Volume 18, Issue 4: Presbyterion
We have heard of both extremesten minute homilies that are barely sufficient to whet the spiritual appetite, and
then the two-hour jobs preached by some earnest Puritan to Cromwell's Parliament. The former is easily dismissed
by conservative Christians as "sermonettes for Christianettes," and the latter are obviously . . . well, a little swollen.
How long should a preacher preach? For the sake of keeping the discussion within reasonable bounds, let us
assume a situation where a church is being planted, and the decisions are being made without any consideration of "what
we have always done here at Third Memorial," or what the old-timers will put up with. In short, let us not think (for
the moment) about changing the length of the sermon. We are simply asking the question (for the present) in the
abstract. What is a good length for a sermon?
Biblical examples give us a range to choose from. The Sermon on the Mount is (in English) 2447 words long.
The book of Hebrews, which to me bears all the marks of a sermonic oration, is 6736 words. I speak fairly quickly,
and usually preach for right around 50 minutes, and in that time use approximately 5,000 words. This pace would
make the Sermon on the Mount about 20-25 minutes, and the sermon to the Hebrews would be around a hour and
ten minutes. Maybe the preacher didn't get into that extra typological stuff in chapter nine because he was already
pushed for time.
So, making allowances for what is likely to be accepted in modern America, let us assume a range of 20 minutes
on the short end to an hour on the outside. What should we strive for? What should we want?
The first thing to note is that there is no one "right answer." The ideal length of a sermon depends on a host
of other factors, and those factors would include (but not be limited to) the rhetorical gifts of the preacher, the timbre
of his voice, the time he has had to prepare, whether or not he is working with other ministers, and whether or not he
is preaching to a biblically literate group of people.
By referring to the "rhetorical gifts" of the preacher, I am not assuming here that the gifted ones go long and
the dull ones have to keep it to a minimum. A preacher should match what he does in the pulpit to what he is capable
of accomplishing there. Listening to a cello for forty-five minutes is a very different thing than listening to a trumpet
for that length of time. Just as a good composer composes with certain instruments in mind, and this affects the length
of the piece, so a minister should compose with
his instrument in mind.
Preaching from an outline is very different than preaching from a manuscript. Preaching from a manuscript is
very different than preaching directly from the text. As a rule, extemporaneous preaching needs extra room to spread
out. My sermons (usually) are based on outlines that are about one thousand words, which means that four-fifths is
extemporaneous. The structure and direction is planned beforehand, but all the nooks and crannies are filled in as we go.
If I preach from a manuscript, with the whole thing written out, it is possible to go shorter without losing a
great deal of content. Such a sermon can be far more focussed and deliberate. A point can be reinforced or strengthened
(for example) without doing it the extemporaneous way, which is usually the way of simple repetition (which
obviously affects the length).
So why not do that then? Why not preach from a manuscript? Well, preaching shorter takes a lot of time. If
the sermon is to remain edifying and decent, for every ten minutes you take off the sermon you are probably adding
a couple hours in the study. And with the busy schedules that many pastors have in counseling, study, and leading
Bible studies, this is not really feasible. The end product has the advantage of being more complete, and is comprised
of complete sentences and everything. As an "oration" a written sermon can be crafted into quite a superior specimen,
but written sermons frequently suffer in the actual preaching. It is hard to focus on the people when you need to keep
your place on the page. It can be done, but it is still hard to do.
With regard to existing churches, I would try to discourage setting the length of the sermon on the basis of any
"a priori ideas" about liturgy. The basic elements of covenant renewal liturgy should always be there, but the
worship service should always be able to expand or contract some (without losing anything essential). Since all things should
be done for edification, the elders should not say beforehand that we have to have
this amount of music, this long a
sermon, and so on. The first consideration should be whether the congregation is growing and flourishing. If they are not,
then of course changes are in order. Those changes may require shortening the message (and giving the minister the
extra time during the week this would take), and the changes may require lengthening the messages.