Monday, September 15, 2008

Stand up, speak up, then shut up

My dad likes to use this expression to describe what a preacher is called to do. But seriously, what is the right length of a sermon? John MacArthur gives his perspective today in an article called "Preaching and the Clock":

I am convinced that biblical exposition requires at least forty minutes. Less than this just is not sufficient to probe the text deeply. If it takes fifteen to twenty minutes to give the setting, ten to fifteen minutes to draw out the principles, five to ten minutes to cross-reference them, and five to ten minutes for a conclusion, you already have about fifty minutes. Rarely does a man preaching twenty-five to thirty minutes do doctrinal exposition.
Having listened to in-depth expository preaching all my life, and having been trained at The Master's Seminary in the "MacArthur style" of preaching, 40-45 minutes is pretty standard fare for me. But in our postmodern, biblically-illiterate, visually-driven society, is this asking too much from many people in the pews? If most visitors and members are "tuning out" at 30 minutes, are we accomplishing anything by going on? And if we are willing to adapt and shorten our Bible teaching for little children because of their immaturity and attention span, should we not also consider the need to adapt our preaching for so many adults who also struggle with attention deficit?

Doug Wilson preaches 50 minutes on average, but he brings up an interesting point in his article called "Sermon Length":
[P]reaching shorter takes a lot of time. If the sermon is to remain edifying and decent, for every ten minutes you take off the sermon you are probably adding a couple hours in the study. And with the busy schedules that many pastors have in counseling, study, and leading Bible studies, this is not really feasible...

...The first consideration should be whether the congregation is growing and flourishing. If they are not, then of course changes are in order. Those changes may require shortening the message (and giving the minister the extra time during the week this would take), and the changes may require lengthening the messages.
There is no hard and fast answer to this question, but it is one we should think and pray through. And no matter how long the sermon is, pastors must always remain faithful to "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2).


David said...


When looking over my notes for sermon length, I look at illustrations to cut, not exposition. Stories take longer to tell than explanation of the text.

I listen to Tom Nelson at Denton Bible. He is typically 45 min, if not at times well over an hour.

Is that too long for the modern listener? It is for my crowd. They think I preach a long time at 35-40. This means the sermon has to be well edited and move with the right pace.

I don't know about you, but I enjoy evening services (Wednesday) more because it allows us to go deeper and spend longer than a morning service where unbelievers need to be ministered to as well as believers.

Stephen Jones said...

Agreed. On Sunday nights, we have a smaller crowd that is really hungry for the "meat" of God's Word. It's not uncommon for me to speak for an hour, though our format is also different. We do more of an inductive Bible study with interaction from the congregation. Those are sweet times, and a highlight of the week for me.

M.L. McCullah said...

You and I have talked about the length of preaching some and other preachers that preach for short times.

Since then, I have started downloading more of Doriani's sermons ( The four sermons that I have listened to average about 30 minutes. The sermons peirced my heart every time. I felt encouraged, convicted, and challenged to apply because of what Jesus Christ has done for me.

One sermon was only 21 minutes long, but was powerful.

I think preaching can be done and sucessful in 30-40 minutes max.

One of the major factors is the current maturity of your congregation. The more mature, the longer you can spend teaching/preaching. However, I think that teaching the spiritually immature must be done in shorter spirts. Too often we assume that members are just as excited and ready to hear all that we have learned preparing the message. Preparing to preach will take longer, but taking the time to cut the time will help the congregants to, by God's power and grace, be able to listen and apply what has been taught.

Still thinking it all through.

Stephen Jones said...

Thanks for the link, Marty. I will definitely check out Doriani's sermons. I know R. Kent Hughes also preached 30-35 minutes pretty consistently and was a good expositor.