How Long Is Just Right?

I’d like to answer a question offered in a comment a few days ago by Peter D:

“I have heard a couple times that people tune out after about 20 mins in hearing a speech or sermon. With that being said do you think that there are times we can force a text to be longer than it needs to be? It seems like most sermons I hear are bewteen the 45-and hour long mark. That being said do you feel that sometimes they might be more effective if they were shorter (still keeping the context in full view) or is there something internal that tells us they need to be so and so long?”

This is an important question for us all to think about.  Some sermons would be more effective if they were shorter, while some would always feel too long no matter how quickly they finished!  We have a tendency to simply preach to the standard length for our own context and personal comfort (our own more than the listener’s).  But it is not a bad idea to consider what would be most effective.

1. There is no “right length” of message, but there is an appropriate length for any specific context. Tomorrow I am preaching in my home church and I know it will need to be slightly shorter than usual.  If I go ten minutes longer, on this occasion, it would not be appropriate.  Not only does the specific church influence this, but so does the culture in which that church exists.

2. Listeners do not have shorter attention spans, but listeners struggle to concentrate beyond a very few minutes. Is that not contradictory?  Sort of.  So many harp on about today’s listener being unable to concentrate beyond 15 or 20 minutes – yet the movies of this generation are considerably longer than most were twenty or thirty years ago.  Actually though, listeners struggle to concentrate beyond 3-5 minutes at a time, so even a 15 or 20 minute sermon can easily be 10-15 minutes too long, unless . . .

3. The preacher needs to engage and re-engage the listener regularly in the message. Some speakers are engaging in content, manner, delivery, energy, empathy, etc. and listeners who regularly declare they simply aren’t able to concentrate beyond fifteen minutes, will listen fully engaged for an hour and then act surprised at how much time has passed!  Other speakers can make the briefest of devotional thoughts feel like the most tedious of hours.

4. Thus we can’t “blame” the listeners if the concensus is that our preaching is too long! Every speaker should do a self-evaluation, and then get some honest input from others, to determine areas of strength and weakness in respect to their ability to engage the focus and attention of the listeners.  These are weaknesses worth addressing, for without attention, there is no communication – at least not the kind you are trying to achieve.  Disinterested listeners are receiving a message, often one reinforcing negative associations between the Bible and words like “boring” and “irrelevant.”  What a tragedy that some who preach are, somewhat inadvertently, communicating the very opposite of what they intend!

5. Finally, I appreciate Don Sunukjian’s point about explanation and application ratios. If a passage requires lots of explanation, thus only leaving a short time for application, so be it.  But if a passage is relatively easy to understand, don’t pad the time with unnecessary explanation, instead use the time for lots and lots of application.  It is often the lack of application that undermines the effectiveness of our preaching.  More qualifiers are needed, but this post has gone on too long now!

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