According to Jonathan Gledhill, the Anglican Bishop of Lichfield, church services have become too long; he recommends that clergy should aim to keep the time of worship to no more than 50 minutes. The bishop’s concern is to make the occasional worshipper feel more welcome. He said:
You have got to be quite tough to come to some of our services if you are not a regular attender. We’re praying for longer and we’re singing for longer and the idea of spending two hours dedicated to worship is not very appealing in today’s society.
The length of services is also very much linked to the length of the sermon. In some churches sermons of 40 minutes or even longer are apparently the norm. In this respect I am reminded of some advice I received from a distinguished Biblical scholar, FF Bruce, who said:
If you’ve got something to say, 20 minutes is sufficient. If you have nothing to say, then you need at least 40 minutes!
By contrast, last year the Vatican told Catholic clergy to keep their sermons under eight minutes to cater for people who find it hard to concentrate for long periods.
Amazingly the first Baptists were used to a morning service that lasted four hours (they began at 8 o’clock); then after a lunch break they began again at 2 pm, and the service would last for a further three or four hours; after which they used to have a church business meeting! People’s attention spans have certainly changed!
So how long should a service be? My current practice is to allow the morning service to last around one hour and ten minutes; although when the service also includes baptisms or the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the service can go on longer. This is not because I am a believer in lengthy sermons – I never preach for more than 25 minutes. However, there is so much else to fit in – not just hymns and songs, Scripture readings and prayers, but also communicating the church’s vision, interviewing people on how they relate their faith to their work etc.
For me there are two practical considerations: the length of time one can expect older members not to have recourse to the toilet; and the length of time one can expect babies and young children can be looked after by often untrained volunteers. Frankly, I sometimes think younger ministers can be quite unthinking in their expectations of their people.