During lockdown, when congregations were meeting virtually, sermons were noticeably shorter. According to Scott McConnell, executive-director of Nashville-based LifeWay Research, more than a quarter of churchgoers would prefer such shorter sermons now that we are back to in-person worship.
But what is a shorter sermon? It all depends on one’s starting point. In this regard the Bible gives no guidance. We read that 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 daybreak.
Some believe that preaching should have no time constraint. The preacher should be open to God’s Spirit. If a sermon takes longer to deliver, than more time should be allowed. At this point, however, the Apostle Paul does give some guidance. For in the context of a, Paul Christian worship service, Paul wrote: “The spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets”: in other words, there is no place for licence. As Gordon Fee, himself a Pentecostal, wrote in his massive commentary on 1 Corinthians (982 pages long): “Some Pentecostal and charismatic assembles would do well to heed these directives”.
Down through the years the length of a sermon has varied. In the time of Queen Elizabeth I long sermons with doctrinal discourses were the flavour of the month. It was in that period that hourglasses were attached to the pulpit – although there was nothing to stop the preacher by turning the hourglass upside down and starting all over again.
In my own tradition, there was a stage when the whole day was given over to sermons of one kind or another. In 1689, for instance, Hugh and Anne Bromhead gave a description of worship amongst English Separatists who had fled from persecution to Amsterdam:
We begin with a prayer, after read some one or two chapters of the Bible; give the sense thereof and confer upon the same; that done, we lay aside our books and after a solemn prayer made by the first speaker he propoundeth some text out of the Scripture and prophesieth out of the same by the space of one hour or three quarters of an hour. After him standeth up a second speaker and prophesieth out of the said text the like time and space, sometimes more, sometimes less. After him, the third, the fourth, the fifth etc., as the time will give leave. Then the first speaker concludeth with prayer as he began with prayer, with an exhortation to contribution to the poor, which collection being made is also concluded with prayer. This morning exercise begins at eight of the clock and continueth unto twelve of the clock. The like course of exercise is observed in the afternoon from two of the clock unto five or six of the clock. Last of all the execution of the government of the Church is handled.
In the 19th century expectations were different. The Victorian ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon spoke at the rate of 140 words per minute for 40 minutes. In his Lectures to My Students he wrote: “A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in” (Lecture IX ‘Attention’).
On the other hand, F.F. Bruce, a renowned Biblical scholar and my former PhD supervisor, said to me in the late 1960s: “if preachers had anything worthwhile to say, they could say it within 20 minutes; while if they had nothing to say, then they would need at least 40 minutes”.
However, there are many preachers who would disagree with Bruce. My understanding is that the American preacher Rick Warren, author of the best-seller The Purpose Driven Life, still preaches every Sunday morning for 52 minutes.
Prior to the pandemic, on 4 April 2005, a group of ‘mystery worshippers’ visited 70 London churches and timed the sermon. They came up with the following results:
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
Over the years my sermons have tended to be 20 or 25 minutes long – but as I grow older I am finding that my sermons are growing shorter. The Sunday morning sermons at Chelmsford Cathedral are normally less than 10 minutes in length, but when I was invited to preach in Chelmsford on one Good Friday, I was told the congregation would expect a two hour sermon! The reality is that the context will often determine the length of a sermon. To my mind, there is no one God-given length for a sermon.