Timing Time in the Pulpit

As I continue to recover from a recent illness, I have decided to lead progressively more parts of the liturgy over the next few weeks.  This will probably be most noticeable with regard to my preaching.

When I was in seminary (way back when!) we were taught that the main focus of any Sunday service should be the sermon.  That being the case, clergy should not worry about the length of their sermons.  Fifteen minutes was thought to be way too short.  Twenty-five or thirty minutes should be standard.

I never bought into that.  The starting premise seemed wrong.  The sermon, I’ve always felt, should be one ingredient in the larger recipe that makes up a Sunday liturgy.  While it occupies a central place in our tradition, it is simply one avenue for encountering the divine.  The music, the prayers, the litanies–all of these elements are equally important avenues.

Still, I get that preaching is important.  The content and, far more importantly, the delivery sets the tone not only for the liturgy that day but the character of the church itself.  If a preacher is formal it says one thing.  Casual another.

But there’s still that question of length…

The Pew Research Foundation recently did a helpful survey on this.  They looked at 50,000 sermons shared online from various traditions and found that the median length of a sermon—get ready—is 37 minutes long!

What is even more interesting, I think, is when they broke this down by tradition.  The average Catholic sermon is 14 minutes.  The average Mainline Protestant sermon is 25 minutes.  The average historically black protestant sermon is 54 minutes and the average evangelical protestant sermon is 39 minutes.

I guess I’m more Catholic than I realized!

Not that anyone is holding a stopwatch to any of this (at least I hope they’re not!), but it does all boil down to the local setting.  At First Congregational Church, it would be out of character to run past 15 minutes.  Maybe that’s my influence, but I think you can only make your point in so many ways before people should rightly start jingling their car keys.

Amid my full return to the pulpit, I also remember learning a helpful tool for categorizing sermons.  It has to do with what you call them.  It goes like this: On a scale of increasing length, things progress from a Reflection to a Meditation to a Homily to a Sermon.

Consequently, that’s the path I’ve begun this past Sunday having shared a Reflection on New Member Sunday.  We’ll see what the next few weeks hold, then!

In the end, while length is a factor, it should always be more about the Holy Spirit and how it is moving in the person preparing the sermon.

I can promise you, though, that you will never have to sit through an hour long sermon here at FCC!

See you in church,

–Rev. Dominic