Setting your Sermon Length

Setting your Sermon Length is a helpful article on how to calculate how long your sermon will last as a best guess.

Why calculating your sermon’s length is necessary

When Christian people come and listen to sermons every week, they get accustomed to whatever the preachers at their church does, that is, or they find after church. There are some pointers that are very important and little attention is given to them by most preachers.

The first pointer is to prepare what you are going to say, and say only what you have prepared.

I have preached every week for over 30 years (closer to 40 now), and every time I have regretted something I have said in a sermon it has always been impromptu (not in my notes). If the Holy Spirit can inspire you at the moment of speaking, He can also inspire you in making your sermon notes. Stick to what you have written. My rule of thumb is that I always go off notes when I say something and from the look on people’s faces they didn’t understand what I said. That is usually because I used a theological word that I know but my people don’t know. I explain it and get back on track.

The second pointer is use an outline.

There are different attitudes about outlines. Some preachers use outlines but don’t let the listen know what the outline is. I am generally against that. Other people jot 3-5 points down on a piece of paper while entering the church, and that is it. I am definitely against that. The prophets searched the Scriptures and definitely were studious preachers, and we should be also.

Some preachers have an outline and share it during the sermon with their listeners. First of all, repeat and emphasize the principle points and the theme or topic of the sermon. By all means, repeat every verse reference at least three times before reading it. Otherwise your people will not get there. If you don’t want them flipping their Bibles during your sermon, then give the book only, read the verse, and then the complete reference. ALWAYS check your references so that you have the right reference before you get into the pulpit.

The third pointer is to count the elements and calculate the time.

Basically, the introduction and conclusion are elements. The topic or thesis of your sermon is another one. Each major and minor point of your sermon are elements. Every verse is an element. And illustrations count for 2 to 5 elements. Go to one of your old sermons which is recorded. Count the elements, and then listen to the sermon and watch the clock. How long does it take you to read a verse, deal with a point, introduction, etc. A good estimate is 2 minutes.

If your analyze a new sermon according to this calculation method, and multiply it by 2, you should have the time of your sermon. Of course, you can practice preach it and see actually how long it takes, and for newer preachers, I would recommend to practice preach a sermon one or two times before getting up to give it.

If you look at a sermon disaster, one that lasted over an hour, take the notes and count the elements, times 2. You usually will find one of two problems, 1) you got off track, off your sermon notes, and wasted a lot of time on that. Or 2) you have more than 30 elements to deal with. This is not rocket science here. You just are gauging how long it takes for your to deal with a point. A long explication of a point may be given 5 or more elements of time. But you can get pretty close to estimating the length of a sermon by using this method.

What to do if my sermon is too long?

This is a real problem for some preachers. Why worry about it? Because your people will be turned off by your sermons. When a young preacher gets up and preaches 20 minutes and then says, “point number 2, (I have 30 points in this sermon today),” a lot of people will leave the sermon. Their bodies are still present with you,  but their minds are gone thinking about something else.

Follow some general rules (you can make exceptions, but it should be infrequently and because of a good reason).

#1 Never have more than 5 or so main points.

As the main points number goes up, the subpoints under each main point should go down. (20 to 25 elements in a sermon is usually a good goal for a sermon of about 40 to 45 minutes). Remember, to get more elements in a sermon, you have to talk faster and deal less with other points or skim the entire sermon. People don’t get anything when you skim or run quickly over your points. Consider pausing in your sermon on very important points. People need time to assimilate what you say if your words are going to impress them with the truth of Scripture. Pausing in a sermon for emphasis on an extremely important point is a technique few pastors seem to find.

#2 While studying for your sermon, find every verse in the Bible that would support that point or subpoint.

In the final outline notes, use only the best 1 or 2 Scriptures for the point. You do not need to list 4 or 8 verses. Your people are not writing them down, and hearing references without reading, studying, and meditating on them doesn’t really communicate anything spiritual to your people.

#3 Cut out all jokes and similar filler material.

Christ nor any biblical preacher every related something like a joke in a sermon that is recorded in Scripture. There is probably a divine reason for that. It belittles the work we are trying to do in the pulpit.

#4 Make every element keenly sharp. Make it do what it is supposed to do without wordiness.

The thesis or proposition of your sermon should be accurately and pointedly stated. Each point and subpoint should likewise be clear and short. The clearer, more concise, and more carefully crafted each element of your sermon is, the faster it will go.

#5 Gauge accurately how much you bite off to chew in this sermon.

When a preacher wants to deal with salvation in each and every book of the Bible, that is too much for one sermon. A year long series would be more appropriate. You need enough meat to make your people satisfied, and not so much filler stuff as to confuse and bore them.

#6 Work on clarity and being logical in all points of your sermon.

So many times in sermons, the sermon is just bad because even though the preacher is dealing with scriptural points, he is confusing, does explain himself very well, or is just boring. That is sad to say about a preacher, but sometimes it is true.

I once preached through the book of Isaiah. About chapter 44, I changed the series to something else. My people in those sermons got very bored, stopped coming, and stopping paying attention during the sermon. Maybe I was not interesting enough for them. But that is the ability or lack of ability for each preacher. You need to evaluate yourself with God guiding you.

Setting your Sermon Length

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Pastor David Cox is a missionary. See my ministry updates here.