As has become common for me since I returned to New England, I've been pretty busy doing pulpit supply this summer. Last week and this week I covered for my own pastor in Chelmsford while he was on vacation with his family. And it just happened to work out that the two sermons I preached were on opposite ends of the spectrum time-wise.
Last week's sermon very well might be the longest sermon I've ever preached. If it doesn't hold the record, then it's definitely in the top three. My word count was 2,462, which took me a little over twenty minutes to preach. By comparison, this morning's sermon was only 1,165 words, and we were opening our hymnals to the hymn of the day after about eight minutes. Which sermon had the better length?
I've been thinking about this a lot (ever since last week's sermon, actually), and I think the answer is that last week's sermon length was best for last week's sermon, and this week's sermon length was best for this week's sermon. My formative Lutheran experience was in a predominately African-American ELCA congregation (yes, a few of them do exist), and the pastor was your classic black preacher, only he happened to have white skin. His philosophy for preaching and worship was that you preach till you're done, and you worship till you're done. Since he was my mentor, his philosophy has shaped my approach to worship and preaching.
However, serving in predominately white rural or suburban congregations, I've discovered that 'worship till you're done' isn't a wildly popular concept in most churches. Generally speaking, they expect 50 minutes to an hour. Some of them will let me go for an hour and ten minutes, but not a minute longer. They'll reluctantly accept a service that goes for an hour and twenty minutes if there's something like a baptism, confirmation, or some other special event going on, but they'll also wonder why we didn't cut out some of the readings and prayers to make room for the extra stuff if it goes that long. Compare this to what happened at Resurrection, my formative congregation; that was the only place where I could show up twenty minutes late and still not miss the Kyrie (the Kyrie is one of the first parts of the service, for anyone reading this who is not familiar with Lutheran liturgy). They posted that their service ran from 10 to 11 AM, but it really ran to 11:30 pretty much every week. Finally they decided to change their sign to reflect reality, and stated that they worshiped from 10 to 11:30 AM. That's when the service started going until noon. They currently advertise that they worship from 10 to 12. I'm preaching there in a few weeks, and I'll just tell my husband that I'll be home at some point in the afternoon, because I'm expecting that we'll just worship till we're done.
So I've adjusted my worship planning and leadership to accommodate the stricter schedule, but I haven't changed my preaching. I preach till I'm done. Since I'm primarily a manuscript preacher the length is fairly well-defined; you don't have to worry about me being 'caught up in the Spirit' and preaching extemporaneously for ninety minutes. (I attended a service where that happened once--it exceeded even my ability to just go with it, and I left right after the sermon, even though the service wasn't over. We'd worshiped for ninety minutes before the sermon even started, and after three hours with no end in sight, I was done.)
This week's sermon was pretty affirming, with no difficult topics, and I could get my point across in relatively few words. Last week's sermon dealt with prophecy and divorce, and required me to go into more depth. So I did. I was glad that this week's sermon was on a lighter topic, because I don't like to double-barrel a congregation two weeks in a row; the fact that this week's sermon was unusually short was coincidence. Most of my sermons average twelve to fifteen minutes.
So what is the optimum length of a sermon? A sermon should be exactly how long it needs to be.