How Long Should a Sermon Be?

By Mark A. Taylor

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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  1. Mike
    June 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Depends on the talent of the preacher, the amount and quality of preparation he has put in, and some other factors, when thinking about how long he can hold the congregation’s attention. Thinking about the example regarding the news and tv shows… it is primarily true. However, movies commonly last 90-120 minutes. In order to hold attention for longer periods of time, they have to be produced much better than the shorter segments of television.

    A steak takes longer to chew than a White Castle burger. In preaching, some topics may be covered rather quickly, others make take more time. Some passages are straight forward, others require more study. We wouldn’t want to rob the congregation of important topics and Bible passages because they might put us over a time limit.

    My ideal standard would be more like this: prepare well, deliver to the best of your ability, preach the message, and when you are done stop talking.

  2. June 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    There are all sorts of opinions on the length of sermons. In “Rediscovering Expository Preaching” (Word Publishing 1992), John MacArthur makes two statements on sermon length. “As long as it takes to cover the passage adequately!” Then “I am convinced that biblical exposition requires at least forty minutes. Less than this just is not sufficient to probe the text deeply.”

    Two important factors in the length of a sermon are the nature of the message and the personality of the preacher. Some messages require greater time for development of the exposition. Some preachers/speakers are better equipped to maintain the attention of those listening than others. We cannot control the abilities that God has given some that others do not possess.

    Perhaps a preacher I heard at a preaching workshop some years ago (sorry, I cannot remember the individual’s name) said it best. “Before getting into the pulpit, be sure you are ‘read up and prayed up.’ Once there, ‘speak up and shut up.'”

  3. vbaby
    June 7, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Most pastors I know that go over 30 min either get off the original topic or repeat themselves several times before the sermon is over. Whoever said sermonettes make christianettes clearly does not understand where sermons are supposed to fit in the OVERALL development of a Christian’s spiritual growth. A sermon, no matter how long or short, will never replace the importance of daily devotion and prayer with God. That is the true path to spiritual development, CONTINUALLY feeding your inner man with the Word. Too many Christians are living as Christianettes because they rely on a Pastor’s sermon (which they usually forget in a day or two) as their main source of spiritual food. Even if a pastor spoke a 3 hour sermon, it would only be an appetizer to the feast of daily study Christians need to committ to maintain the best spiritual diet. And pastors need to stop comparing sermons to movies/TV. Movies/TV are made for the purpose of ENTERTAINMENT and are created with that in mind. Sermons, like lectures, are made for EDUCATION and are usually far less engaging because they utilize only the audio aspects with very little visual or sensory stimulation that movies use. Its only natural that people lose interest after a certain time frame for most sermons unless they are incredibly engaging or humorous.

  4. Dorothy Mackey
    July 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    As I get the Standards on Saturday evening, I haven’t read all the articles completely, but I appreciate your wide range of interests in article selections. I came from the largest Christian Church in Canton, Ohio, and we ministered in some small, plus medium size churches. It is not all the size, but the people in the church that seems to be very important for reaching other people for Christ.

    I was especially interested in “How Long Should a Sermon Be?” Here again it is a matter of training, interest, and custom. We knew a minister in Florida who could say more in 15 minutes than some others who take an hour to say it. Stories can take so much time and often they would be considered opinions. More and more I am starting to think a service of 50 minutes including singing, greetings, sermon and very short in announcements, is adequate. Even 40 minutes can often seem better. I think the all-day meetings got people accustomed to the hour sermon length, and they are mostly in days gone by as we live in a very full and active society.

    Thank you for all you do and your dedication in publication.
    —Dorothy Mackey, Columbus, OH.

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