A good question: How long should a sermon be?
One question, four answers
‘Our body clock will get used to what we think is normal’
This question reminded me of my young adulthood when I used to sit in front of the pew on Sunday morning services in my home church in Korea. The sermon was around 30 minutes, and I was passionate about making notes, although I was sometimes nearly falling asleep. For now, in my pastorate churches, I aim to set my sermon for less than 20 minutes, which, I think, would be expected among in our congregation. When my sermon lasts longer than 20 minutes, even I sense it is too long while I deliver it.
It is interesting to see the survey of Lifeway Research in 2019 in the US. Mainline Protestant pastors (54%) are more likely than evangelical pastors (17%) to say their sermons are shorter than 20 minutes; white pastors are more likely to say they are shorter than 20 minutes, while African American pastors and those of other ethnicities are more likely to preach for at least 40 minutes…
Barnabas Shin is Minister of Billericay, Brentwood and Ingatestone United Reformed Churches
‘Online worship brings a freedom to find new ways’
Having grown up attending local United Reformed churches, my instinct always used to be that a sermon should be as concise as possible while still retaining adequate content. Since 2020, however, my home church has been yourchurch, an online congregation. In an online church, a lot of the elements of a traditional church service need to be rethought. Communal singing on Zoom is a recipe for disaster, and so instead we use YouTube videos and encourage people to sing along with their microphones turned off. On the other hand, we do say the Lord’s Prayer together and we embrace the glorious cacophony of everybody saying their preferred version at the same time.
There is no technical reason to change how sermons are given. People can listen to one person speak in the traditional manner and a worship leader can speak for as long or short a time as they wish. In yourchurch, our focus on developing discipleship and living out our faith in our daily lives often influences the content of sermons, but there is no reason for it to affect the length…
Diana Paulding is a PhD student at the University of Exeter and is on the leadership team for yourchurch
‘No one should have fallen out of a window’
It would be good to have the opportunity of a 30-minute sermon every week in order to read the text, exegete the passage and give an interpretation. In Acts 20 we learn that Paul preached an even longer sermon:
We met on Sunday to worship and celebrate the Master’s Supper. Paul addressed the congregation. Our plan was to leave first thing in the morning, but Paul talked on, way past midnight. We were meeting in a well-lighted upper room. A young man named Eutychus was sitting in an open window. As Paul went on and on, Eutychus fell sound asleep and toppled out the third-storey window. When they picked him up, he was dead.
Paul went down, stretched himself on him, and hugged him hard. ‘No more crying,’ he said. ‘There’s life in him yet.’ Then Paul got up and served the Master’s Supper. And went on telling stories of the faith until dawn! On that note, they left – Paul going one way, the congregation another, leading the boy off alive, and full of life themselves. (Acts 20:7–12, The Message)
However, it has been said about preaching that if you don’t strike oil in the first five minutes, you’re simply boring!…
Peter Stevenson is Minister of churches in Grantham and Stamford, East Midlands Synod Pastoral Consultant, and Convenor of the URC’s Communications Committee until General Assembly
‘How deep need a sermon be?’
You see, I think this might be the wrong question. That word ‘should’ worries me. It has echoes of churchy norms that I don’t quite trust. ‘Should’ is a word of routine and habit. It implies an habitual way of preaching. It suggests something thoroughly to be expected. Do we want to do expected sermons? I think I prefer ‘How long does a sermon need to be?’ – because need (of one kind or another) was at the root of everything that Jesus ever did or preached.
Well, if need is the imperative behind a sermon, then what needs saying? It won’t be the repetition of recently unexplored Good News. It won’t be the unexamined reinforcement of traditional behaviours. It won’t be the comforting collapse into safe interpretations. Surely what needs discovering and proclaiming is the happening-right-now Good News. And that, in all its complexity, could take a lifetime of much-needed instalments. All this nudges me towards questions like ‘How deep need a sermon be?’, or ‘How tough need a sermon be?’ or ‘How real need a sermon be?’…
Lucy Berry is a URC minister and poet
This is an extract from an article published in the June 2023 edition of Reform