’re preaching in the NE or anywhere that brainpower is at a premium, you’d better be ready to break “B” in a heart-beat.

  16. I honestly don’t remember the gist of any of the sermons I’ve heard in my life, with the exception of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, of course.

  17. As far as I’m concerned, a sermon shouldn’t be any longer than a coffee break.

  18. Coming from a tradition where 40 minutes is the norm I get the impression they think if they say a lot of things they’ll at some point say the magic words that someone in the audience needed to hear. Ideally of course this would be the thing that an unsaved visitor needs to hear. I don’t think this works nearly as well as they think it does, but every other month or so somebody will tell them that a random phrase in the sermon “really spoke to them” which renews their hope.