When All Is Said and Done...

What do Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Steve Jobs' “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” Stanford commencement speech and Winston Churchill's "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech all have in common? They were all delivered in less than 18 minutes! In fact, the Gettysburg Address took just over 2 minutes to deliver! Speeches that have lasting impact don't have to last forever to get the point across. Or as someone put it, "If you don’t strike oil in 18 minutes, stop boring." Notice these three simple factoids...

  • Fact One: The greatest sermon ever preached (The Sermon on the Mount) takes about 12 minutes 30 seconds to read out loud (or about 8 minutes if you talk like I do).
  • Fact Two: The average sermon today (according to one estimate) is about 45 minutes long.
  • Fact Three: The average preacher takes 3-4 times as long to preach as did Jesus himself. 

So if you can't strike oil in 18 minutes... An article in Christian Post suggests that preachers might ought to keep their sermons to below that 18-minute mark. Andy Stanley's book Communicating for a Change which suggests "every sermon should have one main idea" and that "many pastors are guilty of trying to fulfill the 40-45 minute sermon expectation by filling their sermons with content not essential to the topic." Well, having something to say and having to say something are two entirely different things.  Having to fill time because you are expected to fill time is never helpful.  But only 18 minutes?

I had a friend who quoted am older preacher as saying, “Sermonettes are for preacherettes.” To preach a sermon shorter than 45 minutes somehow shows a lack of seriousness or maturity or creativity. I wonder if this paraphrase from the Sermon on the Mount is too much off the mark—

And when you preach, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matt 6:7, sort of) 

General attention span and audience expectation will vary from place to place. Paul evidently out-preached one brother’s attention span, and when he fell asleep and fell out a window, Paul revived him and went on with the revival!  Someone has observed that “When all is said and done, there is a lot more that is said than is done." That's really the point isn't it, not how long we preach or don't preach.  It is a lot easier to talk about discipleship than it is to live as disciples. Maybe in church and in our lives we need to say less and do more?

So how long are my sermons?  Well, Steve Job’s speech at Stanford was about 14 minutes; Churchill's greatest speech was about 12 minutes. My sermons usually combine a Jobs and a Churchill.