How long should pastors preach? I’m sure there are many answers you could give to this question. But how long do pastors preach? That’s a question more easily answered. Recently, Thom Rainer conducted an informal Twitter poll and blogged about his findings. Others have also weighed in on the discussion. Apparently the admittedly non-scientific average length of sermons in conservative evangelical churches is somewhere from 26 to 45 minutes. Mine usually fall within that range, so I guess I’m…average.
However, the question that was not asked was “How long is the entire worship service?” (Anyone with a bunch of Twitter followers want to try that?) The reason I bring this up is because I often find myself working with the other participants in the worship service to make sure there is “room” for a 26-45 minute sermon. Why? Well, it’s because of a conversation I had six years ago with a member of our church.
A Conversation and a Reaction
I remembered that about six years ago, I wrote out a little piece about something one of our church members said to me. I never intended to publish it, just get it off my chest, so to speak. A couple of days ago, I re-read it and was surprised by a few things. First, there is a little ministerial immaturity evident – I had been pastoring for almost exactly 14 months at that time. Second, my views on things like church and worship and even some theology have become a little more nuanced (read: biblical) since then. Third, I still feel as strongly about the substance of the conversation as I did when I wrote it, if not more so! I’m wondering if anyone else does, so here I offer that “meditation,” written in the hours following the conversation. With the exception of a single character, I offer it here in its unedited form:
“One hour is long enough…”
So said a church member to me as she made a “suggestion.” True, I have invited people to make suggestions, and I think she meant no ill. So I do not wish to spurn her or, worse yet, give the impression that I will not listen to suggestions: I am only a man, and I need the wisdom that God has given to various parts of the Body. Yet, I question the wisdom of this particular suggestion.
In full, she said that I should not cut back one word from the sermon but that we could cut out some songs. This would give me time to preach and still get out “on time.” (What “on time” means to a worship gathering of the local Body of Christ, I have yet to figure out.) People expect to be out by 12, she says, and anything longer than an hour is rough on the nursery workers. In short, one hour is long enough to sit in church.
Certainly, I can see some wisdom in the suggestion: preaching is primary, nursery workers deserve some consideration, and people probably deserve some clue as to when they might eat lunch or dinner.
So, I parried a little with her. I suggested we sing faster and wipe out the announcements. I also suggested bumping up the starting time of our morning service so that if we went past an hour, it still would not yet be noon. But this only brought out her main idea: one hour is long enough. Her method of solving the problem is to nix much of the singing. (And in true church member fashion she added that she thinks many others feel this way.) I summarize her position thus: she doesn’t want to lose the preaching, but she only wants to be at church for an hour.
My ego admires her priorities, but my spirit cringes at the heart of the matter. Out of one hundred sixty-eight hours, we are willing to give God one. Maybe we are willing to give Him two or three, but only one at a time. Is that all of God we can stand? Or are we so incredibly busy that to carve Him out five or ten extra minutes would severely disrupt our schedules? From a spiritual standpoint, I shudder to think what this means for our lives, families, and churches. Christians are apostatizing faster than they are being discipled, and so how could one hour be long enough?
From a historical standpoint, I cannot fathom such an attitude. In the days of the Great Awakening and in the churches of the Puritans, sermons could last upwards of two hours. In Acts, Paul preached all night long. In Nehemiah, people stood for eight hours to hear God’s Word preached. During the times of holy convocation, Israelites would spend entire days in worship. And even today, some large, growing churches feature pastors that preach well over an hour. So clearly, in the larger community of faith, one hour is not long enough.
From God’s standpoint, what can we say? Certainly a Sovereign Lord oversees all that we do in our worship service. But can we ever say that God might not do something miraculous at 12:02?
Six Years Later
Like I said, this is where I was six years ago and a little worked up. We might quibble about some of the details, and I might agree with you. But what do you think? What should a worship service be? How long should it last? What have you experienced in the past that you liked? Disliked? How does your church do it?