How to Preach Better Sermons: The Shorter The Better

From March 2009 to September 2012, I didn’t write very many sermons from scratch. During this three year period, I did plenty of preaching, but it was almost exclusively sermons I had already written and preached before.

Being a guest speaker in a church, even when doing four or five Sundays in a row, is NOTHING like the weekly rhythm of writing and preaching sermons for a church you’re pastoring. Taking a sustained break from the constant grind of sermon preparation allowed me to think about preaching from a fresh perspective. Here is one conclusion I reached during my hiatus from writing sermons: Shorter is usually better.

With rare exceptions for controversial topics requiring additional nuance and explanation, there is no reason to preach for longer than 30 minutes. Really twenty-five minutes or less should do it. You can say a lot in twenty-five minutes if you ruthlessly cut out everything that doesn’t advance the plot or develop the big idea of your sermon.

Interim preaching gave me the opportunity to preach sermons I had written several years ago. When I pulled them from a file and read them with fresh eyes, I was amazed at how long they were. I was trying to do too much in every one of them. I was giving too much background information, trying to make too many points and including details only a preacher would find interesting. The truth is most of the extra stuff I packed into my sermons wasn’t there to enhance the message. It was there to make me look smart or to prove I’d done my research.

When we lived in Oklahoma, we had too many trees in our backyard. Growing up in West Texas, it is hard to imagine ever having too many trees, but it’s possible. So every year we cut down a tree or two that kept getting in the way. One year I had a friend come over with his chainsaw to help. As I was debating whether to take down a big tree near the boys’ swing set, he said, “Don’t worry about it. You still have plenty of trees. Once you take it down, you’re not going to miss it.” He was right. Not once did I stand in my backyard and say, “Man I wish I hadn’t taken out that tree.” Note: I didn’t cut them all down. Just the ones that weren’t obviously necessary to having a shady backyard.

When deciding what to cut out of your sermons, if you have any doubt about a thought’s necessity, take it out. You and your audience will never miss it. I have never regretted cutting something out of my sermon that didn’t obviously belong. I have lived to regret (On numerous occasions!)—leaving something in that I wasn’t sure about.

Does this joke move the sermon forward? (Confession: I find it almost impossible to cut an unnecessary joke from a sermon, especially when I know it is going to be funny.) Does this additional scripture reference enhance the argument I’m making? Is this illustration essential to the position I’m taking? Do I really need to spend three minutes explaining this story before I tell it? If the answer to these questions isn’t an obvious “yes,” then get rid of it.

KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.

Preachers: How do you decide what to cut out of a sermon before you preach it?

Listeners: What kind of stuff do you wish preachers would leave out of their sermons?


  1. Good advice Wade. No shame in leaving in funny jokes in however…
    Have you read Fred Lybrand’s “Preaching on Your Feet?”

  2. See, I like the background stuff. I can’t think of one sermon of yours that I ever thought, “Uhg, this just keeps going.” I think it is more important to know what an ancient Hebrew or a 1st century Jew thought about the scripture more than modern minds. Most of the time.

    I don’t like too many anecdotes. It’s fine to have one loaded on occasion but too many preachers have 2 or more per sermon and it’s like they hunt them down.

    Length all depends on the speaker. I can listen to Alistair Begg for hours.

    • Thanks Micah–When you say “anecdotes” do you mean personal stories or stories from reader’s digest and joke books?

      • Reader Digest/Joke book type. Those get tired quick for me.

        I often wonder how many preachers used that very same story. Sometimes it feels like there is a secret preacher memo.

  3. Wade, I hear two issues coming up in your post. The first has to do with the length of sermons. The other has to do with what’s in them. I think a good argument can made for longer sermons, assuming that people are still engaged. I say that because, as you know, the U.S. is now a Christianized society that doesn’t know the content of the Scriptures and the Christian faith. I recently heard Fred Craddock say that 40 years ago, when he was writing books about preaching, he was focused on “How?” Now, he says, he would focus on “What?” Preaching is always more than teaching; but every good preacher is also a good teacher. The move towards shorter sermons in the Protestant mainline makes sense if you’re only preaching to the choir. They’ve heard it before and just need to be encouraged. I think that mission always requires a lot more teaching than that. I’ve listened to a few of your sermons/lessons online and recently told a friend that if I lived in the DFW area, I’d want to attend where you preach. Yes, there’s a point at which the preacher needs to shut it down. But like Micah, while listening to your lessons, I’ve never thought to myself, “Man, I wish he’d wrap this up.” Preach and teach on.

    • Frank–thanks for the kind words. Your comment on how vs. what is a good one. I completely agree that the less the congregation knows about the Bible the longer the sermon will need to be.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I am a minister in training and similar to your post, my pastor said, “your sermon should either be 20 minutes, or seem like 20 minutes”. In my opinion, you are right about the content – cut out all unnecessary content – but the length as a determinate of such an accomplishment is not the point and may vary depending on the culture, audience, and opportunity. The fact is, a mature Christian may enjoy/follow a lengthy sermon, while a first-time visitor may struggle to hold on to the theme for more than ten minutes. When preparing a sermon, I try to ask myself, what is the least I MUST say!

    • Wade Hodges says:

      Jonathan–thanks for this comment. I think you’re right. A sermon should be as long as it needs to be to effectively communicate the message and not one minute longer.

  5. I learned this the hard way. I was preaching long sermons, and my congregation let me know in a pastoral survey they took that they were having trouble following what I was saying, and they were also getting lost in the background info I was giving.

So, what are you thinking?