I’ve been thinking lately about a quote from John Stott in his book “Between Two Worlds” where he makes the comment that sermonettes produce Christianettes. It’s one of those classic books that you just never get rid of. If you Google that quote, you find all kinds of articles and discussions about what is a sermon versus a sermonette.
But the question I’ve been mulling on in relation to that is, does the length of a sermon make a sermon more or less effective? And in this context, is a longer sermon a better sermon? Is a shorter sermon, a sermonette, less effective?
Well, I think of Jesus’ sermons that look to me like sermonettes, and other biblical sermons that seem to be varying lengths. I often suggest to young preachers in particular that they shortened their sermon. I tell them if you’re going over 20 minutes, you better be hot, there better be something there! Using 30, 40 or 50 minutes as a baseline, that is for a rare number of people.
My sermons generally land about 25 minutes. I don’t try to hold them to that necessarily, but that’s often where they land sometimes. Especially if I’ve preached on a topic or a passage multiple times, it can creep out, and I do tend to talk too fast as well. So probably the sermons I preach should be around 30 minutes or so (based on the amount of content.)
There’s a quote that’s from D.L. Moody about prayer, but I think it applies to a lot of sermons. He says some men’s prayers need to be cut short at both ends and set on fire in the middle. I think that’s true of a lot of sermons. That most sermons, should I say most, yeah, I’m going to say most sermons would be more effective if they were a little bit shorter and more focused.
Now when it comes to online where a lot of churches are just live streaming there are things or in some cases, pre-recording messages, I tend to believe from observation and looking at what works and doesn’t work in relation to people paying attention that online, shorter is in general better.
In general there are some amazing preachers and teachers who can hold you for 60 or 90 minutes. But that’s not most of us. Even to prepare a message like that really is an epic accomplishment. I have noticed that a lot of preachers have been very reluctant as they moved online and sometimes virtual only services to cut their sermons down, though again it seems to be what is more effective.
To encourage this and to add to the push to do so both online and offline, let me ask the question: How much truth can a person process in one sitting? How much can they apply? How much can they actually actually take home?
Sonlife speaks of T-units, Truth units. How many truth units do you fire at people in a given week and in a given year? And how many truth units a person can actually integrate into their life?
Typically in the standard, pre-COVID physical church where there might be Sunday school and church, sometimes a midweek group of some kind and maybe some other things, that’s a lot of different T-units being fired at a person. The truth is, I know personally, if I apply one biblical truth in a in a clear way in my life in a week, that leads to significant life change.
Here’s another question to consider: Did the early church have sermons as we understand them? I think the answer, at least from where I stand, is a clear no. That is, they didn’t do weekly 20 to 50 minute plus homilies of some kind.
We have examples yes, of Paul preaching all night long and and other people preaching in different contexts. Jesus did lots of what seemed like one paragraph and sometimes one sentence sermonettes. That’s we call them parables, though he may well have strung them together into longer sermons like we see in the Sermon on the Mount, which even the Sermon on the Mount is not that long of a sermon.
So here’s a thought about sermon length, sermonette versus sermon. What’s the text? What is the point of the text? What is the purpose? In other words, what are people called to to know and feel and do as a result of interaction with that biblical truth?
I’d say you fit the sermon into the length that is required to accomplish that. It might make it shorter or it might be longer. But trying to fit into an artificial timeline, taking every passage and turning into a twenty five minute or in some cases, a 50 minute sermon every week, there’s an artificial-ness to that that I think probably mitigates against effectiveness.
What’s the point? What’s the purpose? How long does it take to make that point and achieve that purpose? To me, that’s really how long a sermon should be, and in some cases, it might be three minutes. In some cases, it might be, I shudder at the thought, three hours, but it might take that long.
So wisdom to you in communicating the Word in a clear and effective way.
God bless. Press on.