I had an interesting conversation yesterday that reminded me this question needs to be addressed. I find many pastors, especially younger ones, are regularly wrestling with this question. They should be. The pressure to answer can be self-imposed, or forced by those in your church who complain your sermons are too long. The problem is there does not seem to be one right answer. The answer to this question largely depends on the kind of pastor you are, the quality of preacher you are, and the kind of congregation you serve. In light of this, here are a few principles that might help you answer this question in your particular context.
A pastor should determine the length of a sermon…
1) Based on where your people are, not where you think they should be. We should always challenge our folks to grow. Yet, I hear of many pastors preaching sermons at a length they know is overwhelming the majority of their congregation. The reason… to push their people to be able to listen to God’s Word for the amount of time the pastor thinks they should be able to listen. Push your congregation to grow, but not at the expense of exasperating them by trying to make them something they are not. God must do that work. Preach faithfully, but meet them where they are. Let God mature them to that place as your preaching causes them to long for more of it.
2) Based on how good and seasoned a preacher you are. I fear so many of us who love the Puritans read that they preached 1 – 2 hour sermons and think, “Hey, I want to be like the Puritans.” The problem is many men who want to preach an hour are not good enough or seasoned enough to preach an hour… yet. I realize we are treading in subjective waters.
The point here is the necessity to evaluate honestly how good and seasoned you are as a preacher. If you are in your first year of pastoring a church, your sermons should probably be shorter, more succinct, and simpler than you probably think or want. If you are not able honestly to evaluate your preaching gifts and you do not allow others to speak into your life to assess them with you, I believe you will have a difficult time determining what length your sermons should be that is most helpful to your congregation.
3) To leave your people longing for more, not less. Every preacher has been there. We can sense we are losing our people and we still have 10 minutes left in the sermon. We want to make sure we give adequate time to the preaching of God’s Word, but this principle to leave them longing for a bit more is a good goal to pursue. I would rather leave my people in a place where they wanted just a little more, versus exasperating them with too much. Do not underestimate the discouragement that comes from someone who honestly desires a nice big glass of water and instead got the fire hose jammed down their throat.
Remember, these are just principles. Do not over analyze them. Just take them and apply them in your context with your level of preaching experience. Lastly, remember you are a shepherd of these people to whom you are preaching. Think like a shepherd as you determine the length of your sermons. Push them to grow. Nurture them where they are now. Then, trust that God will use his Word and your efforts to find that balance every pastor should seek.