Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon Length: Preachers and Listeners Weigh In

“Hey, Preachers—work on shortening your sermons. I’ve learned that if you can’t say it in an hour-and-a-half, you can’t say it at all.”

That satirical comment, posted on Facebook recently by a preacher friend, started an interesting discussion between preachers and congregants about the ideal length of a sermon.

As it turned out, congregants and preachers who posted replies differed on the optimum length for a sermon.

People in the pew thought they should be shorter, no more than ten to 15 minutes, while preachers argued for 25 minutes or more.

Said one pew-sitter: “I always agreed with the sentiment that the mind cannot understand what the backside cannot withstand.”

“About 15 minutes, after that most preachers are just listening to their own voices,” said another.

“Thirty minutes and the mind wanders,” added a third.

Preachers had a different take.

One noted that preaching 20-25 minutes is normal for him, but there are weeks when he goes 30. Another said he regularly preaches for 25. And praise was given to a third preacher, who can go for 55 minutes.

The exchange reminded me of a statement issued by the Vatican in 2010 encouraging Roman Catholic priests to keep their homilies to eight minutes.

Why only that long? According to Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, that’s as long as people can pay attention these days.

His advice was welcomed by Father Andrew Headon, vice-rector of the Venerable English College in Rome, which trains men for the priesthood.

"There is a saying among clergy," he said in an article in The Guardian. "If you haven't struck oil in seven minutes, stop boring."

All of this made me wonder what some of my preacher friends feel about sermon length.

“Every congregation is a micro-culture,” says Michael Wilson of Charleswood United Church, suggesting it is difficult to come up with an ideal sermon length for every church.

Most preachers, he said, have an hour of total service time to work with. “If there are a variety of other things in the service that day, then the sermon ought to be shorter in order to stay within the congregation’s expectation of length of service.”

Wilson, whose sermons run anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes, adds that preachers “need to be self-aware concerning their capacity to retain attention while carrying out their responsibility to teach, move, and delight.”

Rather than impose a time limit, he says, “it would be best for preachers to hear what their congregations want from them.”

For Jamie Howison of St. Benedict’s Table here in Winnipeg, in the Anglican tradition “the sermon is part of ‘the Proclamation of the Word,” which also includes the reading of scripture, the recitation of the creed, prayers of the people, confession and absolution, and the sharing of the Peace.

An overly long sermon, he says “detracts from the flow of the movement toward the sharing of communion, so my sermons are generally in the 12 to 15 minute range.”

As for the suggestion that sermons be no longer than eight minutes, Howison fears that “risks erring in the other direction, namely to devalue the place of the sermon and to underestimate the congregation’s ability to hear and absorb sermons of substance.”

Jeff Loach, pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Nobleton, Ont., also feels eight minutes is too short.

“My preaching goes as long as it needs to, which varies from 15 to 35 minutes,” he says. “The length of the message needs to reflect what the Holy Spirit wants to say through the preacher about the text at hand.”

Marvin Dyck is pastor of Winnipeg’s Crossroads Community Church. He notes that some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the city feature sermons that run from 30 to 50 minutes.

He doesn’t go that long—30 minutes is his maximum. But he agrees that preachers today have to “plan for short attention spans.”

So what’s the ideal length for a sermon? I don’t have an answer, although I lean towards shorter being better. All I know is that whatever the length, preaching isn’t an easy task in these days of shorter attention spans.

I’m glad I don’t have to do it.

From the Sept. 10 Winnipeg Free Press.

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