What Happened To The 20-Minute Sermon?

Posted: November 1, 2010 in Bible, church, homiletics, leadership, missional, preaching, speaking, speech acts, spiritual formation, words

I was slightly taken aback when one of our church members – a friend and supporter of mine – joked to her husband that she listens to me 40-minutes every Sunday. Trust me, no one knows better than I do when I stray over my allotted time. In fairness, my sermons are typically about 30-minutes, not 40. A co-worker complained to me once that a particular sermon was 38-minutes (I could tell she had only checked the time stamp on the podcast and hadn’t listened to it. There was more recorded than the sermon and she hadn’t been in worship to hear it the first time. That sermon was 30-minutes). However, she was right in that my sermons are longer than (1) I was trained to make them, (2) have typically preached them in the past and (3) than I grew up hearing others preach their sermons.

What’s more, I’m not the only one who is preaching longer. As I examined the podcasts I listen to, began paying attention to the length of the sermons I watch online in the early hours of Sunday morning, talked to local preachers and perused all types of church websites, I’ve noticed something: Hardly anyone preaches 20-minutes sermons anymore! As a matter of fact, recently we had  a family join our congregation only to leave a month later. When I encountered the husband one morning in BestBuy, he reluctantly confessed he left because of “the teaching.” Surprised by his bluntness, I stepped back. He continued, “Sorry, Pastor, It just wasn’t enough. I need an hour of teaching; 50-minutes at least.” I’m finding that while attention spans in America may be getting shorter, sermons are getting longer. And there are 4 reasons why!

1. Biblical Illiteracy. When Rochelle and I came to Northern California we wanted to break out of the Bible Belt. We got all that and more. In the last 20 months we’ve had folks ask us if Abram and Abraham are the same person, who the “Lamb” is in reference to songs we sing, and hosts of questions we had answered for us in VBS as kids. It is an honor to introduce new people to the scriptures. We can never fault people for not knowing the basic narrative of the Bible, but it does mean that during the preaching event, nothing can be taken for granted. Each week preachers have to cover more of the narrative than they used to because many in the congregation don’t know it. This is especially true out of the Bible Belt and for churches growing with lots of non-churched people.

2. Children’s Ministry. In my childhood church there was no such thing as children’s ministry. And no one envisioned children’s church and the plethora of fun teaching environments my kids enjoy. That meant as my brother and I fidgeted in church, my mom and dad had to control/ entertain us. In this environment, the preacher received tacit (and overt) signals to stand up, speak up and shut up. With kids outside of the preaching event and experiencing specialized programs that need quite a bit of time themselves, there is opportunity to teach more – and longer. When I was young, worship services were one-hour, now I don’t know a church that’s less than an hour and a half, and many are two hours. As a matter of fact, our children’s minster recently told me that a slew of the programs available to purchase are now in 2-hour formats.

3. Better Presentations. Sermons are more entertaining/interesting than ever. As a youth all my preachers had in their arsenal was the Holy Spirit and their personal rhetorical skills. Nowadays, there are videos, props, object lessons, dance teams, dramas, etc…. Preachers can use the full weaponry of their creativity and because churches are now filled with adults who came of age in modern-day youth ministry, audiences are used to and expect engaging, visual presentations.

4. No Sunday Night Services. Again, when I was young, we worshipped on Sunday morning & Sunday night. That meant there were more opportunities for teaching in the life of the church. Let’s face it, most folks in our churches only get the weekly sermon in terms of spiritual formation and education. Of course, it shouldn’t be that way, but it is…for most! Increasing the sermon a few minutes helps make up what used to be standard.

The miraculous part is that many of the churches with longer sermons — think Francis Chan, Tim Keller, Rob Bell and Andy Stanley (all who go a MINIMUM of 40 minutes) — are growing. These pastors, and many much lesser known churches, are growing and impacting their communities. Longer sermons seem to be a trend…and I think, within reason it’s good.

The challenge for preachers is to maximize the time. If you’re not a gifted communicator, cut back. If you are, continue to master your craft. It matters less how much time you take, what matters is the time you waste.


P.S. Sermons from Redwood Church can be subscribed to via iTunes.

  1. Sean,
    I agree that the sermon has transitioned from preaching to teaching. That burden necessitates time. Also, not everyone had your and my experience. I frequently hear about the 1 or 2 hour sermons that were common back in the day. I’ve been told that my 30 minute messages are “brief!”

  2. Wade says:

    There have been a couple of times when I’ve looked at my message that I’ve prepared and thought, “It’s too short. I need to add more stuff.” Almost like l was being paid by the minute.

    To me the length of the sermon should be determined by how long it takes to communicate the desired message. A well-developed image that sticks with the hearers could be embedded in a 12 minute sermon. A explanation of what Jesus is talking about in Mark 13 is going to take at least an hour.

  3. Deanna Love says:

    Having been taught that 20 minutes is the attention span of the average listener, Bill preached 20 minute sermons; however, one elderly man in Winnipeg called them “sermonettes.” I noticed that as Bill got older his sermons became longer. I’m not sure why, but maybe he had more to say on the subject. I really don’t remember that anyone complained. My young nephew from Austin used to time Bill’s sermons and compare the time to that of his minister in Austin — the shorter one was the winner. There is a huge church in my town that plans 45 minutes of “worship,” singing, etc., and 45 minutes of preaching. Preach on, Brother Sean, and don’t worry about the clock — well, be sure you get to the cafeteria ahead of the Baptists.

    • Sean says:

      Bill could do more in 20 minutes than most folks could do in 2 days, Deanna. There’s not a week that goes by when I don’t ask myself, “Where is the cross in this sermon?” – one of my central takeaways from Bill’s book. Bill preaching and writing transformed a generation.

  4. WesWoodell says:

    I was listening to a podcast a while back from some guys associated with the Acts 29 church planting network, and one of the observations they made was that the churches growing the most and the quickest in their particular network were made up of preachers preaching longer messages (most around an hour).

    Perhaps this generation is hungry for “meatier” teaching?

    Good insights, Sean. Appreciate the post.

    • Sean says:

      Isn’t that interesting, Wes. I’m not tooting my own horn, but no one complains when I go long – except the folks teaching kids. I do sense a hunger – a deep hunger – for more immersion in the word. I listen to Tim Keller and Andy Stanley a great deal these days. Those guys are 40-minutes minimum and rarely do I think, “OK, time to wrap it up.” Churches of Christ seem really dedicated to 20-minutes. I wonder if we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

  5. […] 2. Take Your Own Notes. Our congregation provides notes for every one in attendance. These are largely useless! Why? Because these notes are limited to what I think is most important in the text and are typically subject heading. Don’t check your brains at the narthex. Surprise, surprise; God may have something distinct in mind for you. Each scripture passage is deep, rich and meaningful, only so much can be covered in 20-minutes, um, I mean 40 minutes. […]

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