Sermon Length vs Quality Time

Ian Carmichael wonders whether the debate about sermon length misses more significant cultural questions about how our congregations are receiving the Word.

I would never accuse the likes of Rory Shiner, Andrew Heard, Mikey Lynch and Richard Shumack of being “blind guides”. I respect them all very highly and appreciate their excellent wisdom. Yet the rest of the colourful Matthew 23:24 verse about “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” did come to mind when I read each of their takes on the subject of sermon length.

By focusing so much of our attention on the issue of sermon length we may be ignoring the camel in the room.

Here’s why: I suspect whether a sermon is 25 minutes or 45 minutes is not going to be the most significant variable in the growth of the listeners. And by focusing so much of our attention on the issue of length we may be ignoring the camel in the room.

Sermon length does matter, of course. But I wish there was more discussion about how to encourage prayerful engagement with God’s word before, during and after a sermon. I suspect that might be a significantly more important factor for any sermon’s effectiveness than its length.

Here are my suggestions for growing the effectiveness of sermons, regardless of their length.


If your home groups are not studying the passage being preached on (as is the practice in many churches), at least encourage people to read the passage before they come to church on Sunday. One of the best ways to get people engaged with the text is to ask them: what do you find puzzling in the passage? I don’t think there are many passages of Scripture where a careful reading would not arouse some sort of curiosity.[1] And figuring out what you don’t understand in a passage is a great tool for switching the brain on.


If you’re worried about people having to concentrate for a few minutes extra so that you have time to do the passage, why not have a break in the sermon (e.g. to sing a song)? Part A of the sermon might be looking at what the passage actually says, and Part B might be looking at the implications. Some preachers ask questions during their sermon and invite people to discuss those questions with the person next to them.

Or here’s a wild idea: if you have more than one service on a Sunday, why not promote one as having a slightly meatier sermon, and let people choose what suits their concentration ability? That is, don’t cater for the lowest common denominator in every service.


However, the post-sermon response is the one that I consider the most critical. It is the way hearers meditate on God’s word, slowly and deeply, that determines how it will impact them.

Is post-sermon reflection part of the culture of your church?

Is post-sermon reflection part of the culture of your church? My sense is that there aren’t many people even taking notes in sermons these days. On the whole, I suspect a lot of people have forgotten much of the sermon by the time they get home. Which is not at all to say it served no purpose. Only that it didn’t achieve its potential.

I know of one church which encourages the reflection process by having a few minutes of silent meditation in church before they head out to the morning tea. To be honest, that doesn’t really work for me; I just sit there distractedly thinking about how awkward this silence feels, feeling sorry for the parents with the babbling baby, and wondering how much time has passed.

Another strategy is to encourage the discipline of sermon note taking and later reflection. And I’m going to recommend you don’t reinvent the wheel here—Matthias Media has a Sermon Notebook that walks people through how to do this. Why not bulk buy and start promoting a culture of sermon reflection? Recruit 25 people to give it a try, and ask them to be advocates for the practice.

Another option is to produce and promote a 10-15 minute post-sermon podcast with material you didn’t have time to include in the sermon, and helping people think further about the passage’s implications.

It’s certainly worth thinking about sermon length and adjusting as seems best. Nonetheless—although I can’t prove it to you—my gut feeling is that implementing any of these before, during or after suggestions might have significantly more benefit for the goals of the sermon.

[1] By the way, that does impose a bit of an obligation on the preacher to have an answer for the things people might find puzzling. Preachers need to preempt those puzzles and provide an answer. Unravelling scriptural puzzles with people is, almost by definition, a way to ensure they are growing in their understanding.