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Are sermons too short in our congregations?

August 27th, 2007
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More and more Lutheran pastors are putting their sermons up on their blog sites. Some posting the audio, others the text. I have noticed with increasing frequency sermons that are only 10-12 minutes long, 15 minutes is often a "long" sermon. I’ve even noticed sermons that are only 8:30 minutes long. I do not think it is wrong to say  that if we are delivering sermons that are only 10-12 minutes long we should not be surprised that after putting our folks on this kind of sermonic starvation diet they really have little grasp of the Christian faith. I’m concerned. Your thoughts?

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  1. PHW
    August 26th, 2007 at 21:08 | #1

    I agree regarding the short length of time on the sermon…with one condition…if the sermon is bad, I would rather it be short than damage the faith that exists!
    I would prefer sermons 25-30 minutes in length. I think our pastor’s sermon went 25-30, if not 35. I prefer a good teaching sermon, Christ-centered, cross-focused. 10-12 minutes to me is too short a time to adequately get a CC-CF focused sermon out. (The other thing I despise are the kitchy skits done during Advent and Easter week services, but I digress.)
    Parishoners are too fixated on time in our internet-driven, TV clicker-using, video game-playing, do-it-now society. We don’t have a problem watching a 4 hour movie or watching 9 hours of Superbowl pregame, but God forbid a non-communion service go 5 minutes past the hour or a communion service goes past 15 minutes over! Would we have been alive in the 1600s Puritan New England with 3 hour sermons! 14 hours for football, barely 1 for God! And don’t even try to get them to stay for Bible Study…that’s too much.
    Sorry Pastor, Johnny needs to get to soccer. Susie needs to get to her friend’s party. We’re meeting friends for lunch at Olive Garden at 11. Isn’t it great that we were here?
    American Christianity has lost sight of the dignity of the Lord’s Day…maybe Blue laws had a point, even if it was the state protecting the dignity of Sunday Services in that regard. When I was in North Dakota, Walmart couldn’t crack a door until Noon on Sunday.
    The spiritual laziness of American Christianity is probably the one item that makes me want to go nuclear (nu-cle-ar) :-D If a dose of law is needed, it’s in this area. Maybe even a paraphrase of Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim, “speak loudly and carry a big stick.” Then, of course, following that with the Gospel of Christ.
    Too many preachers (not only, but including LCMS) are violating their ordinations by offering drivel and passing it off as the Word in their sermons. By offering “your best life now” or “what’s your purpose,” the word (and Word) of God is left in the ash heap. We are told “you can do it” instead of “Jesus has done it for you.”
    We are losing our way and The Way to cater to our fast-paced, overscheduled society.

  2. August 26th, 2007 at 22:37 | #2

    I would agree that we, in general, just need to be teaching parishioners more. As a director of family ministry, I am frustrated with the general lack of instruction in all of our churches and the assumption that people don’t want to learn.
    I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think that people do want to learn, and learn a lot. The problem is that we as a society have lost our attention span. We all have a type of ADD to some level or another, never letting us spend too much time on one thing, unless that thing is constantly changing.
    The 8-12 minute sermons are probably just long enough to deliver an excellent sermon. I mean, really, for a church service, it could be worse. But, I worry over the lack of instruction all over the spectrum, not just from a sermon point of view. But, these are just random thoughts late on a Sunday night.
    Hi, by the way.

  3. August 27th, 2007 at 00:43 | #3

    Sermon length reflects the length of the national average attention span. I do not think that sermon length necessarily correlates to theological breadth and depth. Many a long sermon have I heard where the pastor wandered around and tried to hit every point from the readings instead of focusing on and developing one salient point for the sermon.
    I think that statistically speaking, the longer the sermon, the less will be retained. Which is worse, higher retention and shorter length or lower retention and longer length? I think a good Law/Gospel/Sanctification sermon can be preached in 9 minutes, though it would be difficult to do on a regular basis. After all, Christians should also be in the Word in their own studies, and it wouldn’t hurt to partake in a Bible class where theology can be taught in greater detail. Maybe I’m partial to a pastor’s Bible study that is similar to a director’s cut and commentary on a DVD where they go into greater detail and explain stuff that didn’t make it into the sermon, or whatever.
    I need to stop typing or else people will get bored by this comment and just skim through it and realize that after the first paragraph it was just bla bla bla

  4. August 27th, 2007 at 01:46 | #4

    Pr. Paul,
    You know what is so poor and pathetic preaching? It is less than 10 minutes and with all that, you do not even get to hear law/gospel preached!
    I believe it will starve the congregation. I acknowledge you do not need a lot of time to go down quickly to speak of what Jesus has done for sinners. However, why not talk about it at the same time discuss its depth, breath and width?
    I acknowledge too that law/gospel preaching is hard to do, but that is where the fun and enjoyment comes. I am a sinner, I need to hear again and again in all ways and forms, the many varied ways I may understand the tremendous work, what great thing, Jesus has done to me.
    I can not get enough of a good thing, I am not in a hurry, I can sit on a sermon, 30 minutes long and even longer, give me some more of that good news.
    Jesus said feed my sheep.

  5. Michael Benoit
    August 27th, 2007 at 03:56 | #5

    Pastor McCain,
    I have come out of Evangelicalism and my faithful Lutheran pastor routinely says more in 10-12 minutes than I had previously heard in an hour and a half. I could share plenty of links to long sermons that say little or nothing, but I know you are familiar with those.
    I ask this in all honesty, not being a long-time Lutheran: Are you advocating for a more ‘teaching’ style wherein Greek/Hebrew nuance gets cited and it takes a year to get through 2 John? I’ve noticed that some Lutheran pastors will make an assertion about a pericope without the underlying reasons for such an interpretation, whereas my Dispensational pastors would spend a great deal of time doing just that.
    Also, if you know of any, could you share links to pastors who routinely preach longer sermons.

  6. PHW
    August 27th, 2007 at 07:15 | #6

    “The problem is that we as a society have lost our attention span. We all have a type of ADD to some level or another, never letting us spend too much time on one thing, unless that thing is constantly changing.”
    It’s called laziness and overscheduling. Our addled brains are fried on constantly changing images in Television and can’t focus on looking at a pastor standing in the pulpit. We’re more comfortable watching him move around the altar between sections, but let him stand in the pulpit and after 5 minutes we’re drawing shopping lists and doodling on the attendance cards.
    We tend to blame the pastor because we perceive a long sermon. We tend to overlook the fact that we’re sinners who would really prefer to be somewhere else other than “gettin’ preached at.”

  7. August 27th, 2007 at 07:44 | #7

    This is really an issue of the sermon’s emphasis.
    If the purpose of the sermon is primarily didactic, then length, expository preaching is the best model. This, despite what he wrote in Law and Gospel, was Walther’s view. It was also Luther’s view despite what he occasionally said. So also: Chyrsostom, Leo the Great, Gregory, Augustine, etc.
    If apologetics is the primary goal, then polemics and rhetoric will rule.
    But if conversion of the hearers is the main goal, as both Walther and Luther wrote, then the sermon will find itself proclamation and will be shorter. This goal lends itself to succinct, Law/Gospel sermons that are kept simple because of the importance of clarity.
    I myself am re-thinking this, and am uncertain where I will land. I am not saying that Walther or Luther didn’t believe that conversion or apologetics were points of emphasis. I just think that the evidence of their sermons is clear that their main emphasis was catechetical, dogmatic, or even moral instruction.
    That is also what we find in the old Concordia Pulpits and what one finds today in the best of Bible-believing American preaching, which is why the LC-MS so easily ran after Billy Graham. I suspect this is the kind of preach that Pr. McCain desires as is evidenced also in his earlier remarks about sanctification. I don’t know if he knows it, but I think he wants expository, didactic sermons. I have always resisted this, but as I say, I have been thinking about it this summer, partially because this is the entire history of Christian preaching.
    McCain: Or…could it be that it is we who do not properly understand Luther or Walther’s point? Perhaps their sermons are precisely an implementation of their doctrine and it is we who have not realized that? I’m more persuaded than ever before it is in fact not the case that Luther and Walther’s did not practice what they “preached” in terms of their doctrine about the sermon and preaching, but in fact were practicing precisely about what they were “preaching” about doctrine as it applies to sermons. Much to think about, to be sure!

  8. Jeff
    August 27th, 2007 at 09:06 | #8

    If one is celebrating the Eucharist weekly, as we all should, then we max out on time after 20 mins. I think a solid doctrinal, orthodox sermon can be delivered in 15-20 mins. Just my thoughts.
    McCain Response: This is an interesting comment and raises another question. When did the church determine that the Divine Service is not allowed to last more than 60 minutes?

  9. August 27th, 2007 at 10:04 | #9

    I agree with Mr. Benoit when he says that faithful Lutheran pastors will routinely say more in 10-12 minutes than most contemporary evangelical preachers say in an hour. Length really isn’t the issue as long as Law and Gospel are clearly proclaimed. But 10-12 minutes does seem like a capitulation to society’s short attention spans, and it would be better, in my opinion, to challenge our collective A.D.D. instead of catering to it. I would like to have sermons lasting at least 25-30 minutes.
    How can we ask our pastor to double his time in the pulpit when we are demanding “liturgical” communion services crammed into a single hour? And it has to be one hour because we can’t do Sunday School in anything less than an hour and the “contemporary, praise and worship” service starts 1 hour and 15 minutes after the “liturgical” service is supposed to end. There is a sanctuary that seats 300, but we have 100 congregants in one service and 100 in another service; because half don’t care or don’t like the traditional liturgy, and the other half can’t stand to sing, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” So I think the problem of Sermonic Starvation is very often linked directly with our unwillingness to worship together as one, single Christian community. This is, in turn, a symptom of our fascination with Bapticostal revivalistic worship, and our unwillingness to worship as Lutherans.

  10. Lance O’Donnell
    August 27th, 2007 at 11:45 | #10

    When I first arrived at my post in NW Ohio about 5 yrs ago, just out of sem, I preached probably 5-10 minutes and some loved it. Many others did not. Over time, I had a lot of requests for a longer sermon. I was also a bit surpised by the level of biblical literacy in this mature LCMS congregregation, so–on occasion–I use the lectionary texts as a basis and do a much more expository type of sermon, encourageing people to open up the pew Bible, etc. I also have found a direct relationship between the people’s reception of the message and direct eye contact. That is, the more I preach from an outline and only looked down, for example, to read a quotation, the more the people understand the point, and are able to speak about it afterwards. The better attention, I am finding, enables me to preach longer, if necessary. Now, of course, if there is no Law and Gospel then it’s just a good speech, and maybe it’s just our culture, but there is something about eye contact.
    I wonder if others have had a similar experience. Thanks for the post.

  11. Bill Dieterichs
    August 27th, 2007 at 12:35 | #11

    As a lay person here are my thoughts regarding the length of sermons. It is not the length but the strength. When does the sermon stop and the class room lecture begin? What I see as the problem with nearly all long sermons, they become lectures. I go to church to hear a sermon and to Worship our Lord and Savior, not hear a lecture. It seems as though some long winded pastors think they are paid by the number of words they ‘preach.” They are paid to present the Word of God to the believer. That Word can be conveyed in short sermons of 12 to 16 minutes. I am a firm believer that the eyes of the parishioners or listeners eyes glaze over at between 16 and 20 minutes into a sermon or speech. At that point, if you as a speaker haven’t delivered and conveyed your point you’ve all ready lost getting across your main point. Your audiences, your parishioners are not dummies. They do not need three, four, five or more examples to the speakers point. Plus, the congregation will, God willing, be back next week to hear more. Many pastors, especially young or newly ordained, tend to include all they learned in 4 or 5 years at the seminary in one sermon. Leave something for next week. Keep them wanting more not less. Maybe less is more. Don’t blame the TV, the internet, or whatever for the short attention span of Americans; blame the person who can’t get to the point of his message in less than 16 minutes.

  12. Chuck Foy
    August 27th, 2007 at 14:45 | #12

    Sermons ought to be a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 45 minutes. The sermon should be an exegesis of scripture, either on the epistle or gospel of the day. Other evangelical reformed churches put the LCMS to shame on this point!

  13. William Weedon
    August 27th, 2007 at 14:53 | #13

    I confess: My sermons are short by your standards. But I do believe in concision. I don’t think that it is a virtue to ramble in the pulpit, or to express in many words what could be said in few. I think the real model for sermon construction is St. Peter Chrysologus. He could preach a lengthier sermon from time to time, but most of his sermons seem to fall within about 12 minutes worth and they are solid gold. One day I hope and pray that I will be able to preach a sermon like he preached!

  14. PHW
    August 27th, 2007 at 18:05 | #14

    The good Pastor asks: ‘When did the church determine that the Divine Service is not allowed to last more than 60 minutes?’
    Probably around the time TV started broadcasting professional football.
    Actually, it probably coincided with the end of the Sunday blue laws….there wasn’t anywhere to go or anything else to do but go to church until 1200.

  15. Mike Rose
    August 27th, 2007 at 22:07 | #15

    Having been in a myriad of churches in my ecumenical life I would say that 20-22 minutes is plenty of time to communicate law/Gospel, and teach principles and applications, and learn something about our faith without belaboring any point or challenging the attention span the common pew sitter. The most important point to be made is, does the preacher have something to say or not? If so, then 20 minutes is plenty of time, if not, 2 minutes may seem like an eternity to me. But I would like to A) hear the Gospel again, and B) LEARN something that I can use, like wisdom of Solomon that I can impart to my children.

  16. Mike Baker
    August 28th, 2007 at 08:00 | #16

    They say in the movie business that a strong editing process makes for greater movies. When the director has limited time he is forced to cut out unneccesary material in favor of proper delivery of his message. It stops being about what he wants in the movie and becomes a focus on what the audience needs to hear. Many directors swear by time and content limits as the guide that sharpens their art.
    The “God Grant It” devotional has shown me that gifted pastors can say more in a page and a half than others can write in a dozen chapters.
    I’m not in favor of short sermons. I’m not in favor of long sermons. I love good sermons.
    As a whole, the sample of Lutheran sermons that I have heard and read in this first year are without equal in modern Christendom.

  17. August 28th, 2007 at 08:01 | #17

    Setting an ideal sermon length is an arbitrary standard. We don’t have robots preaching – we have actual called and ordained men. Each of those men have different talents, different ways of organizing thoughts and communicating them effectively. I tend to be more well organized in the 13-15 minute range (give or take a minute). One of my classmates is much more comfortable in the 19-21 range. That is how he thinks.
    If I were to try to preach for 20 minutes, I would end up rambling – I would stretch out things that I don’t need to stretch out with how I write. Likewise, if my classmate were to try to preach for only 13 minutes, his points would be rushed and hurried and lack clarity.
    As a Preacher one has his own, particular voice and style, word phrasing and structure. The point isn’t to try to make that structure hit some arbitrary goal. The point is to make improve on the sermons that one preaches, whatever their length. A good sermon can be done in 12, a bad one can be done in 12. A good sermon can be done in 30, a bad sermon can be done in 30. Let not a preacher be artificial in his preaching, either to make it longer or shorter, lest he write a bad sermon.

  18. wcwirla
    August 28th, 2007 at 12:55 | #18

    The ancients didn’t have “Bible studies,” they just had preaching. Luther didn’t have confirmation classes but catechetical preaching in a service. The sermon served a variety of purposes beyond proclamation. Word for word, minute for minute, Luther’s sermons were more didactic and polemic than they were actual proclamation of the Law and the Gospel. Walther likewise.
    Long sermons these days tend to be top heavy with illustrations, analogies, extended narratives (ala Chuck Swindoll), and, in the case of expository style preaching, detailed textual analysis (“the actual word in the Greek is…and is used 47 times by Paul in his epistles….”). We have no problem with hour long Bible classes, which are also punctuated with back and forth discussion, making the hour somewhat more bearable, at least to those who do not suffer from lower back pain. Longer sermons might very well benefit from the same active interaction between the hearers and the speakers . (This was the norm in the ancient world, hence Paul’s admonition to the wives in 1 Cor. 14:35).
    Having grown up on the 30-minute sermons (45 on a dry Sunday) which tended to be filled with redundancy (“or again…and again”), I’ve come to value the homiletical “concision” of which Pr. Weedon speaks. There is an elegant poetic involved concise, precise speech, as in the creeds and in poetry.
    What Luther said of prayer might also apply well to preaching: “Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan.” (LW 42:19)

  19. rebellious pastor’s wife
    August 28th, 2007 at 14:59 | #19

    I know this is all probably from Table Talk, so it is hearsay, but on Aardvark Alley states: “One story says that Luther recommended Bugenhagen cut his sermons in half and preach no more than an hour, lest all minds wander.”
    I also saw a story that he told a young preacher that a preacher who couldn’t preach on a text for an hour wasn’t worth his salt.
    I’ve had time in other denominations and frankly, even though the gospel was missing in some sermons, they PREACHED THE TEXT – sometimes for two hours. I also miss the zeal that it seems like other Christians in those churches had for God’s Word in comparison to some Lutheran congregations I’ve been in. Not all, but some.
    What is missing in many Lutheran sermons is it seems like a pastor looks briefly at the text decides what is law, what is gospel and then makes a generic ten minute sermon that makes the text say what he wanted it to say rather than what it DOES say. In that case, then we in the pews are missing out on exegesis of the text and also missing good gospel that comes from the text as well.
    If you can say what is in the text in 10 minutes, with a strong Law and a gracious gospel, well good for you. But it is often not the case. When I read what Luther says about preaching, pretty strong catechesis went on in the sermons as well. If this is the one time that you have your people for the week, shouldn’t you strive to stretch their knowledge of the text and Law and Gospel during the course of that? Why limit it to 10 minutes? You can still convict their consciences and apply the gospel while enriching our knowledge and teaching us to apply the foundations of our faith to the text.
    When I was in school, if I had a 3 credit Tuesday/Thursday class, I noticed that when 50 minutes hit, at the time when most of the time I was getting out of class, I could do NOTHING but watch the clock. That was not the teacher’s fault, it was the fault of how my attention span had been trained. The fault was with me. If I can’t wait to get out of God’s house, then something is wrong with me…even if the sermon is mediocre.

  20. Aaron D. Wolf
    August 28th, 2007 at 15:33 | #20

    Pastor Petersen writes that “I think [the Rev. McCain] wants expository, didactic sermons.” He also notes that “This, despite what he wrote in Law and Gospel, was Walther’s view. It was also Luther’s view despite what he occasionally said. So also: Chyrsostom, Leo the Great, Gregory, Augustine, etc.”
    Doesn’t that jibe with the quotation from the Apology below?
    “On the contrary, in our churches all the sermons are occupied with such topics as these: of repentance; of the fear of God; of faith in Christ, of the righteousness of faith, of the consolation of consciences by faith, of the exercises of faith; of prayer, what its nature should be, and that we should be fully confident that it is efficacious, that it is heard; of the cross; of the authority of magistrates and all civil ordinances [likewise, how each one in his station should live in a Christian manner, and, out of obedience to the command of the Lord God, should conduct himself in reference to every worldly ordinance and law]; of the distinction between the kingdom of Christ, or the spiritual kingdom, and political affairs; of marriage; of the education and instruction of children; of chastity; of all the offices of love.”

  21. August 29th, 2007 at 14:20 | #21

    As a pewsitter, I don’t “time” sermons. But a good one is always too short. I am surprised when the Pastor makes his concluding statement.
    What is a good sermon? One that teaches the text, making reference to as much researched material as the Pastor chooses to use.
    What’s a bad sermon? One that includes a “story” whose veracity I doubt on the basis of experience or other knowledge.
    E.g., bringing that poor frog to a boil will utterly lose anything else said that morning!
    Telling about the tourists who climbed on a Buddha statue in remote Thailand will get you in trouble, but not nearly as much trouble as the tourists would be in.
    I’m currently researching the tale of the errant lamb whose leg is deliberately broken by the shepherd so that he can be carried around till it heals. Keller, who really was a shepherd, knows nothing about it. [If you've got a reliable source let me know.]

  22. Alex K
    August 31st, 2007 at 08:28 | #22

    My experience has been that it isn’t the length of the sermon so much as whether my sermon gets to the point and communicates its point. I’ve preached from 8 to 22 minutes, and had people thinking 8 minutes was too long and 22 was too short.

  23. Lois
    August 31st, 2007 at 10:34 | #23

    We believe Scripture to be the Word of God. Faith comes by hearing the Word. Pastors should speak the Word (speak Scripture) and distribute the Sacrament of the Altar at every Divine Service. Briefly giving the context of the Scripture reading would be fine, but forget the sermon…..we need more unadulterated Word fed to us. People need to know and experience God’s Word. Sermons can become too laced with the Pastor’s opinions.
    This is my view the older I get.

  24. John Eagle
    June 11th, 2012 at 20:44 | #24

    The reason for such a drop in church attendance among the young is sermons that are too long. Even someone my age, 62, craves the interactive praise and worship… not the sitting on our butt listening for way too long to some one individual who thinks his voice is of far more importance than the voices of the multitude before him. Too many ministers like to hear their own voice too much. Another thing, take away all the caffeine … especially coffee… and sugary treats… especially donuts… and see how long the congregation will stay awake and tolerate these long sermons. There is a tremendous thirst for the spirit of God in the world, and too many preachers are driving away the thirsty by talking too much.

  25. Jonathan Trost
    June 12th, 2012 at 08:16 | #25

    Perhaps (?), more important that the length of time it takes to deliver a sermon is the amount of time spent in its prepatation.

    Decades ago, a famous (Scottish Presbyterian) professor of homiletics had 2 “rules of thumb”: 1) one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery; and 2) after 17 minutes of delivery, you’ve lost your audience. I wonder if today’s seminarians are hearing similar advice.

    I wonder if those who “crave interactive praise and worship” over “listening for way too long to some one individual who thinks his voice is of far more importance than the voices of the multitude before him” disagrees with Luther’s thought and teaching that, when the pastor preaches, God is speaking.

    Do Lutheran laymen sitting in the pews today still take Luther’s words on this subject seriously? Or, have we become so “Americanized” and “Protestantized” as to believe that what happens in church on Sunday morning is not so much about God’s Service (in which we are fed by Word and Sacrament) as its is about us, our praise and our worship?

    Perhaps, both pastors and laymen should revisit the importance of the Teaching Office within the Office of the Holy Ministry, particularly as it relates to the Sunday morning sermon.

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