NEW YORK — How long should a sermon be?
The major branches of Christianity in the U.S. have sharply different traditions, with sermons at historically black Protestant churches lasting — on average — nearly four times as long as Roman Catholic sermons.
That’s among the findings of an analysis by the Pew Research Center — billed as the first of its kind — of 49,719 sermons delivered in April and May that were shared online by 6,431 churches. Pew described its research as “the most exhaustive attempt to date to catalogue and analyze American religious sermons.”
According to Pew, the median length of the sermons was 37 minutes. Catholic sermons were the shortest, at a median of just 14 minutes, compared with 25 minutes for sermons in mainline Protestant congregations and 39 minutes in evangelical Protestant congregations. Historically black Protestant churches had by far the longest sermons, at a median of 54 minutes.
Pew said sermons at the black churches lasted longer than mainline Protestant sermons even though, on average, they had roughly the same number of words. A possible explanation, Pew said, is that the preachers at black churches allow more time during their sermons for musical interludes, responses from worshippers in the pews and dramatic pauses in their oratory.
Numerous prominent pastors have pondered the question of a sermon’s length.
“I’ve asked and been asked that question a hundred times,” the Rev. Hershael York, a professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in 2016. “Today, after 35 years in ministry, I have a definitive answer: You can preach as long as you hold their attention.”
The question came up in a 2018 episode of “Ask Pastor John,” a Q-and-A forum hosted by the Rev. John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. He said he generally needs at least 40 minutes, sometimes more than 50, to deeply explore his themes.
“If I look around the nation, there are many hundreds, maybe thousands, of growing churches where pastors preach rich, Christ-exalting, God-centered, Bible-saturated, textually rooted, intellectually challenging, emotionally moving, life-altering sermons for 50 or more minutes, and very few people get frustrated that they are too long,” Piper said.
Missouri-based researcher/writer Chris Colvin, who helps pastors with sermon preparation, notes that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount — containing some of the most powerful passages in the Scriptures — can be read aloud in less than 15 minutes.
In addition to sermon length, the new Pew analysis delved into an examination of words and phrases most commonly used by preachers from the different Christian traditions.
It found that the word “hallelujah” appeared in sermons from about 22 percent of the historically black Protestant churches, and those congregations were eight times more likely than others to hear that word.
Sermons from evangelical churches were three times more likely than those from other traditions to include the phrase “eternal hell.”
Pew said the sermons it examined came from 2,156 evangelical congregations, 1,367 mainline Protestant congregations, 422 Catholic parishes and 278 historically black Protestant congregations, while other congregations could not be reliably classified. The research did not analyze sermons delivered in synagogues, mosques or other non-Christian congregations.