“HOW LONG, OH LORD?”
By Hershael York
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.