Long Sermons – How Long Is Too Long? Let the Lord Decide

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Proverbs 3:4, 5 Lean not unto thine own understanding in all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

Today God is not seeking for men of perfect education, but for men who will honour Him by rendering implicit obedience to His requirements. There is no limit to the usefulness of those who, putting self out of sight, make room for the working of the Holy Spirit on their hearts, and live lives wholly consecrated to God, enduring the discipline imposed by the LORD without complaining or fainting by the way. {ST, July 12, 1905. 12}

The following Spirit of Prophecy statements are often used to call for shorter sermons but they raise the question; how short is a short sermon and how long is a long sermon? Does Spirit of Prophecy give any guide to what is an acceptable length of time for a sermon?

Short Sermons.–Let the message for this time be presented, not in long, labored discourses, but in short talks, right to the point. Lengthy sermons tax the strength of the speaker and the patience of his hearers. {GW 167.5}

Let your preaching be short and right to the point… –Letter 8, 1895. {Ev 296.2}

Let your discourses be short. Long sermons wear out both you and the people. If ministers would make their sermons only half as long,… –Manuscript 8a, 1888. {Ev 348.2}

Half as Long as What?

So what length of time does Sister White indicate is an acceptable time to preach? In Voice in Speech and Song Sr. White pledges herself not to speak too long.

There is one matter about which I wish to caution you. In addressing a congregation, do not speak for too long a time; for thus you put a heavy strain on the delicate organs brought into action. I have to pledge myself not to speak too long; for I know that if I do, stomach and lungs and kidneys will be overtaxed, and suffering will result.–Lt 75, 1904. {VSS 247.4}

What is Sister White’s estimation of a long time? I believe the following quotes from Testimonies to Ministers and Voice in Speech and Song answers this question.

Dear Brother—–:

Those who shall be mouthpieces for God should know that their lips have been touched with a live coal from off the altar, and present the truth in the demonstration of the Spirit. But lengthy discourses are a taxation to the speaker and a taxation to the hearers who have to sit so long. One half the matter presented would be of more benefit to the hearer than the large mass poured forth by the speaker. That which is spoken in the first hour is of far more value if the sermon closes then [at the 1 hour mark] than the words that are spoken in an added half hour. There is a burying up of the matter that has been presented. {TM 256.1}

This subject has been opened to me again and again that our ministers were making mistakes in talking so long as to wear away the first forcible impression made upon the hearers. So large a mass of matter is presented, which they cannot possibly retain and digest, that all seems confused. I have kept this before our ministering brethren, and begged them not to lengthen out their discourses. Some improvement has been made on this ground with the very best results. But few discourses have exceeded an hour. {TM 257.1}

Sr. White sees improvement – the brethren have evidently contained their sermons to 1 hour, then she states there are still a few that exceed an hour. Obviously they were ALL preaching well over an hour. So what is too long? Taking the statement above Sister White sees that what is spoken in the first hour is of the most benefit. She recommends sermons to close off at the 1-hour mark rather than go on for another half an hour or more. Obviously this was a common practice as she often fell into the same habit. In the following quote she admits she preaches too long.

Long Sermons by Ellen White—

ELDER UNDERWOOD: DO WE PREACH TOO LONG?

Ellen White: Yes, indeed; and I, too; I take that right to myself. I preach too long.

W. C. WHITE: LET ME ASK A QUESTION. ARE WE TO TAKE YOUR EXAMPLE AS AN EXPONENT OF YOUR VIEWS? {VSS 394.5}

Ellen White: Well, didn’t I just make my confession? And haven’t I given you an example? I consider myself an exception, but I think I have ventured too far even in the exception.

In my brief investigations on how long Sister White preached I found she kept quite a tab on the length of her speeches. I found recorded; approx 5 sermons where she spoke for less than 1 hour. 4 were half an hour and 1 was ¾ hour. 28 sermons where she spoke for 1 hour, 27 sermons where she spoke for more than an hour – usually 1 hour 30 mins. Once she said 1hour 10 mins. These are the only times she mentions in reference to her preaching Sister White’s sermons were consistently from 1 – 1 hour 30 mins. Combining the quotes that actually state a time her confession about preaching too long obviously refers to her sermons that were 1hour 30 mins in length because she said what is spoken in the first hour is valuable and should be closed off at that time while also confessing she had a habit of speaking too long. Although she was an exception. I consider I can safely conclude from this research through the Spirit of Prophecy that our currant practice of preaching up to 1 hour in length has indeed the LORD’s blessing and haven’t we experienced his blessing upon the messages that have come from our pulpit since we first began to meet. This does not mean that EVERY speaker MUST preach for a hour. Sr. White addressed a few brethren who obviously didn’t have the same gift of speaking than others to cut their sermons down as they rambled too long.

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Quote 1 – Ev 177.3 Let your discourses be short

Question: How short is short? This quote does not make any qualifications on that point.

Quote 2 – Ev 178.1 Never weary the hearers by long discourses. This is not wise. For many years I have been labouring on this point

Once again how long is long? Question: Is it the length that wearies the hearer or is it the content?

Quote 3 – GW92 455.2 but we have certainly made a mistake in supposing that so much depends on long argumentative discourses.

Yes a mistake is made if we depend on long argumentative discourses but this is definitely not the case in consideration. The sermons we have had over the past 10 years have not been presented in an argumentative style. In fact the following quote qualifies what is missing in a sermon that causes it to become argumentative.

We have not help up before the people the righteousness of Christ and the full significance of His great plan of redemption. We have left out Christ and His matchless love, brought in theories and reasonings, and preached argumentative discourses. 1888 822.2

The Righteousness of Christ is constantly preached from our pulpit it the theme that marks us apart from other churches.

Quote 4 – 2T 583.1 But the mind cannot be refreshed, enlivened, and elevated by being confined nearly ALL the Sabbath hours within walls, listening to long sermons plural and tedious, formal prayers. The Sabbath of the LORD is put to a wrong use if thus celebrated.

This is a good and true quote but once again this quote does not apply to our discussion on long or short sermons as it refers to being indoors ALL Sabbath and more than one sermon and tedious prayers plural. This quote definitely does not apply to our one singular sermon each Sabbath.

Quote 5 – 176.4, 5 I do not like to go much beyond the half hour said a faithful and earnest preacher, who certainly never gave to his hearers that which cost him nothing in the preparation. Paragraph 4 … Cut down your lengthy discourses. Two thirds of such long discourses are lost, and the preacher is exhausted there are many of our ministers who err in this respect.

Quote 5 is part of a personal letter to brother A who had a problem with rambling on. Her advice to him personally is not an across the board rule for ALL preachers as you will see from the qualification she make in this article not included in the book Evangelism. On June 5, 1886, Ellen White wrote a letter from Basel, Switzerland; to a leading evangelist counselling him in better methods of conducting his work and of preaching. To keep this article short I will summarise the first part of Sister Whites letter to him. The preacher’s problem was first addressed. He was doing more than one thing at a time. He was also writing articles. This man’s problem re preaching was also the same as that of Elders B & C they rambled in their discourses and had too large amount of matter and they made nothing clear. The truth was buried under a mass of matter and the point could not be found. It was obvious that he included more than one topic in his sermon. His life was also such that the Holy Spirit had difficulty in working through and this was obviously manifested in his sermons.

To Br A she says;

“You should let your mind rest in a great degree when you engage in an effort to present new and startling truths to the people, the reception of which involves a cross. You need to carefully select your subject, make your discourses short, and important points of doctrine very plain. Take up one point at a time in a discourse, make it strong and clear and plain, with reasons drawn from the Word of God that all may understand. Your discourses should be short. When you preach at great length the mind of the hearer cannot grasp one quarter of what you say. . . . Govern your voice and put pathos and melody into it. It should be uttered in the most pleasant manner that they may want to hear again.”

This man was not applying the word to his life. She said.

“In short, my brother, you must take time to be a Christian, not tax brain and nerve to such an extent that you cannot be Christ-like under difficulties.”

Two paragraphs on comes the following quote. There are sermons that are so filled with heavenly dew and fatness that the people never get weary of listening. But where this is the most lacking there is an endeavor to make up in length for want of the Spirit of God. But when the people are impressed that the message they hear has first been brought home to the soul of the speaker, that he has proved the preciousness of the truth, that his heart enlarged by the love of God is reaching out for others, that they may be blessed as he has been, that they may be partakers of the same consolation arid receive the same joy—then souls will be stirred. They will come into sympathy with the speaker. The discourses given upon present truth are full of important matter and if these discourses are carefully considered before being presented to the people, if they are condensed, and do not cover too much ground, if the spirit of the Master goes with the utterances, no one will be left in darkness, no one will have cause to complain of being unfed. The preparation both in preacher and hearer, has very much to do with the result. Directly after this paragraph comes after someone’s quote 5. This man’s talent was to preach for 30 mins but he obviously packed a lot of preparation into his succinct sermon. A good example for the man in question that had trouble preparing his sermons. Once again this man’s example of power packing his sermon into 30 mins does not make it wrong for another man to speak for 1 hour.

I do not like to go much beyond the half hour said a faithful and earnest preacher, who certainly never gave to his hearers that which cost him nothing in the preparation. Paragraph 4

This is not referring to Sister White. Once again these quotes do not give us any indication to the original question how long is long and how short is short.

Quote 5 – 176.5 Cut down your lengthy discourses… Two thirds of such long discourses are lost, and the preacher is exhausted there are many of our ministers who err in this respect.

In the original article this brother was told he overtaxed both physical and mental powers, he allowed himself to feel too intently, had a vivid imagination and put much intensity into his preaching which keeps the mind on a constant strain, with the voice raised to a high pitch, which not only wearied him but the people also were annoyed and their interest lessened. Therefore two thirds of such a long discourse was lost. And she said there are many of our ministers who err in this respect. The point of issue in her letter to this man was his manner of preaching which created exhaustion to himself and the hearers. This man was obviously not filled with heavenly dew and may have felt he needed to make up his lack through time. Once again we don’t know how long his discourses were.

An Important Question

Is the blessing found in the content or in the time? A general principle is We always find what we are looking for There is always a blessing even in the plainest of speeches if we want to find it.

Other Observations

In reference to the quote previously mentioned;

“There are sermons that are so filled with heavenly dew and fatness that the people never get weary of listening.”

In 12 of the 27- 90 minute sermons Sister White has recorded the great interest and attention the audience had. Here are just two comments;

“Many scarcely moved from their positions during the one hour and a half I was speaking.”

“In the afternoon I spoke one hour and a half upon temperance. About six thousand were on the ground. Many could obtain no seats but stood during the two hours’ service. I never yet witnessed such perfect attention. Those standing were as motionless as though they were riveted to the ground. There was no leaving the congregation or scattering upon the ground.”

It could be argued that in Sister White’s day they liked to listen longer because they didn’t have our modern life style but even in today’s busy world people are not so much concerned with the time the speaker takes but rather the topic.

Our Sermons

This is illustrated by our sermon statistics on Vimeo.

Sermon Length    Number of Listeners.

66 mins        265

64 mins        242

69 mins        228

52 mins        219

42 min            128

31 mins        116

37 mins        150

40 mins        50

31 mins        22

45 mins        24

65 mins        96

62 mins        32

89 mins        52

58 mins        64

8 mins     193

Sustained by the LORD

The following quotes testify that many times when Sister White was not well the Lord sustained her for a full 90 mins.

Sabbath afternoon I feared that it would be impossible for me to stand before the congregation for over half an hour. But as I spoke, the invigorating power of the Spirit of God came upon me, and I was enabled to continue speaking for one hour and fifteen minutes. Such experiences remind me of what I passed through frequently in the earlier days of the message. {RH, February 7, 1907 par. 8}

Remarks were made by some–No one would suppose Sister White was sick. The speaking did not tire me. I spoke more than an hour and was not in the least weary. Elder Robinson spoke in the evening with great freedom. We returned Monday and the power of the enemy was broken. {21MR 359.3}

16. Tuscola, Mich., Sunday, March 1, 1868. Spoke in the afternoon: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. The house was full. There was no ventilation. The stove smoked. I had strength amid it all to speak for one hour and a half. The best attention was given.

I read about another occasion can’t find the quote where she had energy within herself and she felt she could talk longer than the hour but the LORD impressed her to close off. All these experiences when read in their context tell me that it is not a calculated time the LORD requires and it is not sin to preach longer than an hour. It much depends upon the topic and His Holy presence and also the desire of the listeners. When listeners show a keen desire to learn the Holy Spirit grants the message to flow through him with much more freedom.

How do we love one another?

1 Corinthians 13 Charity suffereth long, and is kind, charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoke, thinketh no evil. Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the upper room because they confessed their faults one to another not because they pointed out the faults in each other.

In conclusion

There is no hard and fast rule that 45mins of preaching must be adhered to and that an hour or an hour and a half sermon is a sin. Sister White was happy if the ministers wound up at the 1-hour mark. And for those who choose to conclude their presentations at 30 mins or 45 mins there is equally not a sin or a problem. As each individual learns to lean not on his own understanding when preparing and presenting the Sabbath message always prayerfully keeping in mind it is not his message but the LORD’s the Holy Spirit will indeed guide him in the content and the length of his discourse. Let us be confident that the LORD is at hand and uphold each servant the LORD puts at his pulpit in prayer and seek to hear HIS voice speaking to us personally through the vessel of clay.

Posted on July 4, 2011, in Short Studies. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. to Sabbath Sermon:
    Yes, it is a pity that people can watch 2 hour movies and not listen to a 1hour sermon, but it’s not worth making them listen to a 1 hour sermon from which they won’t take anything, if there is the possibility of preaching a 30 Minuit sermon and blessing them with the Holy Spirit.

    Another point to remember is that those actors are trained to act, and therefor do so very well, but not every preacher has the talent or the training to speak for an hour and keep everyone’s attention. Point of fact being that when a good preacher preaches for more than an hour, many don’t even notice the time pass.

    Short sermons are often more useful than long ones. Reminding that their are special occasions where long sermons are great, that is, when the pastor has the gift of speaking well and capturing the attention of the listeners.

  2. It is an obvious fact that people, let me say that here in Africa,most of us normally disregard or are not aware that timing when giving sermons is very important.Not only do we strain our organs but even more worse the listeners are exhausted,and end up not getting anything.

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