As I travel the country, nothing I say creates more controversy than this: men would benefit from shorter, simpler sermons. In my Go for the Guys Sunday Action Plan, I advocate a one-point sermon, ten minutes in length, built around an object lesson.
People are freaking out over this. I get comments like:
- David, you have a low regard for men’s intelligence.
- Short sermons “dumb down” the gospel.
- With Biblical illiteracy such a problem, we need more teaching, not less.
- We don’t need shorter sermons; we need better ones.
- My pastor is so interesting I wouldn’t mind if his sermons were longer.
- The apostle Paul preached for hours, and many were saved.
- Men just need to learn to pay attention.
Let’s take these one at a time.
David, you have a low regard for men’s intelligence. Intelligence has nothing to do with it. Studies have shown that men are much better than women at concentrating – but for a shorter period of time. The typical U.S. male has an attention span of 6 to 8 minutes. During that time, a man’s mind is absolutely locked in. But once you pass the 8-minute mark, his mind begins to wander. It has to do with the way his brain is wired.
Short sermons dumb down the gospel. If you have a problem with short messages, than you have a problem with our founder, Jesus Christ. I took a stopwatch and timed the parables of Jesus. Their average length? Just 38 seconds. The longest parable? Two minutes, twenty seconds. Christ showed us clearly: it is not the length of the message but its impact that makes a difference in men’s lives.
With Biblical illiteracy such a problem, we need more teaching, not less. The average sermon in U.S. Protestant churches is 31 minutes – and rising. As sermons get longer, overall male church attendance falls. The churches with the worst gender gaps – African-American churches – also have the longest sermons. Long sermons won’t make men more literate if they aren’t in church to hear them.
We don’t need shorter sermons, we need better ones. Amen. You got me on that one. Indeed, megachurch sermons usually run 30 to 45 minutes. Men go to megachurches because the pastors are usually gifted communicators. But let’s be honest — not every pastor can preach with the skill of a Billy Graham (whose trademark as a young preacher was the 15-minute sermon). However, any speaker can become a pulpit powerhouse if he learns to translate complex spiritual truths into short, simple and memorable lessons.
My pastor preaches almost an hour. He is so interesting I wouldn’t mind if his sermons were longer. Your church is currently reaching the people who will sit still for an hour-long sermon. But there is a huge unreached population that is rejecting your church because the sermons are so long. You don’t know about them because they attend once and never come back. The bulk of this population is male.
The apostle Paul preached for hours, and many were saved. Paul preached an all-nighter sermon in Troas (Acts 20) because he was scheduled to leave the next day. The Bible says, “Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead.” Of course this was no problem for Paul, who simply performed a resurrection, then went on preaching until dawn.
What are we to make of this story? The text gives the reason Paul preached so long: because he was to leave in the morning. It was just his second visit to the city and the young church needed his expert instruction. They might never receive a preacher of his stature again, so lengthy preaching was appropriate in that instance.
Here is Paul, the world’s greatest preacher, delivering brand-new, radical truth to the people of Troas. This is great stuff! But still, a young man fell to his death because Paul “talked on and on.” Young men are the demographic group least likely to attend Christian churches. Long preaching is one reason more than 70 percent of the young men who are raised in church “fall to their deaths” spiritually during their teens and twenties.
Men just need to learn to pay attention. We’re fighting biology on this one. The verbal regions of a man’s brain are typically smaller in men than those in women. Women are stimulated by words; men are stimulated by visuals (romance novels do for women what pornographic magazines do for men). Since 95% of sermon content is verbal, the women in the audience are actually receiving more information than the men are.
I think the main reason people are disturbed by the idea of shorter sermons is that we’ve swallowed a false concept: the only way to learn about God is through preaching and teaching. But studies reveal how ineffective preaching is at producing lasting life change. One study showed that just 12% of churchgoers can recall the Sunday sermon within 24 hours of hearing it.
It’s time to think differently about preaching. Instead of seeing it as the centerpiece of the Christian maturity, what if we saw it as the match that ignited the flame? What if the sermon set up a week of small group discipleship experiences on the same topic? What if men, discipling small groups of men, reinforced the sermon with lessons of their own?
I was talking to a preacher in Fairbanks, Alaska who was very threatened by this vision. I asked him, “How many a week hours do you spend in sermon preparation?” He answered, “Twenty-five to thirty.” So I challenged him this way: “Next week, spend 10 hours in sermon preparation. Simplify your message. Build in a memorable object lesson. Now you have an extra 15 to 20 hours to go out and love your men. Build them up. Meet them at work. Have lunch with them. If that doesn’t produce immediate fruit, go back to your 30 hours of sermon preparation.”
What if we depended less on preaching and more on discipleship to change lives? I know this vision may threaten some preachers, but not those who are committed to men. It may give them less time in the pulpit, but it will give them more time to change men’s lives.