Chasing The Short Sermon

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.

28:42

25:29

22:54

30:55

32:10

31:52

31:12

30:19

37:34!

30:26

30:49

27:45

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.

 

Comments

  1. I cannot say anyone has EVER said that they wished I’d spoken for a few more minutes! Good article Wade (37 minutes? – I grew up listening to a preacher named VP Black who was only warming up at 37 minutes).

  2. Wade, as much as I always hate to say this, you are right. Twenty five is a great number and I rarely hit it but working toward that. You are right in your points and I think it’s someone like Erdman who says, “People never miss what you leave out,” and I would add, that sometimes what you *leave in* prevents people from truly hearing what you want to say! And from my writing/editing I would also add this advice for sermon writing: “You are not finished when you’ve added the last detail, point, or story! You are finished when there’s nothing left to *remove.*” And who knows, Wade, maybe you originally told me that. I know we’ve tossed it back and forth over the years about book/article or sermon writing, but it’s the nugget that resonates best with me across the writing books, articles, and sermons endeavors.

  3. Chris Seidman says:

    I can only think of maybe one other time I’ve ever commented on a blog. Alas, I cannot resist this one. This is really good, Wade. I’ve been in pursuit of the shorter sermon myself as we’ve been trying to expand our times of prayer/ministry in response to the Word. Your list of suggestions is right on. I made two changes personally and one of them you touched on in your list which I’ll testify to. I stopped trying to do a 3 min. review of the message the previous week. This was such a temptation, particularly in a topical, theological, or cultural issue series because I wanted the message to have a context in light of the other messages. But stopping the review and referring people to the podcast, did save me three or more min.

    The other thing I’ve tried to stop doing as much is “inoculating” the crowd. When dealing with “hotter” or more controversial issues – sometimes I spent too much time telling them what I didn’t want them to hear when I used a term. My message tended to be packed with too much of “what I don’t want you to hear is…..” While “inoculating” folks and even disarming at certain times can be helpful, I took too much of that bottle of medicine and had to have my sermon pumped. Two aspirin cures the headache. Whole bottle can kill you.

    Really good post, bro.

    • Chris–I love your point about “death by disclaimer.” Too many disclaimers also tends to the dull the edge of the point we’re actually trying to make.

  4. Just before hurricane Katrina I visited a catholic church where the priest spoke for eleven minutes. He made one point, made it well, gave a clear call to action based on that point, then quit. During the hurricane, as plywood came through the windows at 140 miles an hour and we didn’t know whether we would survive the day, that one point stayed center in my mind. It was so clean and concise that it became an unintentional mantra during distress.

    I learned what a sermon should be from that priest.

    • The famed “11-minute homily” that makes a lot of sense. About the time that it gets really good, the episcopal priests are finished with their one point or a choice that every person has to make for him or herself. They can even reconcile Isaiah and the gospel and be done in 12 minutes.

  5. Jerry Burns says:

    “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…” – A. Lincoln

    Perhaps it’s the content not the length of the message. A good thought well presented can make a lasting impression, and change lives.

  6. Wade – Wow! What a great blog post & what wonderful comments. I’m tellin’ ya’ – we should be close family! Oh, yeah – we ARE as brothers & sisters in Christ. What blessings He has showered upon us.

    I agree very much with your thoughts & actions concerning sermons and your commenters had some great additions, too. I don’t know Kim Self, but she must have lived down here close to us during Hurricane Katrina, for sure. (Tom & I were living in Slidell, LA and I was a member at Tammany Oaks church of Christ in Mandeville, LA at that time.) What she says is really important, I think.

    Years ago I was in Toastmasters here in Picayune when I was a young newspaper journalist/Community Editor (and being one was fulfilling, fun & and made a huge difference in the town here). One day I had to give a five minute talk on some theme I cannot now remember. But, I titled it “Get To The Point!” I still have that talk on some notes I saw just recently that I will try my best to find to share with you here & your readers. It had to do with being specific, factual and concise.

    (FYI – When I took the podium, I taped a filled balloon to the front of it to one side of my face. The last thing I said in my speech was “Get to the point!” and I popped the balloon with a straight pin I had stuck to the last page of my notes. It was unexpected, of course, and “wowed” everyone, plus I got a great review from all.)

    I don’t think sermons should be just five minutes long, but the points you all make here are close to what I had in my speech. At that time, both with people I dealt with at the paper and at the small, cultish conservative c of C, led me to ponder the importance of doing what I suggested in my talk. I think you are right on target in your thinking and I’ve always, since I’ve given that talk, tried to reduce my thinking in my writing and communicating orally to just ONE point. This was drilled into us in law school later, as well. (At 44, I had a mid-life “crisis” and applied to law school in New Orleans at Loyola and was accepted on scholarship, too!)

    I used this in my years as a practicing attorney in New Orleans and as a staff attorney specializing in legal research and writing. Shortly after I graduated at 47, I argued a case before the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans (that had been lost by another attorney at both the trial level and appellate court level – duh!) and WON!! I did it by getting ONE POINT in particular over to the Justices.

    You who are ministers and writers take note and try it!! I’ll dig out my notes from that talk to share with y’all if you’re interested. I know it’s here somewhere close by!

    Thanks for the post & thanks for sticking with me through this lengthy comment (for those of you who haven’t fallen asleep already. Yikes – it probably took you 25 minutes AT LEAST to read this!!).

    Cheers! Dee Ann

  7. Neal Whitlow says:

    But how will people realize how brilliant and indespensible I am if I preach short sermons?

    • They will realize that you told them what they needed to hear in no uncertain terms and you did not surround it will excess words aka fluff.

  8. A good fifteen minute sermon is enough for me, but, a good sunday school class an hour is about right, we learn in Sunday achool, in a sermon we get one thought from one mind.

  9. Jesus Christ was not a preacher, He is called The Master Teacher. Or Good Teacher, like a good professor on the subject…

  10. Clark Coleman says:

    Regarding point #4, about pretending to pray while sneaking in more sermon, let me present a skeptical perspective. My father is an atheist. He tried not to prevent any of his sons from reaching their own conclusions about religion, but he could not resist making comments from time to time, and the examples of church behavior that increased his skepticism stick strongly in my mind decades later. When he visited church with me on rare occasions in my teen years, I recall him commenting after a prayer, “He was talking to the audience, not to God.” It occurred to me that such a prayer does not even indicate that the prayer leader believes in the existence of God. You know the type of prayer: “God, remind us that we should [fill in sermonizing here].”

    I encourage every prayer leader to speak to God as if you believe that He exists and He is listening, rather than taking advantage of having a captive audience with heads bowed.

So, what are you thinking?