05 June 2011

On the Folly of Preaching too Long

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from an article titled "Advice Gratis," published in the 1872 issue of The Sword and the Trowel.

ength is the enemy of strength. The delivery of a discourse is like the boiling of an egg; it is remarkably easy to overdo it, and so to spoil it. You may physic a man till you make him ill, and preach to him till you make him wicked. From satisfaction to satiety there is but a single step; a wise preacher never wishes his hearer to pass it. Enough is as good as a feast, and better than too much.

Having learned by long experience that we exactly fill the 12 pages which our publishers allow for a penny sermon, when we speak for 40 or 45 minutes, we have come to adopt that period as our stint, and we usually find it neither too short nor too long. In occasional services, when we address persons who have no other opportunity of hearing us, we take more latitude, but our regulation allowance is three quarters of an hour. A man who speaks well for that length of time has told his people quite enough, and from him who preaches badly they have in that time heard too much. Most divines can deliver all their best thoughts upon a text in forty minutes, and as it is a pity to bring forth "afterwards that which is worse," they had better bring the feast to an end. To men of prodigious jaw it may seem a hardship to be confined to time, but a broad charity will judge it to be better that one man should suffer than that a whole congregation should be tormented.

The speaker's time should be measured out by wisdom. If he is destitute of discretion, and forgets the circumstances of his auditors, he will annoy them more than a little. In one house the pudding is burning, in another the child is needing its mother, in a third a servant is due in the family; the extra quarter of an hour's prosiness puts all out of order.

A country hearer once said to his pastor, "when you go on beyond half-past four, in the afternoon service, do you know what I always think about?"

"No," said the orator.

"Well, then, I tell you plainly, it is not about what you are preaching, but about my cows. They want milking, and you ought to have consideration for them, and not keep them waiting. How would you like it if you were a cow?"

This last remarkable enquiry suggested a good deal of reflection in the mind of the divine to whom it was proposed, and perhaps it may have a similar beneficial effect upon others who ought to confess their long preachings as among the chief of their shortcomings.

C. H. Spurgeon


Caleb Kolstad said...

One thing is missing from this excerpt--- A single reference to Scripture.

I have heard some argue that sermons should go no longer than 20 minutes. I have heard others talk about biblical sermons in Russia or Africa that last well over an hour (per the pew's request) week after week.

I sort of like Hebrews 13:22. But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.

DJP said...

Goodness, I'd hate to think that those who most need to hear Spurgeon would stop their ears because of the lack of a proof-text.

The article commences, "Upon one or two matters we shall this month give our readers our advice gratis [free advice], and at least we shall feel sure that it is worth the fee charged for it, if not more. When a man has been more than twenty-one years in the ministry he may be considered to be of age, and upon some points, it may not be foolish to 'ask him.' ...Should any tender consciences feel aggrieved by receiving that for which they have not paid, they can forward the usual six shillings and eight pence to the Stockwell Orphanage."

The full article includes some solid gold wisdom, such as:

"When a man has nothing to say, it generally takes him a long time to get to the end of it; like a man who is going nowhere he finds he has not reached his point, and thinks he may as well keep on."

"Excellence enforces brevity: you cannot have a diamond as large as a pyramid, nor a pearl of the size of a Swiss lake. In some measure with a conscientious preacher the converse of the proposition is also inevitable, and brevity enforce excellence."

"In general, a great sermon is a great evil. Length is the enemy of strength. The delivery of a discourse is like the boiling of an egg; it is remarkably easy to overdo it, and so to spoil it."

It isn't hard for me to see many wisdom-principles of Scripture (and many examples in Scripture) distilled in this advice. I fear that the ones who most need to hear it are the least likely to heed it, however.

By which, I want to make clear, I do not mean Caleb, whom I've never heard preach.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

This weekly dose of Spurgeon thing is really growing on me. I like his wit and wisdom.

Caleb Kolstad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tyrone said...

How God chose to gift this man delights my soul.

Canyon Shearer, DMin said...

Sermonettes are for Christianettes. - John MacArthur (and others)

Caleb Kolstad said...


You're right this is free advice (i.e. Spurgeon's opinion). His opinion carries a lot of weight because of his body of work/ministry.

I am a 31 year old pastor who preaches to 200 sheep. I understand that when Charles was 21 he was preaching to 2000. In other words, I'm no Spurgeon. I'm an ordinary CJ type pastor. Spurg was a uniquely gifted preacher. His devotionals (which i often use at prayer mtg) offer more meat in 4 paragraphs than many pulpit sermons do in 35 minutes.

With that said, I also have read many a good book on preaching and have personally heard many great preachers in my life (I attended Grace Church for 12 years- Boice, Criswall, Begg, Evans, Vines, Lawson, Piper, Sproul, Holland, Ferguson, MacArthur every Sunday for 1/3 of his ministry, etc, etc).

Jerry Vines has written a book on preaching and to many SBC pastors he's the golden standard. After he preached at Shepherd's Conference to my knowledge he's never returned to Grace. In the opinion of some Dr. Vines includes too many stories and jokes and not enough in depth Bible exposition...

Mark Dever has strong convictions as it relates to only having one worship service. McDonald with regards to exhortation vs exegesis/exposition. I have my personal opinions on local churches live-streaming AM worship services and having multiple campus churches. These are just our personal perspectives/opinions as local church pastors.

My point in all this goes back to the first statement i wrote...'One thing is missing from this excerpt--- A single reference to Scripture.'

My opinion is that "too long" is somewhat arbitrary. A congregation full of 1 Peter 2:2 Christians proclaims "Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven feed me till I want no more." Grace Church offers its members 3 meaty steaks each and every Sunday (three 45 minutes sermons). I've heard some pastors say that is too much. I grew like a weed during my time at GCC, TMC, and TMS. During this time my appetite for God's Word increased and my cup to receive God's Word expanded.

A wise Pastor tries to fill up every stomach with the pure milk of the Word.

In trying to faithfully live out 2 Tim 4:1-5 I find myself regularly thinking, "who is sufficient for these things?"

I love your blog- keep up the good work men. T4G

DJP said...

Thanks, Caleb, I appreciate that, and appreciate your reading. But you've basically repeated yourself with more words; and if I did the same, I'd sort of undermine my own point, wouldn't I?

Only thing unsaid that I'd add (to myself) is that I've witnessed MacArthur admirers who think that they're preaching deep because they're preaching long. Ain't necessarily so. Spurgeon's a good antidote to that miscalculation. Less truly, truly can be more.

Caleb Kolstad said...


I just wanted to explain A + B + C since i only included equals D in my first two posts.

Amen- less is often more. :)

Doug Hibbard said...

Based on Acts 20, remember that if you preach so long that you preach someone to death, you only get to finish after that person is resurrected.



Peter said...

“How would you like it if you were a cow?”

Caleb Kolstad said...

If you preach too long to 1 Peter 2:2 saints crazy things can happen. Being a cow is not bad compared to falling out of a window.

Acts 20:7-9 And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. 8 And there were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. 9 And there was a certain young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor, and was picked up dead.

DJP said...

Wow, you are really having trouble letting that go. Yes, if you speak by direct apostolic revelation and have the ability to raise the dead, preach as long as God moves you to. The rest of us should use wisdom.

Athelas said...

Early in my ministry I made the mistake of thinking longer was always better, and so, having not much to say upon my text, filled the time with cross references. After all, there are worse things to do than read a lot of Scripture from the pulpit, and it can save you from actually having to preach that text you don't really understand! With God's help, I began to change my ways when my father (one of my elders, and now with the Lord) once commented to me that I didn't need a clock on the back wall, I needed a calendar!
Thanks for this post.

Caleb Kolstad said...

DJP, I always thought you had a good sense of humor (Acts 20:7-9). You and I are alot alike however. I will leave it at that.

The humorous thing in all your replies to me is that my time goal is to generally preach between 40-50 minutes which is what Spurgeon advises. What is more important is that we brother pastors fulfill our 2 Tim 4 mandate (be it 30 minutes or 90 minutes).

DJP said...

I would say an unqualified "amen" to 2tim 4, but just add that more brothers need to take Romans 12:3 to heart a bit more seriously than they are doing, and apply Matthew 7:12 to their hearers.

~Mark said...

Good excerpt! In radio I was taught to "say more, using fewer words", and in seminary that if I couldn't say it in less than half an hour, I probably should go back to the study.

That doesn't rule out longer sermons, but it certainly keeps them from being necessary.

DJP said...

CHS himself says it beautifully elsewhere:

"A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in" [ C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, Vol. 1: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors' College, Metropolitan Tabernacle., 145 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009).]

donsands said...

"A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in"

Excellent quote. Gracias mi amigo.

Caleb Kolstad said...

I guess we could apply the same principles to the college class room and to seminary and to bible conferences.... 'Very few students pay attention for 2-3 hour lectures so why offer such courses?'

Notice friends what Mark was taught in seminary..."If I couldn't say it in less than half an hour, I probably should go back to the study."

Now we are down from 40 minutes to a half hour. If you're teaching teens I guess that means it should be no longer than 15 minutes right? And yes I have heard such proclamations made by godly men whom i respect (though disagree with on this point).

I can't find the articles/links but i know some say we should teach even shorter sermons today because we live in a much different culture from Spurgeons. The majority of pew sitters in our generation watch TV 3 hours a day and do very little reading. 'People can't sit through lengthy monologues and lectures today.' Lengthy, exegetical, expositional preaching will kill your church....'

Dr. Steve Lawson was asked to preach at a major seminary (4 sermons through Jonah) and was told at the end of the conference on preaching "that he was a dinosaur."

Now i know that is not where you are taking this article DJP but you know very well that is where many persons have/will (professors, pastors, and laity alike).

My P.O.M is found in Colossians 1:28-29. If i had the liberty to share our churches 166 year history and what God has been doing in our midst the past 3 years I think it would strengthen my points even more.

I have a Sunday sermon to prepare and apparently i have to keep it under 40 minutes, gotta run. :) SDG!

Caleb Kolstad said...

Another famous pastor's opinion on this matter is found in Iain H Murray's wonderful new biography: John MacArthur, Servant of the Word and Flock.

pg 64 footnote 7. I am convinced that biblical exposition requires at least forty minutes....Rarely does a man preaching twenty-five to thirty minutes do doctrinal exposition. MacArthur would not say this, however, w.o adding the caution that length is not the main feature of good preaching.

Amen and Amen.

KSL said...

If you haven't struck oil in 30 minutes, stop boring.
Adrian Rogers

DJP said...

Oh, that's good — though 30 (A) is under CHS' own idea, but (B) might be a good idea for some.

ck said...

One faithful missionary pastor joins in on this conversation in his latest blog article, "How Long Should A Sermon Be?"

I found this to be a very helpful read with some helpful wisdom.


Steve said...

As an aging pastor, and a knack for talking, I've come to find myself more and more preaching (or in many cases, teaching) too long, either by repeating my point numerous ways, or simply by continuing endlessly when I think I'm on to something good.

At the conclusion of our mid-week study this evening, I overheard some of my congregation chatting jokingly; the phrase I just happened to overhear was "yammering on and on". Although it was said in jest, and with a laugh, the wound went deep, but I can't blame them, because I know they're right.

I Googled the phrase "I preach too long", and out of the multitude of results, I'm grateful that I clicked on this one. The wisdom found here in Spurgeon's writings is strong enough to do me the good that I need, yet gentle enough to teach me that I still have many, many flaws that I need to work on.

Thank you for sharing this article. I genuinely hope it will do me some good.

In the words of the apostle Paul, "Brethren, pray for us."