“How long, oh Lord?”
That lament echoes through the Psalms, appears in Habakkuk, recurs in Revelation—and pervades the meandering minds of restless parishioners obliged to suffer the pastor’s preaching past the point of effectiveness and endurance. An expression of extreme suffering and bewilderment is hardly the response a pastor hopes for when he delivers himself of a week’s worth of preparation.
How long should a sermon be? As a preaching professor and a pastor, I’ve asked and been asked that question a hundred times. Today, after 35 years in ministry, I have a definitive answer: You can preach as long as you hold their attention.
Obviously (though perhaps not to everyone) that means some preachers are able to preach longer than others, not because of mere natural gifting, but because of faithfulness to biblical and practical techniques, which are not at all contradictory. In fact, they go hand in hand. Many preachers have on the one hand consoled themselves that their churches are filled with people who have itching ears, and on the other prided themselves that they don’t compromise the truth when really all they’ve done is preached God’s Word badly.
While such situations certainly exist—and my heart goes out to any faithful preacher who lovingly and skillfully preaches the Word to people with cold, indifferent hearts—we shouldn’t be so quick to assume the problem lies exclusively in the pew with no responsibility in the pulpit.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing for shorter sermons. If anything, I believe many churches need to devote more time to preaching, not less. The preaching of the Word is the central act of worship for the gathered church. The widespread biblical illiteracy among professed Christians neither will diminish because pastors shorten their exposition, nor will it change because pastors preach longer dull sermons.
How can one preach better and still afford to preach longer? Faithful preachers who are also interesting learn four key moves to delivering the kind of sermons that help listeners remain engaged.
First, fill your sermon with biblical substance. Perhaps it seems counterintuitive, but the way to keep the attention of disengaged church members is not by feeding them a steady diet of spiritual cotton candy. It may be sweet to the taste, but it has no nutrition; too much of it will make them sick! The Word of God is what will draw and keep them interested. Don’t dumb it down; serve it up! Christ promised that if He is lifted up He will draw them to Himself. So, point to Christ in text and type, in redemption and relationship.
Second, arrest their attention. Once you know the content of your text, think on the perceptual level in developing the sermon. Find a way to get their interest at the very beginning. Peter did it on Pentecost. Paul did it on the Areopagus. Ezekiel did it by building a model city and laying siege to it. Jesus did it in Galilee with eight promises of blessedness. Spurgeon did it. Jonathan Edwards did it. Listen to the preachers you admire and notice how they adorn the gospel with thought-provoking and engaging delivery.
Third, constantly weave personal application into biblical explanation. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 drove his audience to ask, “What shall we do?” Explanation without application leads to frustration. Content without conviction breeds boredom. The inherent power of the Word and the Spirit demand a response, repentance, renewal. Without that, sermons may seem to be merely Bible trivia games.
Fourth, the best preachers develop audience awareness, always discerning how well folks are listening. Respond to their restlessness with energy, focus and excitement about the text. Is your voice lulling them to sleep? Change your pitch, pace and volume. Let the Word that has saturated you in your study overflow in your pulpit to them in the pew. You may preach as one who knows the Word, but do you preach as one who loves the Word? They’ll listen better—and sit longer.