Making a Case for 45-Minute Sermons
In the church that I serve as youth pastor, we regularly schedule a 45-minute time slot for the Sunday sermon. By some standards, this is normal. By many standards, this is very long. But there are only a handful of people in our congregation who object to that length of time. In fact, yesterday I preached a sermon at our church that was 1 hour and 1 minute long. I’d be the first to admit that it was too long, but not one person complained about it.
The Bible does not say how long sermons should be, but it does record many accounts of sermons being preached. Some appeared to be quite short, especially ones that were spontaneous, like Peter’s sermon at Pentecost or Stephen’s final words before martyrdom. Other sermons appeared to be wayyyy longer than an hour, such as Jesus’ sermons that ran so long he needed to miraculously feed the people, or Paul’s sermon in Troas that went on past midnight and caused some poor man to fall asleep and fall out a window!
I have no data to back up this claim, but I’m guessing that the average sermon length in the average church is somewhere around 30 minutes long. I have no qualms with that. But I also know that 30 minutes on a week-in, week-out basis would not cut it for me. Here are a few reasons I tend to both preach and support the preaching of 45-minute sermons.
1. Preaching is God’s ordained means of saving people and sanctifying them.
God desires to save sinners, and the way he intends for that to happen is through the sharing of the good news. Romans 10:14 and 17 says “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?…. So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The Holy Spirit anoints the faithful preaching of the Word and uses it to cause sinners to be born again.
The preaching of God’s Word is also a primary means of sanctification. Christians grow by hearing the Word preached, as Jesus affirmed when he said in John 17:17 “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” In this sense, what both believers and unbelievers desperately need is the truth to be declared to them for the betterment of their souls. John MacArthur remarks:
You wouldn’t withhold food from a starving man. Nor would you deny air to a drowning child. Frankly, that kind of monstrous behaviour is hard to imagine. But that’s effectively what many pastors and church leaders are guilty of today, as they withhold that which is vital to the spiritual lives of their people: God’s Word.
For this reason, I believe a significant portion of a Christian gathering ought to be dedicated to the preaching of the Word. It should not be a side-note. Nor should it take a back-seat to worship. Rather, truth is what fuels worship. So if we structure our gatherings to be skimpy on Word and heavy on worship, we are actually killing the worship that we intend to call forth. Worship is meant to be a truth-based exaltation of God, and if the hearing and meditating of truth is minimized, then so will be the genuineness and strength of our worship.
2. Good preaching doesn’t assume everyone is with you.
In a gathering of any size, there are going to be people coming from all sorts of backgrounds. You will have a mixture of believers, unbelievers, skeptics, long-time church goers, first-time church goers, young people, old people, intellectual people, emotional people, and so on. Therefore, the wise preacher will keep this in mind when he takes up the Word to preach it. He should understand that, the more that he assumes the people are with him, the more likely he is to leave a bunch of people behind and preach a sermon of minimal effectiveness.
This means that preaching is going to take a lot of variation and work and preparation. The preacher should not assume that people know what he means by “justification” or “walking with the Lord” or “receiving Christ as your Saviour”. He should not assume that the people present believe in the authority of the Word, or the goodness of God, or the oncoming judgment of man. There are a thousand factors at play, and while it is impossible to acquiesce to them all, we should to at least some. An explanation of terms, putting a text in context, or a brief overview of a subject (similar to a systematic theology) is sometimes a helpful or necessary thing.
Here is the reality of the world in which we live: less and less people are biblically literate. When it comes to the good Book, people simply have no idea what’s in there or how to make sense of it. This means that good preaching will be more than a declaration of truth. It will also be a systematic unfolding of it. Good preaching aims to build a Christian worldview. In order to do that, you need to deconstruct existing worldviews first in order to put new ones in place. You may need to dedicate 15 minutes to exposing the flaws of a evolutionary mindset before even touching a passage in Genesis. Or you will need to thoroughly explain what forgiveness is NOT before you say what it is. Again, this kind of thing has to be limited (otherwise it would go on forever), but regularly bringing it into sermons is a wise practice.
3. Good preaching anticipates objections and addresses them.
The epistle to the Romans is perhaps the Bible’s best example of anticipating objections and addressing them in advance. After stating a truth, Paul imagines the readers raising issue with the statement, and therefore aims to tackle it head on before going any further. A few examples from chapters 6-9:
- Romans 6:1-2 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!
- Romans 6:15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
- Romans 7:7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!
- Romans 7:13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!
- Romans 8:33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
- Romans 9:14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!
- Romans 9:19-20 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?
This overall pattern is a good one for preachers to follow. When we proclaim the truth of the Word, we should expect that many of the hearers will disagree. What a good preacher can do is try to anticipate what the most common objections will be, and then build a response to them into his sermon. This will take time to do properly, which means a longer sermon. But it also means that you are less likely to have people walk away thinking you are naive or deluded, or with issues that were left unaddressed.
4. Good preaching moves into the world of the Bible and back out again.
The Bible crosses both time and cultures, which means that it is impossible to simply put it forth into our modern, Western world without a little explanation. What’s this business with head coverings? Why should we be giving holy kisses? What’s the big deal about Jesus riding on a donkey?
Or, if you back it up into the Old Testament, things get even more complicated. Since when does God command the execution of disobedient children? What’s with all the slaughtering and burning of sheep? And why is everyone always talking about circumcision?
In order for people to get all that the Bible has to offer, we first need to take them into the world of the Bible and help them to experience it first hand. Our job as preachers is to use the human imagination to cross cultures and time, get the fullness of what’s going on, and then come back out into present-day reality and figure out how it affects us today. This cannot be done in 5 minutes. It’s going to take time. And, if done well, I believe it can be very interesting and powerful!
5. Good preaching teaches people how to read the Bible.
Preaching is like cooking: just as a chef whips up a meal to serve the people, so a preacher prepares a spiritual meal to feed to the sheep. This is perfectly fine, but it is my conviction that a good preacher can do more than give banquets every Sunday. He can also take his people into the kitchen and show them how he got from point A to point B.
If a preacher is concerned with his own vanity, he will aim to preach sermons that make the people look at him in awe and wonder, “How does he do that?” But we are not called to puff up our own image. We are called to build up the body of Christ. In humility, a preacher can make it his aim to not just teach the Bible but also teach people how to read the Bible for themselves. This is one benefit of expository preaching. Aptly named, expository preaching aims to take what a given text says and “expose” it for all to see. It is simply trying take what the Bible already says and draw it out. It is good for a pastor not just to make a good point in his sermon, but to show his people how to find it in the text. One of my goals, as much as I can, is to teach the Bible in such a way that when people look at a given passage they can say to themselves, “Ok, I see where he got that from.” In doing so, I am slowly equipping them to go home and do the same for themselves.
6. Good preaching applies the truth.
After all of the above is said and done, we still haven’t gotten to the place of application. What does a specific truth mean to my life? How does it affect me? If those questions are left unanswered by a sermon, the preacher has not completed his task. Truth demands a response. It is our job to unfold the truth as clearly as we can, and then call people to appropriate action. Sometimes this will require an illustration, a story, a personal account. These kind of things help to bring the reality home in a practical way. They are valuable tools when leveraged well, and so a certain amount of time for every sermon ought to be set aside for helping the people understand their responsibility to act in light of the Word they have heard.
Preach It Up!
If these 6 areas (and I suppose many others could be mentioned) are given proper attention, it should be easy to fill a 45-minute time slot. I almost always find myself struggling with what to leave on the cutting room floor rather than trying to fill up empty space. Granted, a good sermon is not mainly about length. It is mainly about content and Holy Spirit empowerment. But there is still a place for working on improved preaching, for more effective communication that strikes to the heart of those listening. I suppose that some people might not have the skill to preach for 45-minutes and have it not be painfully boring (I know I didn’t early on). But over time, as a preacher hones his craft, he ought to come to the place where people are blessed under his teaching ministry. Pray and labour to that end, for it really is a matter of life and death.