How long should a sermon be?

I’ve been thinking again about sermon size.

My dad told me this week about a Catholic mass he attended that had a three sentence homily. Three sentences. My understanding is that in Catholic worship homilies are not required except on Sunday and days of obligation, so this might reflect that practice.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know it is not uncommon for pastors to preach 45 minutes or more on Sunday morning.

In license school they told me sermons should be 14-17 minutes long for mainline Protestants.

One important matter to get out of the way. You can have a small sermon no longer how long you preach. Part of sermon size has to do with the subjects that are discussed. And I’m a bit partial to the notion that the sermon has to determine its own size. Not every sermon is going to clock in at exactly the same length.

The Bible is not great at giving us guidance here.

Jesus’ own sermons include the Sermon on the Mount, which frankly reads more like notes someone took than a flowing sermon. That clocks in at nearly 2,600 words. Then you have his first homily in Luke 4, which barely started when he was cut off by questions.

In Acts we have several addresses that sound like sermons, all of them pretty short by modern standards. But then you have Hebrews, which I understand many scholars say should be seen as a sermon more than a letter.

All in all, it is hard to gain much guidance from scripture on this question.

How do you decide how long to preach?

For those who do not preach, how long should a sermon be?


13 thoughts on “How long should a sermon be?

  1. I think you are on to something when you note that the sermon topic goes a long way to determining sermon length. If you have something meaningful to say, something that really hits people where they live, they will sit and listen for about as long as it takes for you to make that point. Where I live, we call that “when the preacher gets to meddlin’.”

    The reason some pastors preach such short sermons may be that they just didn’t have anything all that important to say. Whereas, other preachers can go for near an hour, and people hardly seem to complain about it. It scratched where they itched. Time and length, then, are relative to the attraction of the topic and the ability of the preacher.

    For me, I preach about 20 to 22 minutes most Sundays. But, really, to do that I look for something in the Bible passage that can fuel a 20 minute sermon. Some ideas are nice, but won’t last that long in conversation. Others are powerful, but they’d take too long to develop in that format. I need something that has enough tension to it, enough raising of the eyebrow to keep people’s attention until we get to the conclusion. It’s an art, not a science. And I suspect we all struggle at it from Sunday to Sunday.

  2. As the daughter of, wife of, and mother of Methodist preachers, I have listened to many sermons and sermons have evolved over the years; from my father’s “3 points, a poem, and a prayer” lasting 20-25 minutes to those of my son who practiced law for 11 years before going to seminary, seldom over 10 minutes. With pithy, to the point sermons I leave wanting more and tend to reflect on the sermon during the week. I have a Roman Catholic priest friend who is known in his parish ass “the best 8 minute homeletician ever”.

  3. Wow. Thank you all for your comments and thoughts. It certainly adds to my sense that there is no one answer to my question.

  4. You are right that there is no real answer to the question. It seems like if you look at some ‘hot’ preachers today, we will use Adam Hamilton and Rob Bell they run almost 40 minutes if not an hour. I know other churches with multiple services that if you go over 12 minutes you ruin the whole flow. In my two appointments I my sermons really lengthen or shorten in the sort of service we have. In my past appointment they were between 12-15 minutes long. Now I run between 16-20 minutes because I have the freedom within the service to go a little longer.

    I also like to not even be constrained by time. I know that 2000 words typed will be around a 20 minute sermon and 1500 will be about 15 minutes. This goes with the 100 words a minute style of preaching…huh, just realized that…but that is my normal preaching speed.

    My main thing is I say what I feel needs to be said. Some days we get out 10 minutes to 12, a few Sundays a year, which no one complains about. A few other times we go until 12:10. The main thing is that I say what I felt I God led me to say, then I am done. enough rambling.

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