By Micah Fries
When I was young, we watched a movie about a pastor’s family. The movie family had different signals they would use for their preacher father in case he needed help.
They had signs for their dad saying the wrong thing, his zipper was unzipped, or even if he was preaching too long. If the sermon went long, they would smile a big, toothy grin.
As pastor’s kid, this was the sign my brother and I were most interested in.
When the following Sunday rolled around, my brother and I were ready and sitting on the very first row. Around 10 or 15 minutes into his sermon, we started giving him full-teeth, 100-watt smiles.
My dad ignored us at first, but eventually he caught on, laughed, and said he might as well shut the sermon down at that point because he wasn’t getting back to it. My brother and I were pretty pleased with ourselves.
Naturally, when I started preaching, I remembered those moments as a pastor’s kid and ran as far away from my childhood preferences as I could.
For the first 15 years of my ministry, I confidently preached more than 45 minutes for each sermon.
I was convinced the only way to rightly explain the text was by preaching at least that long every week. That changed for me about a year or two ago.
A few friends pushed me to consider whether the messages might be better heard, received, and processed if I was to preach a little shorter.
I resisted at first, but ultimately decided to test it out. I was really surprised by what I found.
I discovered I was able to essentially say the same thing in 35 minutes that I used to say in 45 minutes. I simply had to eliminate redundancy.
When I preached longer, I didn’t necessarily deliver more content as much as I used more words to communicate the same truths.
Becoming more time conscious, I believe I preach more effectively by focusing on precision, clarity, and concision.
This theory has been tested all the more in the last few months as COVID-19 has disrupted all of our patterns, and our church, like most other churches, has moved to a virtual model for our weekly worship times.
Virtual worship time forced us to think even more compactly, as we believe engagement increases if we keep our virtual time to less than an hour.
I’ve been working to preach 28 minutes each week and have mostly been able to stay within those constraints.
The recent Lifeway Research study on sermon length indicates I’m just now catching up to most of the preaching world, as the majority of Protestant pastors claim to preach 30 minutes or less, and 85% preach 40 minutes or less each week.
Protestant churchgoers seem to want shorter sermons, as 45% prefer 30 minutes or less, and 70% prefer no longer than 40 minutes.
Those are startlingly high numbers for those of us who may have historically believed that when it comes to sermons, “the longer the better.”
When I look across my own experience around the world, as well as my understanding of history, I don’t think there’s a clear, biblical expectation for sermon length.
In at least one instance, Paul preached so long, someone went to sleep, fell out of a window, and died (Acts 20:9). I don’t think I’d recommend that as a sermon strategy.
The truth is that context, and the text itself, are likely the most important parameters to shape your sermon.
If you can spend sufficient time to rightly explain, illustrate, and apply the text in your context, you’ve succeeded.
Still, I’ve found shorter sermons, or at least shorter than was typical for me, have become more effective than longer sermons.
Anecdotally, I’ve found sermons in the realm of 28-35 minutes have higher engagement and retention from the congregation.
As a pastor, staying in this time range has forced me to become clearer, more precise, and more confident with respect to the biblical text.
That was counterintuitive to me, and yet I think God is blessing us as we make this change.
Preaching shorter sermons has made me a better preacher and has raised the bar on how my sermons impact the congregation.