First off, I use the word sermon, not message because I think a sermon is more effective for youth ministry. Let me explain the difference (or at least the way I see it). A message is like an essay. You study a passage of scripture and you write down some analysis. At the end you reflect back on the analysis and add in some application. It’s almost like a loosely formatted essay.
A sermon is different. A sermon requires crafting. You have an intro that addresses something about the human condition so that the teens can identify with the sermon. The intro has all the background information. At the end of your introduction is your proposition which addresses the major points of your sermon similar to a thesis statement. Then you carefully craft each main point from the biblical text. In a sermon you apply the text as you go through it, not waiting until the end. The end is the conclusion which includes a final exhortation and a quick synopsis of your main points.
So you can see that a sermon would take much longer to write than a message. Messages make good blog posts, but can often become dry as you try to present them to your teens. Sermons are structured and illustrative and are designed to keep the attention of the audience. That’s what we want as youth ministers.
I know you want to know how long, but I’m going to ramble on a little more first. A sermon needs to balance exegesis and formation. Many times we will be on the freeway and writing the sermon in our minds. We get to our studies and we dive right into the formation of the message and only presume to understand the text. Please, for the sake of doctrinal truth, never assume you know what a passage means. Get out your Greek text and you concordances and dictionaries (you can leave the commentaries out until the very end) and make sure you understood the text completely. Then at this point you can start your formation.
All the same, don’t neglect the formation. Several months ago I have showed up for youth group excited about the text. I had several hours in study. I was passionate about my findings. But, I totally failed to communicate God’s word because I never got to crafting the sermon. I got up in front of the youth and proceeded to work my way exegetically through the text, explaining my findings…it wasn’t even a message, none the less a sermon. And it could not have been less effective. We need balance.
When it comes to time, you need to let the text be in control. I like to begin my Wednesday night message on Friday. Once I have the raw exegesis I will have a pretty good idea how much time I need to dedicate Mon-Wed to the rest of the process. Exegesis usually takes me 1-3 hours depending on the passage.
Formation can take another 1-3 hours. You need to think through transitions. Preach the text in your head, if not to an empty room, to see if you are communicating well. I have trouble illustrating so I need to spend lots of time making sure I have an illustration to clearly demonstrate the truth of each of my main points.
Finally, don’t forget to pray over your sermon. You certainly know this should be done before you begin your exegesis, but it better be done before you get to the podium. I like to have my Wednesday message done on Tuesday. This way I can spend an hour on Wednesday in prayer, bringing the text before the Lord and asking His guidance in delivery and asking Him to prepare the hearts of the teens to hear the Word. In this time you will likely feel called to make some small changes, so that’s why I make it an hour. As a preacher of the Word, you are God’s anointed mouthpiece—His prophet. We need to be sure we speak the truth. And as Shepherds, we desire that the truth change the hearts of the hearers.
All that to say, a sermon should take anywhere from 3-7 hours. I try to stay on the 3 hour end, but usually land around 4-5 hours.
My prayer for you is that you will hear the charges Paul gave to Timothy to speak the truth and to do the work of an evangelist. I pray that your dedication to the task will cause your hearers to experience the change that comes from the truth of God’s word.