Forty minutes sermons are too long. Almost always. My suggestion is to try for half that.
Here’s my reasoning (if I may use my own preparation as an example): By the middle of my preparation process, my sermon is well beyond the forty-minute mark. I normally have over an hour’s worth of material by Wednesday. And, in the intensity of the preparation process, everything I’ve written down looks important. Staring at the manuscript on mid-week, I look and think “but I couldn’t possibly cut any of this out! It’s all gold!”
Staring at the manuscript on mid-week, I think “It’s all gold!”
Whether or not that’s true, at this stage, it is a truly terrible sermon. I need the second half of the week to get some distance from the thing and to pluck up the courage to kill some of my darlings. The second half of the process involves me getting much of what I considered A-grade material and consigning it to the Abyss of Microsoft Word’s “delete” function. I’ll have 5,000 words by this stage. And my job is to get that down to a little over 2,000.
It’s a crucial part of the process. In this instance, the good really is the enemy of the best. It is only by getting rid of good but unnecessary material that the sermon moves from everything I want to say about that passage, to a sermon that stands a chance of being heard. Note, it doesn’t become a better sermon because it’s shorter. It becomes a better sermon because, by accepting the limitation, I am forced to make hard choices between the good and the best. It doesn’t just get shorter. It gets better.
Here’s the paradox. Long sermons require less work, and less work normally results in poorer sermons.
Two Ways to 40
I normally preach between twenty and thirty minutes. If I wanted to become a forty- minute preacher, there are two ways I could go about it.
The first would be to spend half as much time preparing. I could simply stop by Wednesday. By then I have well and truly filled by forty plus minutes of material. I could then get on with the other tasks of the week. The result would be a worse sermon.
The other way would be to double my preparation time. I could work hard, produce eighty minutes of material, and then spend the rest of the time cutting that eighty down to forty. I’d essentially be preparing two twenty-minute talks and then putting them together. Perhaps this is where I should be heading? But saying “yes” to that would mean saying “no” to a lot of other things. And I don’t think they would be the right “nos” for me to be saying in the context of my current ministry.
If you are a forty-minute preacher here’s my challenge: Look at your forty minutes on Wednesday. If you can get that down to twenty-five minutes by Sunday, I promise it will be a way better talk. Not because twenty-five is better than forty. But because, by submitting to the limitation of time and word-count, you’ll be forcing on yourself a bunch of decision that will increase the quality of your talk.
All creative endeavours are like this. Art flourishes through limitation and restraint.
All creative endeavours are like this. Art flourishes through limitation and restraint. Shakespeare would not have been a great artist if he simply said: “Here’s everything I’ve ever wanted to say about love.” Rather he said, “How artfully can I work the language by saying what I want to say about love within the constraints of the form of a Sonnet?”
Every painting has a frame; every essay a word count, every piece of great architecture is constrained by budget, available materials, and the laws of physics. Limitation is essential to creativity.
A twenty or thirty minute sermon also increases the chance you’ll be heard, which is surely a goal. The Australian evangelist John Chapman used to say, “every minute you preach over twenty, subtract that from your listeners’ ability to keep with you.” So, at twenty-five minutes, they’ll be able to listen for fifteen. At thirty, they’ll have heard ten. By the time you’ve spoken for forty, it wasn’t even worth standing up. (John Chapman often spoke hyperbolically. He was a preacher, after all.)
Conference Talks and Sunday Talks
A caveat: I say this as someone who has benefited enormously from preachers who have kept my attention for forty minutes or more. Some of the best sermons I’ve ever heard have gone for well over an hour. But these were sermons from exceptionally gifted preachers. They were often preachers I was accessing at a conference. Conference preachers are, on average, more gifted that the average preacher. On top of this, they normally bring their A-game to the conference. You’re often not hearing last Sunday’s talk, written amid staff meetings, visitations, evangelistic courses, and building programme meetings. You’re hearing something that has been polished and worked up for the occasion. And at a conference, you are speaking to an audience who’ve paid money and carved out significant time to be there. It’s a very different audience to a Sunday morning congregation.
If you are so gifted, ignore everything I’ve just said. Preach your hour-long sermons, bless us all, and may God bless you. For me, the safe money says I am probably average. If by some statistically improbable chance I’m not, I’m still learning my craft. I figure I’ve still got a few more years of working out how to say what I want to say in twenty to thirty minutes. If, after that, a delegation is sent my way to implore me to speak for forty minutes, they will be a better forty minutes as a result of the constraints imposed during my apprenticeship.