Our pastor had recently left for another church and I was taking over a lot of the preaching duties in our local congregation. One afternoon the phone rang in my Youth Pastor’s study. The conversation went something like this:
A lady from our church on the other line: “Yes, I want to talk to you about making your sermons shorter. They are just too long.”
“Mrs. ______ I’m just trying to preach what I think the Lord has laid on my heart.”
“Well ask Him to make your sermons shorter.”
That conversation was nearly 10 years ago, but it has stuck with me. I was not as polished of a preacher as I needed to be, but the argument kept coming up time and again: “You know, studies have shown that the human mind can only endure 20 minutes of preaching.”
Or how about the more colloquial “The mind can only absorb what the bottom can endure.”
The idea being: It’s time for shorter sermons. After all, we are in the 21st century! We’ve arrived at the zenith of human knowledge. There are so many other ways to absorb God’s Word now. Keep the sermons to 20 minutes and let’s beat the Methodists to lunch.
Lest you think this is only my experience, my fellow blogger, Kofi Adu-Boahen, and I are part of a Facebook group where the subject of the “benefits” of a 20-minute sermon has come up quite a bit recently. And even more seriously, I talked to a dear brother just days ago who is dealing with the same issue. The difference is he’s not the youth pastor filling in for the church. He’s the Senior Pastor entrusted to shepherd the flock of God!
But he’s facing the same argument: That’s too deep for Sunday morning. We won’t have many visitors if the sermon is 45 minutes. Use Sunday School and Sunday night for more in-depth study. We need more singing and less preaching. And the list goes on as some congregants try to convince their pastors that 20 minutes is the perfect length for sermons.
I present to you a different argument: Time to cut the 20-minute sermon – not as in cut it down either, but as in cut it out altogether. Cut it up. Set it on fire. Watch it burn. Then preach the word.
The Historical Argument
I think I could offer rather convincing historical arguments for why sermons should be longer than 20 minutes. Some of the greatest revivals in the history of the church, such as the Reformation or the First Great Awakening, featured long (and sometimes very long) sermons.
But the rejoinder there might be an argument concerning culture. People back in the day had longer attention-spans. They didn’t have iPhones and Twitter and Avengers movies.
I disagree with that rejoinder, but I’d rather not even fight on that front. Let’s get down to our sole authority, shall we? Let’s consider some things Scripture has to tell us.Time to cut the 20-minute sermon – not as in cut it down either, but as in cut it out altogether. Cut it up. Set it on fire. Watch it burn. Then preach the word. Click To Tweet
The Biblical Argument
First, there are the classic ‘proof texts’ for long sermons such as Nehemiah 8 and Paul’s sermon in Acts 20. Secondly, it is thought by many that the book of Hebrews might actually be a recorded sermon. The author calls it a “brief word” (Hebrews 13:22) and if read aloud it would take the average English reader a brief 45 minutes.
But honestly, I don’t wish to have my argument stand or fall on the above passages. Rather, I’d like to take a different angle. I’d like to go to the back of the book. Consider with me Revelation 2:7
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
This comes in the context of the seven letters that Jesus gives to the churches in Asia Minor. Each church has its unique situation that Jesus is addressing, so each letter opens a little differently, and contains different detail in the body.
However, one line is the same in every single letter. It’s not how Jesus refers to Himself. It’s not how Jesus talks about the local church. It’s not even the word ‘repent.’ No, the one and only phrase found in every single one of these letters is:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22)
Christ bids us to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Not a particular local church mind you, but the churches. The people of Christ, Christians, must heed what the Spirit says to the churches. Furthermore, it should not merely be a “must” but also a desire. Believers should desire to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. If we do not desire to hear what God has to say to us then, whatever we may be doing on Sunday mornings, it’s not biblical Christianity.
Now, backing up a bit, what does the Spirit say to the churches? Contextually, we see that the people of God should hear what was said in Revelation 2-3. But, there is also application to consider all that the Spirit says to the churches. All that the Spirit says to the churches (which, by the way, includes the Old Testament, Andy).
Therefore, Christians are commanded to listen to, are in need of, and should desire all that the Spirit of God has to say to the people of God. And if that’s true, what does it say about a person who says they want a 20-minute exposition of a text once a week? And frankly, saying they want a 20-minute exposition is probably not true. They probably want more of a 20-minute rally or 5 steps to be a better you.
There are 604,800 seconds in a week. What does it say about an individual, or group of individuals, who only desire 1,200 of those seconds to be spent in an exposition of Scripture? If we must hear and if we should desire to hear, what does it say about someone who hopes less than one-quarter of one percent of his week is spent listening to what the Spirit says to the churches? If we do not desire the Word of God, then we do not desire the God of the Word.
You see, we’ve made this about an hour problem when, in actuality, it’s a heart problem. It has less to do with time and more to do with treasure. Do we desire to hear what the Spirit says to the churches?
I’m not arguing for a specific time period here. Nor am I saying that a 20-minute sermon on an occasional Sunday is always wrong. And I also know there are some who should cut their sermon length because it’s too long (whether that’s from pride or lack of preparation or lack of skill).
But I am saying this, and I think I’ll plant my feet rather firmly here: Show me a congregation that is listening to 20-minute sermons every Sunday morning and I’ll show you a congregation that does not have a healthy hunger for and delight in God’s Word. I am not saying the opposite holds true either. I’m just saying that a church that is satisfied with 20-minute messages each week is a church that at best needs to desire the Word of Christ more, and at worst might not even be a true church (Revelation 2:5).Show me a congregation that is listening to 20-minute sermons every Sunday morning and I’ll show you a congregation that does not have a healthy hunger for and delight in God’s Word. Click To Tweet
- If you are a pastor and in a place where people say you preach too long, first and foremost, consider your preaching. Are you studied? Are you prepared? Should you be preaching as long as you are? Are there areas you can cut back?
- After examination of yourself and your preaching, you may need to preach a shorter sermon. You might cut back to 30. Then, over time, as you mature and as your people mature, add time.
- If you are a congregant, pray for your pastor. Help guard his study time as best you can. Be a regular reader of God’s Word so that you whet your appetite for more. Pray over and study the passage your pastor will be preaching so that you will be eager to hear the sermon on Sunday. You may even want to contribute to your pastor going away on a retreat or conference so that he can continue learning and be refreshed to help his preaching.
- If you are a person who thinks 20 minutes is plenty long, I plead with you to pray to the Lord to increase your appetite for His Word. Can you honestly asses your life and situation and think that your weekly intake of God’s Word is enough? I pray you’d repent and hear what the Spirit says to the churches.