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How Long Should A Sermon Be?

How Much Info Can a Person Retain and Assimilate? Seriously.

Full disclaimer: I’m a big proponent of the No-More-Than-30-Minute message. Not that there’s anything magical about 30 minutes, but face it: most of us are not Andy Stanley or whoever we imagine ourselves to be. It’s the rare talking head that can sustain attention beyond 25-30 minutes…and you’re probably not it.

But it’s more than that: it’s about retention and how people learn. If our primary job is to make disciples, it’s good to remember that the word basically means learner. So for that reason, anyone who regularly speaks should wrestle with how people learn.

That’s why it’s important that churches become activistic. Anytime “information” is connected with “doing”, the message is processed and assimilated far better.

Decades ago the Learning Pyramid was widely promoted by National Training Laboratories. It was later discredited because of alleged testing anomalies, but I think many educators would at least agree conceptually with it. Regardless, it’s interesting and from my experience generally true. The short version is: people learn and retain information way, way better with “practice by doing” and “teach others/immediate use” than by listening to a lecture (or sermon!).

That’s the reason we never wanted to be just a “come-and-see” church, but a “go-and-do” one as well. For instance, we never wanted ministry to the under-resourced and marginalized to simply be a “drop-off-your-offering-for-the-poor”-type thing. We need to personally rub shoulders with the poor to understand the heart of God. Or as we used to say: we need the poor more than they need us.

I don’t think we really understand or integrate the message of the Kingdom in our lives until we begin doing what the Father is doing. I have no doubt there are many people sitting in churches that really don’t get it. But maybe they've never really heard that “doing is better than listening”…and then offered opportunities and modeling. And that ranges from relationship issues (eg. forgiveness) to compassionate service to healing the sick to whatever Jesus did…and does. That’s when real learning kicks in.

At the end of the most famous sermon ever delivered (and only 2346 words as recorded!), Jesus reinforces all of his instruction by saying, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

It could be that Jesus was way ahead of the National Training Laboratories folks: we learn best by doing and showing/teaching others how to do it.

Question of the Day: What could you do today to change the way learning and discipleship works in your church?

Dave Workman | Elemental Churches


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