Richard Shumack provides a late addition to the TGCA debate on sermon length.
I’m just getting back into regular, ordinary, small town, pastoral preaching after a long season of academic and specialist speaking. I feel a bit rusty and a bit anxious over how well I’m pitching things, so I’ve been following along with the Gospel Coalition Australia discussion on sermon length with genuine interest hoping for some tips. Unfortunately, the conversation hasn’t quite gelled with me.
Some sermons fall out of my head almost effortlessly, others require immense toil and never quite get there.
First, I don’t find the core arguments all that compelling—at least in my own case. Rory Shiner centrally argues that a good sermon is a well-prepared sermon, and that an 18-minute sermon demands better preparation than a 40 minute one—unless you’ve got lot of time for preparing a longer conference talk. Well, perhaps that’s how it works for Rory (who, in my experience, is metronomically excellent), but it’s not all like that for me. Some sermons fall out of my head almost effortlessly, others require immense toil and never quite get there. Some seem to land well, others not so much. In the art of preparing and delivering sermons, I just can’t see any strong link between sheer time and quality—certainly not a necessary one.
Andrew Heard counters that it takes at least 40 minutes (but not more than 45!) to reach the optimal length of time for God’s Word to produce transformed lives. He wants quality AND quantity because it’s a “sure fact of history” that short sermons produce little change in people. Is it? Poor short sermonising aside, is there really a strong correlation between spiritual transformation and sermon length? That’s not what I’ve observed in either the Bible or ministry. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep cuts to the heart in 30 seconds flat. A single, rightly-timed, Spirit-empowered, preacher’s question can lead hearers to days or even weeks of pondering. I’ve seen it—and I’m sure Andrew has too. In any case, why is 40 minutes an ideal length? And on what grounds is 45 too long? Why let our theological length aspirations falter on practicalities at that point exactly?
A single, rightly-timed, Spirit-empowered, preacher’s question can lead hearers to days or even weeks of pondering.
Mikey Lynch argues that: a) that preaching and listening capability can be improved; and b) that longer sermons do more work in people intellectually and emotionally. Even if we agree on (a), I just can’t see it following that more ideas leads to better and/or more powerful ideas. To counter, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton regularly deliver extraordinarily theologically rich and emotionally resonant ideas in just a short paragraph.
Funnily enough, all three agree on a key undergirding premise that “more is better” if we can pull it off. For example, all the articles seem to agree that (more exhaustively prepared) “conference talks” can succeed as longer sermons. From there, the various arguments seem to reduce to differing degrees of optimism and scepticism about the capacities of preachers and listeners in ordinary church services. No doubt there is truth here: more knowledge of, more wrestling with, more trusting in God’s Word is always better! But I’m still not sure about the correlation between that principle and sermon length per se.
Another reason for unease is that none of these arguments make a strong biblical appeal for sermon length normativity. Andrew goes closest by pointing to an example of a properly long 45-minute sermon in the Book of Hebrews—and an extraordinarily long one in Ezra. The problem, of course, is that neither of these two purports to be an ordinary local church sermon. More to the point, there’s nowhere I can find where the Bible lays out any genuine norms with respect to sermon length at all. It seems entirely disinterested. That seems important. If the Bible is silent on ideal sermon length, why should we presume to put a firm number on it?
Long as it Takes
Instead, can I propose that we just preach for as long as it takes in order to get across the important biblical truths to the people and context we are speaking to. Moses took a huge chunk of time to outline the law on Mt Sinai (although perhaps fiery clouds desolate spaces make things easier), yet Nathan made his mike dropping point about Bathsheba to David in just a minute or two. The Book of Hebrews preaches for 45 minutes; the Book of Jude lasts for five. Yet again, Paul’s preaching put people to sleep; Jesus said all he needed to say to the rich young man in under a minute.
We all stand before radically different audiences … crudely aiming for a one-size-fits-all ideal sermon length simply can’t be correct.
Whether or not this sort of contextually driven preaching is a strong biblical pattern, and whether or not it relates to ordinary church sermons, surely it just makes sense? Shouldn’t we be most concerned about what truths these people need to hear and what will it take to do it proper justice in connecting it to their various Christian lives? What hermeneutic, teaching style, tone, and yes, time, will it take? We all stand before radically different audiences in so many relevant ways (like theological conceptual capacity, background Biblical knowledge, cultural mindsets, and the like) that crudely aiming for a one-size-fits-all ideal sermon length simply can’t be correct.
Hear me carefully here. I’m not even slightly suggesting that Rory, Andrew and Mikey don’t ask these questions. I trust every preacher does. What I am suggesting, though, is that, if we are doing this properly, we should inevitably end up preaching sermons of differing lengths—and perhaps even wildly differing lengths at times. I am also suggesting that if our sermons are always the same length we are probably doing something wrong.
In sum, we shouldn’t be aiming at slightly (or even radically) shorter or longer sermons every time, we should instead aim for appropriately long sermons each time. The real challenge here is to train our time-enslaved western style church services to give us the space to do it. But that’s another article …