Ezra read from the Book of the Law “from early morning to midday” (Neh 8.3); while Paul at Troas “continued speaking until midnight” (Acts 20.7 and then after a brief interruption by Eutychus, who in every sense of the word dropped off to sleep, Paul continued until day-break. But how much of a guide should Ezra and Paul be today?
The conventional wisdom is that shorter is better if you want to share your message with audiences in an age of instant communication. And yet, surprisingly, in many places sermons are not getting shorter but longer. In an American survey of preaching from 1998 to 2006, sermons of 20 minutes or less decreased from 41% to 36%; while in the same period, the percentage of congregati9ons reporting sermons of 21 to 45 minutes increased from 52% to 56%.
On 24 April 2005 ‘mystery worshippers’ visited 70 London churches and timed the sermon. The ten churches with the longest sermons were:
- 80 mins: Pierres Vivantes, Hyde Park
- 60 mins: Kingsway International Christian Centre, Hackney
- 53 mins: Hillsong, Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road
- 52 mins: Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate
- 45 mins: The Redeemed Christian Church of God, Tooting
- 43 mins: Covent Garden Evangelical, Neal Street
- 42 mins: Metropolitan Tabernacle, Elephant & Castle
- 35 mins: West Croydon Baptist Church
- 35 mins: Church of the Nazarene, Clapham Junction
- 34 mins: Westbourne Grove Independent Baptist, Notting Hill
The ten churches with the shortest sermons were:
- 5 mins: Hinde Street Methodist, Marylebone
- 5 mins: St Alfege, Greenwich
- 6 mins: Westminster Abbey
- 6 mins: St Margaret’s Westminster
- 6 mins: St Stephen’s, Lewisham
- 7 mins: St John the Evangelist, Waterloo
- 7 mins: Brompton Oratory, Kensington
- 8 mins: Our Lady and St Joseph, Hackney
- 8 mins: The American Church in London, Tottenham Court Road
- 8 mins: St Mary the Virgin, Hayes, Middx
The conclusion was clear: if you like your sermon short and to the point, go Anglican. If you like a really long sermon, go French!
According to Pt Forsyth, the great Scottish theologian of a former era:
The demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word… Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit. And those who say they want little sermons because they are there to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship… A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.
And that was in the days when many Christians listened to two sermons a Sunday – and often a lengthy Bible exposition mid-week too!
John Stott wisely observed:
Basically it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.
His rule of thumb was that “10 minutes are too short and 40 minutes too long”.
Personally, I aim at 20 to 25 minutes. There are times when I am longer – and occasionally times when I am shorter. However, I recognise there is a good deal of truth in the advice of one wit:
If after ten minutes you do not strike oil, stop boring.
What do you think?