The question came to me when I discovered Peggy Noonan’s On Speaking Well at a $5 book table. The very first piece of advice from the most famous of President Ronald Reagan’s spreechwriters? “No speech should last more than 20 minutes.” I remember all the sermons I’ve heard—and delivered—that have been way longer than that. And I wonder if Noonan’s advice should apply to sermons too. Her rationale:
Reagan . . . knew twenty minutes is more than enough time to say the biggest, most important thing in the world. The Gettysburg Address went three minutes or so, the Sermon on the Mount hardly more. It is usually and paradoxically true that the more important the message, the less time required to say it. I would add that . . . television has probably affected how people receive information. They are used to fifteen- or eighteen-minute pieces on 60 Minutes. . . . They are used to twelve-minute segments within the arc of [a TV] drama. . . . They are used to commercials interrupting the flow of thought. They are not used to watching forty- and fifty- and sixty-minute presentations without a break, and there is no reason to believe they want to get used to it. So keep in mind what Hubert Humphrey’s wife is said to have advised him: “Darling, for a speech to be immortal it need not be interminable.”
I posted Noonan’s advice on a blog I’ve started, and several readers (some of them at my request) offered their reaction.
Ben Cachiaras quoted John Stott: “Sermonettes make Christianettes.”
An anonymous commenter said limiting sermons to 20 minutes is just another sign of the church capitulating to culture.
Joe Grana, who teaches preachers at Pacific Christian College, Fullerton, California, tells his students not to go over 25-30 minutes, and for funerals he suggests 12 minutes.
Carl Kuhl, the young church planter with Mosaic Christian Church, Elkridge, Maryland, said, “I never heard Ronald Reagan make a speech, so his advice doesn’t mean much to me.” But he hastens to add, “I’d much rather people leave Mosaic thinking, I wish he would’ve kept going than I thought he’d never stop!”
Maybe Mike Shannon, practical ministries professor at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University, best summed up the issue: “Every sermon should at least seem like 20 minutes.”
What about you? Are the sermons you hear—or preach—the right length?
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