Thoughts on Sermon Purpose, Style and Length

“Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul preached on and on” (Acts. 20:8).

Every pastor has to deal with the issue of preferred sermon length among his or her congregation. What is the ideal sermon length?  In some traditions, the 15-20 minute homily is typical. I grew up in this tradition. This is fine if your goal is to merely impart a thoughtful reflection on a brief Bible text and offer a couple points of application to send the worshipers away with. The goal here is typically inspiration.

I have come to a far different view of the weekly sermon over the past many years. I have spent the past 10 years in churches where the average sermon is 40 minutes.  Here’s a few of my personal convictions and goals surrounding my philosophy of preaching. I hope sermons at MainStreet would provide not only inspiration, but a rich time of education, active participation and evoke supernatural transformation. That’s a lot to cram into 20 minutes.

(Note: I am a young, inexperienced preacher who has no idea what he’s doing.  I don’t even claim to be an average preacher. Those who put up with me each Sunday are enduring what I hope will be the worst sermons of my life — as I hope to constantly improve with practice. But by God’s grace this is the kind of culture I hope to cultivate at MainStreet on Sunday mornings. Please pray for me as I grow as a preacher!)

1. I view the sermon as an invitation into another world, the strange and unfamiliar world of a text that requires more than 10 minutes to find our footing in the world of the text. I lament that most people want their pastor to take that journey into the text alone in his study all week, and merely bring back to our world a few snapshots and souvenirs for a 15 minute “show and tell” time.  I believe this deprives the people of the joy of the journey, the excitement of new discovery, the surprises one encounters along the way.  People who just want a short 3 point teaching and who aren’t willing to go on a longer trip will miss out on the deeper, hidden treasures in a text.  You can disagree with me, but there’s a huge mental difference between a 15 minute and a 45 minute commute to work — and I believe the same holds true for a sermon.

2. I view the sermon as an invitation to a deeper conversation with the Living God through His Word.  Transformative conversations that take us to the deeper places of our souls usually require a good hour to get warmed up. It’s the difference between the 15 minute chat at the bus stop and the 2 hour intimate conversation over coffee with that special someone. If we’ve never had a mind-blowing, life-changing 15 minute conversation with another human being, than why would we expect it to happen with God during a 15 minute sermonette?  Think about it.

3. Attention span during a sermon is directly tied to the spiritual condition of the listener. I often hear sociological studies quoted to argue that the average person’s attention span is only about 20 minutes….therefore the sermon should be kept short. This is only relevant, it would seem, if one is assuming that we are talking about a one-way human presentation or lecture where one person is a passive receiver of the message. This may be the case in a university classroom lecture, but this is not what we believe is happening during the sermon. Let me explain.

During the sermon we believe there is the potential for a mystical interchange to happen between five different persons: preacher, congregant, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray the listener is active, that God is active, and the Word is “alive and active” (Heb. 4:12) as it comes from the mouth of the preacher. The sermon time is a dynamic experience with the explosive potential for all kinds of soul-searching, wound-healing, eyes-opening, heart-softening, conscience-convicting, etc. to be happening throughout the room.

For those with spiritual eyes to see all of this explosive potential hidden in every sermon, attention span is really not an issue. Still many others will find themselves among those who Jesus said would be “ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding” (Mark 4:12). Even the Son of God couldn’t hold the attention of such as these. Jesus ended his sermons with, “Let all those with ears to hear listen.” That seems to have been his two-cents on the issue of attention span.

4. Finally, and related to the point above, we view attention span differently when we apply it to a personal two-way conversation between friends or lovers. If I take my wife Keri out on a date and tell her she better keep her conversation to 20 minutes or I’ll lose interest, I will be sleeping on the floor that night. In this situation, the problem clearly isn’t the length of the conversation, but rather my interest level in the person with whom I’m conversing.

May we all ask God to transform the sermon time from a passive listening experience with our watches timed and attention spans counting down, to begin encountering God in a real and powerful ways through the dynamic, active listening to His Word. And if the Living God abides in the expounding of His Word every Sunday, then why in the world would we want to make that time shorter….?

Let all those with ears to hear listen.

I realize this approach cuts against every fiber of our ADD, drive-through, sound-byte, efficiency-driven, “entertain me or I’ll go elsewhere” culture. But there are many other churches where people can go to find a shorter sermon.

“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Psalm 119).

“Paul preached to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on preaching until midnight….Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on” (Acts 20:7-9).

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Keri says:

    Interesting thoughts. I think I agree…

    1. Jeremy Berg says:

      I think good preachers are like good tour guides…. If two groups are traveling through the Holy Land and one group has a good tour guide and the other a poor one, one group will come away with much and the other will be bored and disappointed. Someday I hope to be a good tour guide. I have a long way to go. :)

  2. Jon Dack says:

    I like you thoughts on this. There is definitely a trend toward “shorter is better”. It makes me wonder however, how many pastors posses to the desire and drive to preach past 20 minutes. For me it is interesting how the expectations of what a pastor does have changed over the years. I recall a conversation with my father-in-law in which he told me that when he was a kid the pastor of their church taught an adult Sunday School class and preached a sermon on Sunday morning, preached a different sermon on Sunday night, led a Bible Study on Monday night, and preached another sermon on Wednesday night, all while maintaining the day to day operations of the church and care needs of the congregation. I am not sure at what point people started to believe that the main component of a Senior Pastor’s job description was simply to preach one sermon on Sunday morning.

    1. Jeremy Berg says:

      Exactly, Jon. I’m reading the old time Covenant pastors writings and they were always preaching — all week long, all over the place, with seemingly little to no time for preparations. The sermons were much more simple reflections on a text — not the well-crafted piece of art preachers are expected to pull off each week today. Consumer culture has changed so much in today’s church…. But we have to reach consumers with the gospel…so I guess that may mean offering a “good product” at little personal “cost” to the consumer….

      Then there is this spiritual fact: Yesterday I preached my worst sermon at MainStreet so far (in my opinion – sloppy, unorganized, lacking energy, etc.). And, lo and behold, I learned today that one person recommitted their life to Christ and another said she was in tears the entire time as the Holy Spirit ministered to her through the message and worship. I’m really good at leaving PLENTY of room for the HS to come and pick up my slack. :) I’m glad the Word has an independent power of its own and accomplishes it’s purpose no matter what I do with it:

      “He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head” (Mark 4).

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