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The Perfect Length for a Sermon

A denominational executive recently chided pastors in his tribe for inflicting “spiritual starvation” on their flocks.

The crime? Brief sermons.

After skimming a sermon on a pastor’s blog, the denominational leader wrote: “It could not have been more than eight minutes long, if that! This is, sadly, not some exception. It is in keeping with a disturbing trend: shorter and shorter sermons. We cannot expect our congregations to remain healthy and put them on a preaching starvation diet.”

This misguided executive has been duped by the myth of “more is better.” I’m afraid he’s assuming his longed-for long sermons achieve far more than they really do.

The Goal And Not

We need to be clear about the goal of a sermon or message time. To me, it’s to help draw people into a closer relationship with the Lord — to help them know, love and follow him.

And we need to be clear about what is NOT the goal. The sermon’s goal should not be …

  • To dispense information. We’re drowning in information. We no longer need an information middleman. We need a transformation guide.
  • To showcase the speaker’s oratory skills. It’s not about the messenger.
  • To prove to the congregation that the preacher studied all week.
  • To deify or overexalt the sermon. Yes, God is holy. God’s Word is holy. But a human’s sermon is, well, human. God can work through it. But that’s God doing the supernatural stuff, on his terms.

Sermon Limits

When it comes to determining the perfect sermon length, we need to know the limitations of the medium:

Lecture method. Of all the forms of communication and inspiration, the lecture method is among the least fruitful. Research shows people remember just 10 percent or less of what they hear in a lecture or sermon. Most of those well-prepared words are quickly lost. Forever. The longer the sermon, the more that’s forgotten.

Finite attention spans. Everyone knows children’s attention spans are short. But adults’ ability to concentrate on a speaker’s words is similarly short — about seven minutes. They’re just better at masking it. (Pastor, even though I’m looking at you and maybe even nodding, I’m actually daydreaming about what I’m going to do after church.)

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Thom Schultz is an eclectic author and the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café. Holy Soup offers innovative approaches to ministry, and challenges the status quo of today’s church.