Preach With Regard to Time
March 14, 2024
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
Feed the Flock
The following is excerpted from Feed the Flock: Expository Bible Preaching, one of the Bible courses available from Way of Life Literature.

Don’t presume on people and preach long just because you can. “Better to leave the audience longing rather than loathing.”

I love Bible preaching and teaching, but there are very few men I can listen to for more than 45 minutes with pleasure and profit, and most people have a shorter attention span than I do.

Jesus’ longest sermons were only about a half hour (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7). The same is true for the apostles. The longest sermon in Acts is about 20 minutes.

Charles Spurgeon advised his preacher boys to preach no longer than 45 minutes. “If a fellow cannot say all he has to say in that time, when will he say it?”

This is especially true for young preachers. They think that they should preach longer, but they need to learn to preach a good message in 45 minutes or less (usually less!).

If you are a visiting preacher, make sure to ask how much time you have and stay by that schedule. It is a matter of obedience to authority (Heb. 13:17). It is a matter of being a good example to other preachers. If the host preacher says, “Preach as long as you want,” still be aware of the situation and don’t wear the people out.

Martin Luther complained about a preacher named Johannes Bugenhagen who was famous for “astonishingly long sermons.” After one sermon Luther remarked, “Bugenhagen sacrifices his hearers with long sermons, for we are his victims. And today he sacrificed us in an exceptional manner” (Nick Needham,
2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 3, pl. 127).

In John Rippon’s
Baptist Register we hear of a pastor named Thomas Mabbott. “As a preacher he was much too loud and too long, a habit rarely attended with such desirable effects as ministers are ready to expect; but it is ruinous to themselves, and often creates a disgust in the minds of even a serious audience, and mars the whole service.”

Remember that life is short and people have many other responsibilities. One farmer complained to Spurgeon when one of his preacher boys visited his church and preached a half hour longer than allotted, which meant the cows could not be milked on time. This practical-minded man said, “How would he have liked it if he had been a cow?” It is not unspiritual for a preacher to think about cows that need milking and meals that need cooking and children that need attending.

One of our Bible college students, after he graduated, preached for two hours to a little Bible study group consisting of a handful of simple people at a farm. He preached until 11:30 at night! And he is a boring preacher who has a difficult time making his points clear. I was extremely discouraged when I heard that, because it was obvious that the young man did not take to heart the things he was taught. He has since been rejected from the ministry, not for preaching long but for general lack of wisdom and humility and a servant spirit. The long preaching was a reflection of those character flaws.

If you are a truly excellent preacher and teacher, and if the situation allows for a long sermon, that is a different story. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed, “Ten minutes from some men seems like an age, while an hour from another passes like a few minutes.”

Daniel Rowland, one of the prominent preachers of the Welsh Revival, “was a marathon orator who on one occasion is said to have preached for six hours without intermission, to a spellbound multitude” (Ronald Rees,
A Nation of Singing Birds, p. 14). Note that the audience was spellbound and not bored to tears and dying for the preacher to stop.

Consider Lawrence Chaderton, one of the translators of the King James Bible. As a young man Chaderton began a series of afternoon sermons at the church of St. Clement’s, Cambridge, that continued for 50 years. “Sermons were timed by an hour glass, which stood beside the pulpit. Chaderton’s biographer tells how once having preached for two hours, he feared he had worn out his listeners’ patience and stopped. But the entire congregation cried, ‘Go on! We beg you, go on!’ Chaderton continued for another hour” (Olga Opfell,
The King James Bible Translators, p. 47). When he announced that he was retiring from these lectures, forty of the clergy, who said they owed their conversion to his preaching, begged him to reconsider.

There are very few preachers of this caliber, and the vast majority of preachers should not continue preaching when the hour glass is done and many should stop before that.

James Davenport preached 24 hours during the First Great Awakening in 1740 (Joseph Tracey,
The Great Awakening, kindle loc 4029). But he was a strange man who fell into many heresies.

The preacher must prepare a 30 minute sermon for a 30 minute time slot. Many preachers have the bad habit of consistently preparing a 60 minute sermon for a 30 minute time slot. As a result, they have to rush through every point. Young preachers are particularly guilty of this because of lack of experience. Many years ago I preached at a church in Virginia, and as I was talking with a young man after the service, I asked him if he understood the message. He replied, “It was very good but it was like too much ice cream.” At first I was encouraged, because ice cream is wonderful, but then I realized that he was trying to tell me that I was overdosing my audience with too much truth delivered too quickly. Ice cream is pleasant, but too much ice cream is not. Christ told Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:16). That means to feed them properly and not pack too much food in their mouths.

Preaching a good message in an allotted time requires much study and preparation. “If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say” (Charles Spurgeon).

Be flexible according to the situation. Don’t be tied to your outline and to all of the points and illustrations you plan to present. Be gaging the time to make sure you cover the things that are most important. Be ready to drop things for sake of time. Don’t get to the end and try to rush through every point in your notes. You really accomplish nothing in this way, because the people know the message is finished and they aren’t going to pay close attention to a rushed blast of preaching as a finale.

Don’t talk about the clock and the time. Just watch the clock yourself and finish on time.

Don’t look at your watch. That will cause the people to stop thinking about the message.

Don’t tell the people that you have run out of time. That’s not their fault. Just preach your message within the time frame you are given, and end it properly.

When you finish your message, stop! Don’t wear the people out by reviewing unnecessarily and rambling or otherwise stretching the message out when it should be finished. I recall a preacher who had a habit of preaching a second sermon during the invitation. He would have the people stand, and then he would harangue them for a long time. It was so bad that I talked to him about it and tried to help him see the situation from the standpoint of the people. Not long afterward he was found guilty of misusing church funds and had to step down from the pastorate. If you feel the need to talk to the people at any length during the invitation, at least let them sit down. It is a matter of practical wisdom and charity.

When sharing a time slot with another preacher, keep to your allotted time. Many times I have seen men exceed their allotted time, but this is dishonest. It is stealing from the other man. It is also arrogant. By doing this, you are saying that your message is more important than the other man’s.

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