I am haunted by long sermons.
Not really, but I needed a dramatic opening sentence.
I have written before about the length of an ideal sermon. A sermon should be only as long as is necessary for you to make your point in a memorable way. This means, in most cases, a sermon should rarely be longer than 25 minutes. I think I probably believe a sermon needn’t be longer than 22 minutes, but 25 is a nice round number so let’s stick with it.
I believe the 25 minute rule should be followed religiously. Here are the times of my last twelve sermons.
Egad! Eight of them have been over 30 minutes long. No one has complained about it. I’m sure I’m the only one at my church who pays attention to how long my sermons are (wink). The last three are under 30 because I intentionally made them so, after I noticed my sermons were getting longer.
As I have watched my sermons get longer—like I’m somehow a spectator to the sermon writing process-I sense that their growth was unnecessary, maybe even indulgent, like a singer who can’t finish a phrase without adding a vocal run to fill in the white space (aaaaaeeeeiiiiiiooohhh). Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
So I have been thinking about ways we preachers can shave 5 to 7 minutes from our typical over-long sermons.
1. Speak from only one text. Almost all of the messages listed above have been topical studies of a theological concept. I’ve had my church flipping to passages all over the Bible and tracing threads related to themes such as salvation, justice and love. It has be been a good study, but some of the messages have felt scattered to me. Every time we flip to a different passage, it takes a few extra minutes to set the context, explain the passage and make the connection. The only message in which I have stuck to one text was the shortest one, which clocked in at a brisk 22:54. And no one complained about it being shorter than the rest.
2. Most preachers I listen to on podcasts can shorten their sermons by 2 to 3 minutes by eliminating the opening comments in which they review the main idea of each message they’ve preached in the series so far. This wastes the best opportunity you have to grab your audiences attention and it doesn’t help those who missed a previous week catch up as much as we think it does. Instead, try summarizing the series in one sentence and remind your listeners of your podcast where they can find previous messages.
3. Take out all the bits where you’re trying to impress your listeners with what you know or how much study. I love to throw in historical details, but many of these asides don’t move the message forward. They can end up becoming distractions for skeptics who abandon the sermon for Google to see if what I said was true. I can eliminate many of these details from the message and no one will notice.
4. Keep your prayer at the end of the message short. Tacking a three minute prayer onto a 30 minute sermon is not a sign of spirituality. It’s usually a sneaky way of reviewing the main points of your sermon. Your listeners know what you’re doing.
5. Don’t use three examples to make your point when one will do. It is tricky to know when one is enough and when you need to push harder to make your case. In a recent sermon during our first service, I realized as I was preaching that a couple of the scriptures I read were redundant. When I was writing the message, I really thought I would need multiple passages to solidify the point, but I could see my listeners losing focus as I read them. During second service, I eliminated the redundant passages and the message was tighter and more focused.
What would you add to this list?
I alway get pushback when I write something about preaching shorter sermons. This pushback almost always comes from preachers who can’t imagine saying everything they need to say each Sunday in less than 35 minutes. (It rarely comes from those who listen to these preachers.)
Someone also always says that gifted communicators can get away with preaching longer sermons. That may be true. But there is also something to be said for always leaving your listeners wishing you had spoken a little longer, rather than wondering why you didn’t shut up five minutes sooner.