Rotating Header Image

how long should an expositional sermon be? – lynne baab

I’m having a conversation with a friend who I will call Ben. I’m telling him about my heritage of hearing and giving sermons. The church where I worked as an associate minister for seven years, and where I preached a total of about 50 sermons, has a strong tradition of expositional preaching. Sermons there were 25 to 30 minutes long.

During and after my years as an associate minister, I did a lot of guest preaching. The first thing I do when asked to guest preach is find out how long the typical sermons are. I prepare a sermon of the length the congregation is used to. I tell Ben about this.

Ben talks about his conviction that the church in New Zealand desperately needs expositional preaching. I agree with him. Then he talks about his preaching heritage. In his mind, expositional sermons need to be 45 minutes long to adequately cover a passage. That’s what he has experienced, and that’s what he has done as a preacher.

I tell him about my observation that people in congregations get used to sermons of a certain length. When a preacher goes over that expected length, people turn off. I have no desire, I tell Ben, to keep talking when people aren’t listening.

Ben says that preachers need to stretch the listeners. If a sermon is deeply engaged with the biblical passage, he believes listeners will grow to appreciate the spiritual food they are receiving in the sermon, and they will make peace with sermons of 45 minutes.

I tell Ben the sermons in the church where I worked were outstanding expositional sermons. They lasted only 25 to 30 minutes. He says he thinks it’s not possible to adequately cover a passage in anything less than 45 minutes.

I am adamant that I don’t want listeners to be frustrated by a sermon that feels too long to them. He is adamant that good expositional preaching helps listeners pay attention to sermons that are longer than they are used to.

Neither of us convinces the other. At all. At the end of the conversation, we agree to disagree. We affirm that we are still friends, we give each other a hug, and I walk way wondering what I could have said to change his mind!

I think of my all-time favorite sermon that I’ve preached several times in various churches. This passage is Mark 2:1-12 about the man who is lowered through the roof by his friends and healed by Jesus. In the sermon, I tell the story three times using three different points of view. I describe the events from the point of view of an onlooker, one of the friends, and the man being carried. The main point of the sermon is that sometimes we get to watch Jesus at work in other people’s lives (like the onlooker), sometimes we get to facilitate Jesus’ work in others’ lives (like the people carrying the man), and sometimes people help us meet Jesus (like the man being carried). We need to be open to all three and pay attention to what God is doing in various situations.

I believe that sermon of mine is an expositional sermon, and I’ve preached it in a 15-minute version in churches where the people are accustomed to 15 minute sermons. I’ve stretched it to 25 minutes by giving more detail in each of the three retellings of the story and by giving more examples of how to be open to which role God is calling us to play.

What do you think? Is there an optimal length for expositional sermons? Can a 15 minute sermon be expositional? Is it important to stretch listeners by preaching sermons that are longer than they are used to, or is it important to preach the length of time they are used to so they will listen well?

11 Comments

  1. Kristin Jack says:

    Hi Lynne,

    great questions! In my experience the average person can only maintain listening-concentration for 20 mins max – exceptional people can hold it for longer, & others have already faded out at 15. Last week we had a visiting speaker who was really good, & I noticed myself hanging on her every word…till about the 15 min mark…after which I found myself having to really fight to stay engaged. I’ve heard many, many messages which would have been wonderful if they had stopped at the 15 or 20 min mark, but which had really reduced impact by being pushed too far, past the listeners’ peak attention spans. Of course, if you have an amazing gift of oration, say in the Martin Luther King category, you can go longer. But sadly most of us who preach don’t, & so we need to be more realistic about how long people can listen to us.

  2. Nancy Barnard Starr says:

    Lynne, I’ve heard wonderful sermons that were brief, but full. My best, few in number, have been 1.5 -2 pages long, or about 400-500 words. I like things dramatic, poetic and distilled; I aim close to the heart, where I think people live. Lately I’ve been writing fresh prayers for a downtown church: new words, quietly honouring the rhythms of traditional Anglican prayers. It takes work to whittle things down, and yet be open to the Spirit’s nudge. A novelist and writing teacher at Iowa used to tell us, “If you can take a word out, it’s a victory.” Possibly.

    I’ve been told by friends and listeners my style is compact and poetic; I make people work for the words and imagine the world differently, described. I haven’t preached lately, been putting my words into prayers for an evangelical city congregation in Anglican tradition largely at the afternoon service.

  3. Roger Driver-Burgess says:

    Hi, Lynne
    I’ve heard sermons of over 40 minutes that were excellent and had me engaged continuously. But they are were exceptional preachers, and I’m somebody who is well used to concentrated listening for extended periods of time.
    Most often, when a preacher goes over the 20-minute mark, they have failed to prepare well, and are waffling around a swamp of unconnected observations, anecdotes, references, and admonishments without anything like a map or a goal. I much prefer the average preacher to limit themselves to 20 minutes max, forcing them to focus on the best and most important parts of their material.

  4. Carol Grant says:

    Hi Lynne,
    Preaching is so varied in different cultures. I discovered that 40-45 minutes in Jamaica was the expected length wherever I went. It was a shock after my usual 15-20 minutes. But what made the experience so different for me were the varied responses from the people during the sermon. I related the scriptures to their everyday experiences which they found astonishing. I had never had young people dance in the aisle in response, snatches of song, outbursts of clapping and groans of agreement in NZ! The services were two hours long so the sermon slot fitted into this timeframe. But I am curious why so many preachers have become allergic to preaching from the pulpit? It saddens me and I believe we are losing something important as preachers.

  5. Lynne Baab says:

    Kristin, Nancy, Roger and Carol, thanks so much for your replies. It was interesting to hear your responses. Happy preaching!

  6. Patrik Frank says:

    Hi Lynne,
    that certainly is a fascinating question. Most of my sermons are expositional and I have preached such sermons of 15-40 mins. The time largely depended on what the congregation was used to/expected and on the occasion. If a service includes communion or some special event, the sermon usually is briefer.
    Indeed, there is a certain problem with asking people to listen to a continuous monologue for more than 15 or 20 mins (which is why there is a saying in Germany that says “You can preach about (über) anything except over (über) 20 minutes”).
    However I do think it strongly depends on what people are used to and how well the content is presented. Not meaning to brag, but in my current congregation where I usually preach about 3 sermons of some 25 mins a month since 2 years ago, I have a parishioner who sometimes tells me (particularly after we had guest-preachers) that she is so grateful for my sermons. With other preachers she often notices her thoughts wandering off, when I preach she is just too fascinated by what is offered that she just stays with me.
    So: Can a decent expositional sermon be under 15 mins? Yes! Can it be longer than 20 mins? That would probably have to depend on what the congregation is used to and on the preacher’s ability to engage people over a longer time.

  7. Lynne, what a great question. As an example of the extent to which profundity and brevity can be joined, I recall vividly my regular experience (from roughly 2013-2016) of 7am Catholic Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral en route to Carey Baptist from the shore. I couldn’t partake in the Eucharist sadly, but came to adore the beauty and simplicity of the liturgy, including one “coughing priest” who had the impeccable ability to consistently deliver what I have called the 5-sentence homily, of which I give an illustrative example:

    (Gospel reading and acclamation/response)
    “Here is a first sentence linking the Gospel reading with a crucial issue.”
    “Here is a second sentence drawing the Gospel reading into conversation with at least one of the other scripture readings for the day.”
    “Here is a third sentence establishing the main point with urgency and clarity.”
    “Here is a fourth sentence reinforcing that urgency with a personal challenge.”
    “Here is a fifth and final sentence drawing the homily to a fitting and memorable missional finish.”
    (Then walks to Table to begin Eucharistic celebration)

    1. Lynne Baab says:

      Dale, I got a smile from your description of the specifics of the 5 sentence homily. That priest definitely “lingered in the text.” I bet the people who attended mass when he led it went home with things to think about, and that those things to think about came directly from the Bible passage. Thanks for that illustration.

      1. Lynne Baab says:

        Maybe I need to clarify that I view “lingering in the text” to be the major criterion of an expositional sermon, and that preacher definitely didn’t linger for a long time, but the majority of his sentences, if not all of them, focused on the passage.

  8. Lynne Baab says:

    Maybe I need to clarify that I view “lingering in the text” to be the major criterion of an expositional sermon, and that preacher definitely didn’t linger for a long time, but the majority of his sentences, if not all of them, focused on the passage.

    1. Amen to that. The question of “how long should the sermon (event) be” is one thing, and probably is guided by the expectations and conscience of the particular congregation/context… and the question of “how long should the preparation for the sermon be” is another, and probably varies by the gifts and personality of the preacher. I recall a guideline of Piper that was (I think) an hour prep for every minute preached (for example 30 hours for a 30 minute sermon)… Not sure I like that as an absolute rule, but an interesting example 😉

Leave a Reply to Patrik Frank Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *