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On sermonizing

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William Crawley | 15:41 UK time, Friday, 12 March 2010

calvins-pulpit-in-st-pierre-cathedral.jpgHow long is long enough when it comes to a sermon? That rather depends on who is doing the preaching. In many evangelical churches, the average sermon runs to 25 minutes. I reckon the average Church of England vicar pitches for 12-15 minutes. But what about a sermon lasting 8 minutes?

That's the proposed maximum duration of a homily during worship recommended by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the Vatican's secretary general of the Synod of Bishops. In a new book, he argues that homilies should be short because most churchgoers have a short attention span. He also suggests that preachers should work from an outline, and avoid reading their sermons from full scripts, to encourage better eye-contact.

The sermon, when respected as a communicative form, can still be a very powerful means to reach large numbers of people. When the preacher is good, 8 minutes will seem too short. When the preacher is bad, 8 minutes may feel like an eternity. I'd like to put together a list of 10 homiletical commandments: the do's and don'ts of preaching today. Leave a suggestion below. Here's a "sermon" to inspire your list (and be warned: this includes some strong language).

Picture: The pulpit used by the Protestant Reformer John Calvin in St Pierre Cathedral, Geneva.


  • Comment number 1.

    Ah, how much more I might have enjoyed church had the Archbishop's recommendations been heeded by some of the congregations I went to, where sermons regularly went to 40 minutes, 45 minutes and maybe even an hour. How unbelievably foolish.

  • Comment number 2.

    It seems to me that those in the Catholic Church are in no position to preach to anyone right now. In fact it is more likely that they are in a position to be preached to....by a judge just prior to handing down prison sentences.

    Sinner save thyself first. How about a full public confession Pope Benedict? It won't absolve you of your crimes in the eyes of the law but by your Church's teaching it will absolve you of your sins in the eyes of your god...or will it?

  • Comment number 3.

    Lower! Lower!

  • Comment number 4.

    Suggestion (1)

    One sermon a month is probably enough, seriously. It would ease the pressure on preachers, and it might force the congregation to actually speak to one another, figure out the implications of the words, and stuff. Or just give us time to drink coffee, or walk, or think! You know, like, be normal.

  • Comment number 5.

    As long as the mass remains the central point of Roman Catholic doctrine, the place of the sermon (long or otherwise) will be immaterial in Roman Catholicism.

  • Comment number 6.

    The last sermon I heard was in 1996 (the last time I was in a religious house of worship.) Someone twisted my arm to go with them and take a long drive to a ceremony called a "bat mitzvoh" for an old neighbor's daughter who lived there, a ceremony which as far as I can tell was invented as a profit maker by a conspiracy of rabbis and the food catering industry. I heard a long sermon about what "Kosher" was all about. Like I really cared to know. Anyway, after it was all over I took out a pocket camera and snapped a few pictures. Well, I got another private sermon from my neighbor about how I had desecrated "the sanctuary." Had I known how easy it was and what I was going to have to sit through...that would have been the first thing I'd have done :-)

    BTW, if you are ever up in Providence Rhode Island and need to be sanctified (or whatever the Jewish equivalent is of being absolved of sins by confession to a priest) in a sanctified synagogue, don't hold out much hope of getting absolution there, not after what I've done :-)

    Do they have some kind of chant for resanctifying synagogues, does anyone know? Can they undo the desecration or is is a permanent curse? If it is, this could open up a whole new line of business for me. "Have flash camera will travel, wire Palladin, San Francisco." (I've never heard of anyone saying the same about taking photos in a church or even in a Mosque.)

  • Comment number 7.


    "Lower! Lower!"


    Moo! Moo! :-)

  • Comment number 8.

    A Texas oilman once said to a Preacher after hearing his sermon ... "if you don't strike oil after 20 minutes stop boring".

  • Comment number 9.


    ...or, still have the sermon every Sunday, but still leave time for all the stuff you mention. In other words don't place the time of the meeting ridiculously close to dinner time and remind those who meet not to be ruled by their stomach. I'm afraid that's a problem with some churches I'm familiar with.

  • Comment number 10.

    Saw the good archbishop in action a few Sundays ago. He read from a prepared text and for well over twenty minutes.

    Have been throwing out my own 8 minute gems for fifteen years now but to no obvious effect.

    A good speaker leaves at least some of his hearers wishing he had said something more.

  • Comment number 11.

    I used to really enjoy my old minister's sermons, when I was still a theistic Christian, and he was still a country minister. He would always have them enlivened with a bit of history or archaeology or an angle on something modern; they were original, funny, insightful. Of course, this made him a few enemies in the Kirk Session who thought he should "preach the gospel" (whatever that is, in the eyes of those knuckle-dragging clowns), and over time he decided to head for greener pastures in the world of academia (where he has done very well, if you can even admit Theology to the world of academia - debatable point). Indeed, there are times when I think that his sermons opened the door to my own questioning of my theistic assumptions, and my current atheism. I'm not sure whether he'd be pleased to know that, but I'm thankful. I could have listened to him for hours - still could. But sermons really ought to have time for questions & comments from the audience - THAT is what is missing.

    Incidentally, I do hate the word "homily" - it just reeks of obsequious patronising garbage. Maybe that makes it a good word for some people's sermons (and I have sat through some real stinkers).


  • Comment number 12.

    Mr. Heliopolitan

    You know, there are times that I really like what you have to say, actually I quite like a lot of what you have to say, even when we disagree.

    And you're quite correct here. The ministers who are taking flack for 'not preaching the gospel', are probably the ministers who are doing the best job. And when you say, "But sermons really ought to have time for questions & comments from the audience - THAT is what is missing." spot on again. It's part of what I meant when I spoke of people communicating with one another. It's one of the reasons I'm really serious about one sermon a month. There simply isn't time on a average week to think anything much through.

    Upsidedownworld. Yes, we could move the time of a service back, start earlier, but part of my problem is that there are simply too many words stacked up over a few months to really think them through properly, never mind people doing it together, or get round to doing something with the words we hear.

    And a second suggestion, a don't this time. Don't preach sentiment; no one actually lives in a diffused glow, dreamy, desaturated colour kinda world.

  • Comment number 13.


    "A good speaker leaves at least some of his hearers wishing he had said something more."

    A better speaker doesn't because he did.

  • Comment number 14.


    "But sermons really ought to have time for questions & comments from the audience - THAT is what is missing."

    Anglican Minister, Prime Minister what's the difference when you ask a question? You'd probably get the same answer from either. "I refer the right honorable gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago." What if you asked a question that he didn't know the answer to, then what? He's supposed to have all the answers. He knows, after all he's God's messenger on earth. What if you got instead; "I'll have to get back to you on that one, I have to talk to "HIM" about it." ??? Think of how disappointed you'd feel. After all, he's not the Oracle of Delphi. You can ask the Oracle questions. You might not like the answer you get though. What if you asked your minister; "Am I going to hell for all eternity when I die?" Better not to know.

  • Comment number 15.

    Peter, you don't really disagree - you just have to tell yourself that you do. Underneath it all, you know I'm right... ;-)

  • Comment number 16.

    Some advice for the mealy mouthed clerics that we have in our pulpits today, “preach Christ crucified” Begin with Christ, go on with Christ, and end with Christ, and I am sure your hearers will never be tired, for his name is as ointment poured forth on the wound of sin. For there’s only one Physician that can cure a sin–sick soul! “CHRIST” Preach Him crucified.

  • Comment number 17.

    I think you take enough time to cover and communicate the contents, if you can do that in two, four or eight minutes then do that. However, if it takes forty, take forty. I would happily sit through an eight hour sermon given by Ratzinger on child abuse in the church.

    So, Will....DO... Take enough time to cover and communicate the contents.

    I have just returned from a union conference and believe me when I say this is not just a problem in the church. : )


  • Comment number 18.

    "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." It seems to me that this makes it difficult for Christians to justify preaching, especially Catholics who claim all humans are born into sin. And for many of them, they apparently just go upwards on the sin scale from there.

  • Comment number 19.

    My previous bishop used to tell us, we should not preach longer than 15 minutes. After five minutes the people will give up. After ten minutes God will give up. After fifteen minutes even the devil will give up.

  • Comment number 20.

    #19 That is so funny!

  • Comment number 21.

    Helio #15

    But I do disagree. I disagree to the very fabric of my being. My disagreement is the warp and weft of who I am. I utterly believe in the existence of God, in the resurrection of Jesus, 'the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting'. As ABBA might sing, I do I do I do I do I do!

    But I am unconvinced by my experience of church life. That is what makes me doubt. Although to loose one’s confidence in the ecclesiastical sub culture is not the same as loosing one’s confidence in God. And I guess (if I might use your phrase) that underneath it all you know what I'm getting at :-)

  • Comment number 22.

    Hi Peter,
    I utterly believe in the existence of God, in the resurrection of Jesus, 'the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting'.

    Of course you do, dear. Don't worry - recovery is possible. We're very similar, you 'n' me :-)


  • Comment number 23.

    Welcome Zsolt! You may be our first Hungarian commenter. Your bishop knows stuff.

  • Comment number 24.


    “Recovery is Possible”

    Oh goody. What do you suggest?

    I’ve already tried clicking my heels three times, but I’m still in Oz.

  • Comment number 25.

    Peter, yeah, but I didn't say it was *instantaneous*! Honestly - people have no patience these days! Come over to the fun side - you'd like it here. Really :-)

  • Comment number 26.

    For people truly interested in the message the lenght of the sermon won't matter, so the key to a good sermon is to preach expositionally on a text and to preach it whilst faithfully expalining what it means and how it affets the listener...but the real key is to preach with some emotion... preach with a point.... and preach with some feeling and when the minister is interested in what he is saying then so to will the congregation have an interest in what is being said, but in saying that if a sermon is not about the bible and it alone then the sermon is pointless and all you will be left with is the prattlings of a man who likes to hear himself talk which sadly is all too common in this country.

  • Comment number 27.

    Not common enough, if you ask me.

  • Comment number 28.


    I had wanted to say something witty, possibly another quote from the Wizard of Oz, (my 'messenger' icon is Dot, BTW, you know, pigtails and all, in all the glory of one of her completely confused expressions) but a ickle comment you made has kind of stuck in my mind.

    You said, "We're very similar, you 'n' me". And I guess that in some ways you're right, the thought had crossed my mind. We've ended up in different places though, done different things with our journey through the church, so can I ask a question?

    Let's cut through all the philosophy and theology and scientific reasons which people give for or against faith, you and I both know that in the end all that comes down to a judgement call on your part or mine. Some people will live with their doubt or disappointment or whatever, others can't quite do that. Some will look at a sunset and see God, others will think of a Bud lite, some will reach for a camera or their watercolours and some are going to think, how far is it from the earth.

    But what interests me is this. You and I have probably sat through a lot of the same evangelical stuff, prayed the same prayers, heard the same sermons, read the same bible, believed the same things to be believed, asked ourselves the same questions. So, we're sitting in church, listening to the preacher, you lean over and say something to me... what is it?

  • Comment number 29.

    A. "What a load of cabbage!"

    B. "Fancy a pint?"

    C. "She's nice."

    D. "Let's split before the collection."

    E. "I've got a strange feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

    F. "Stop fidgetting, Peter, pay attention and get yer hands out of yer pockets!"

    G. "Oops, sorry Mrs, I thought you were Peter."

  • Comment number 30.

    Dude, love the pigtails! :-)

  • Comment number 31.


    LOL, thanks for a laugh on the Monday morning.:)

  • Comment number 32.

    Ref 26,
    Hi CC, I agree with most of what you said, although I was reading somewhere recently that Johnatan Edwards deliberately preached in a monotone voice, rooted to one spot & kept his hands holding his lapels so as to avoid stirring up emotions & drawing attention to himself rather than the message! I think Spurgeon was also very measured in the use of his voice if I remember correctly what I read some time ago.

  • Comment number 33.

    Dorothy/Peter, I think we would have plenty to talk about and plenty of common ground. RJB pretty much nails it, as usual. The point is that since we're leaving the theology etc aside, we have far more to talk about, and what people regard as the *core* of their being is in fact just a thin but troublesome veneer of cabbage. Theology is the whitewash on the sepulchre, but as a scientist, a medic and student of ancient history, the rotting corpses within are what I'm interested in.

  • Comment number 34.

    Docrevholiday wrote:
    Ref 26,
    Hi CC, I agree with most of what you said, although I was reading somewhere recently that Johnatan Edwards deliberately preached in a monotone voice, rooted to one spot & kept his hands holding his lapels so as to avoid stirring up emotions & drawing attention to himself rather than the message! I think Spurgeon was also very measured in the use of his voice if I remember correctly what I read some time ago.

    I believe everything you said to be true about edwards and spurgeon but whereas men like whitfield flung the arms around and "acted out the sermon" men like edwards and spurgeon focused more on the wording, read edwards "sinner's in the hands of an argry God" to see what i mean, reading it you can feel the tension building and the fear is being ratcheted up until the final "flee from the wrath to come!!" and with preachiong like that you dont need to put on a show but as we all know people now adays can't sit for more than 10 mins without getting bored so i don't think we will see many edwards or spurgeons in this day and age...which isn't a good thing

  • Comment number 35.

    Hi CC,
    I totally agree with you, I think alot of people expect to be entertained in church, rather than be taught from God's word. Most people do not commit to private Bible study which can make a expositional sermon from the pulpit too much for them! It's encouraging to see people like yourself studying God's word!!
    I've never got round to reading Edward's 'sinners in the hands of an angry God', I must do so!

  • Comment number 36.


    Funny as it might seem, I feel like typing back "deep down you know there is a God!"
    But to be fair I get the impression that you dug deep and found out that you *didn't* believe.
    I dug down deep and found out that I *did*. (In some ways it feels like I can't help it. Put it down to a meme.)

    As to what RJB, PM you and I have in common-I don't think it's our religious intuitions!
    I probably shouldn't speak for others, but I get the sense that we take some issues very seriously. And we take debate and discussion seriously. But we don't seem to take ourselves seriously at all. I'd go so far as to say that we find ourselves fairly ridiculous at times. So we'll cod about and make bad jokes, because I think we'd agree on one thing.
    If you can't laugh at yourself, what's the point?

  • Comment number 37.

    a. keep digging;
    b. that's it in a nutshell :-)

  • Comment number 38.

    The late Brett Ingram, peace be upon him, used to say of sermons that the brain's attention span and the buttocks' capacity for tolerance were directly linked.

  • Comment number 39.

    Ah,the soft padded seats v's wooden pews conundrum LOL.

  • Comment number 40.

    What we need is another W.P.Nicholson to wake the Churches up and break a few wooden religious conundrums.

  • Comment number 41.

    soft padded seats?? now you can get cinema seats in your church with armrests and everything!

  • Comment number 42.

    I think we need a few more Chris Hudsons and Laurence Kirkpatricks.

  • Comment number 43.

    Flip, this thread is turning into 'Preacher Idol'.


    I have this image: you - Viking hat, me - pig-tales, RJB - Rangers shirt. Evangelicals have done some whacky things in recent years to get the punters in, but Sunday morning fancy dress?


    #29 D. Honestly, I read it and thought you'd written, "Let's split with the collection". And you think that if you tried to make your getaway with some gal in pigtails, gingham and red shoes you wouldn't get caught?


    What do you mean, bad jokes? Have you ever read a bad joke on this blog? Has Helio ever not made you laugh with one of his witticisms ? - Seriously!


    And after all that, what would you say? I know what you think, post 33 is another version of it, but, throw me a 'curveball'.


    Made me laugh too. Hope you had a good Monday.

  • Comment number 44.

    Pope Benedict was the guest preacher on Sunday evening at the Luteran church in Rome. He spoke for 14 minutes in a most personal and engaging way. The video is available at [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]
    (14.03.10 Ansprache)

  • Comment number 45.

    If you want to see Pope Benedict's 14-minute sermon in the Lutheran church in Rome last Sunday you should be able to find your way there using the word domradio. I found it very moving to see him speaking in such a simple and humble way in his mother tongue to a largely Protestant congregation. He reads his English texts tolerably well and of course his Italian is fluent but a foreign language does screen the real person.

  • Comment number 46.

    oh well at least the antichrist speaks nicely

  • Comment number 47.

    As I indicated on another thread, I think most people's problems with a sermon has more to do with content than length.

    People can tolerate a football match for 90 minutes (plus stoppage time!)or a film for up to 2 hours; some political speeches can take an hour - but when it comes to the most important message people will ever hear, we must get it over with as quickly as possible!

    (I recall President Clinton being at the City Hall to switch on the Christmas Tree lights, and when the Lord Mayor took a moment to remind people of the 'Reason for the Season', not a few in the crowd objected loudly. Thankfully, the President demostrated much better manners, referring in his speech to what Eric Smyth had said.)

    Having said that, those of us who regularly prepare sermons must love our people enough to make sure that they are not only true to the Bible, but also interesting and relevant.

    We're still working at it!


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