How can a good thing be too long?

Michael DuduitMichael Duduit, Preaching

Preacher and Pulpit

Back in my graduate school days at Florida State University, there were times when a crowd would stand in the rain for more than three hours, yelling and cheering, caught up in the excitement of a Saturday night football game. (Please note, this was back when FSU played actual collegiate-level football.) I don’t recall anyone insisting that it was necessary to reduce college football games to two 15-minute halves because people lose interest.

Media commentators regularly comment on how NFL games are getting too long, with the average game length now standing at three hours and 12 minutes. Of course, the official game length is 60 minutes, and the actual time the ball is in play is about 11 to 12 minutes, but who would want to do without all those commercial time outs and inevitable video replays? Nevertheless, people still line up to pay absurd prices to attend NFL games – this year, the average price for a NFL ticket is $391, which is a further reminder of why I don’t attend a lot of NFL games.

In other words, if we enjoy something we don’t mind it running long. So tell that to the Pope.

I read that Pope Francis recently told a group of priests in Slovokia that they should preach shorter sermons. “No homilies longer than 10 minutes!” said the Bishop of Rome. “A homily shouldn’t last longer than 10 minutes. People lose interest.”

Ten minutes? As a Baptist preacher who listens to a lot of other preachers, I readily acknowledge that most of us can’t clear our throats in ten minutes. Ten minutes is about the length of a good introduction. Most of the folks in my congregation take about eight minutes just to find the sermon’s scripture text in their newly-digital Bibles.

I grew up with a pastor who regularly preached for 45 to 55 minutes, but none of us minded because he was such a compelling communicator. I’ve heard other preachers who were long past their expiration date after 15 minutes. It’s not how long you go; it’s what you do with the time.

Nevertheless, here are some handy suggestions for reducing the length of sermons:

  • Cut out those pesky video replays when you’ve been flagged for faulty exegesis.
  • Eliminate those clever anecdotes about the latest cute thing your kid (or grandkid) did that you are sure everyone in the congregation is dying to hear about.
  • Cut out that 15-minute set of Powerpoint slides offering an intensive study of Mesopotamian agriculture.
  • Talk faster. 

I suppose some good advice on the topic comes from HB Charles, who says, “The goal should be to preach long enough to faithfully treat the text and short enough to effectively communicate to the congregation.”

Meanwhile, somebody should invite Pope Francis to an NFL game.