Many people heard a sermon for the first time in a long during the Christmas season. How long the service lasted depends upon the type of church, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.
Researchers analyzed 49,719 sermons delivered in April and May that were shared online by 6,431 churches in what it described as “the most exhaustive attempt to date to catalogue and analyze American religious sermons.” Although the median length of sermons was 37 minutes among the major branches of Christianity in the US, according to “The Digital Pulpit” study, they clearly have vastly different traditions.
Meanwhile, historically black Protestant churches had by far the longest sermons at a median of 54 minutes. Sermons at the black churches lasted longer than mainline Protestant sermons even though, on average, they contained about the same number of words, according to Pew. A possible explanation is that the preachers at black churches allow more time during their sermons for musical interludes, responses from worshipers and dramatic pauses in their oratory, the study said.
Pew said the sermons it studied came from 2,156 evangelical congregations, 1,367 mainline Protestant congregations, 422 Catholic parishes and 278 historically black Protestant congregations. Several prominent pastors have mulled 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.”
As for content, sermons vary widely.
Pew found “many words and phrases that are used more frequently in the sermons of some Christian groups than others.”
“For instance, the distinctive words (or sequences of words) that often appear in sermons delivered at historically black Protestant congregations include “powerful hand” and “hallelujah … come.” The latter phrase (which appears online in actual sentences such as “Hallelujah! Come on … let your praises loose!”) appeared in some form in the sermons of 22% of all historically black Protestant churches across the study period. And these congregations were eight times more likely than others to hear that phrase or a close variant. Although the word “hallelujah” is by no means unique to historically black Protestant services, this analysis indicates that it is a hallmark of black Protestant churches.
Meanwhile, the distinctive vocabulary of Catholic sermons includes “homily” (which is what Catholics typically call a sermon) as well as “diocese” and “Eucharist.”
The two analytic lenses used in this report
This report uses two different comparison groups depending on the focus of the analysis. Some findings are based on the share of all sermons that have certain characteristics (for example, “61% of sermons reference the name of a book from the Old Testament,” or “the median evangelical Protestant sermon is 39 minutes long.”
Other findings are based on the share of all churches that have certain characteristics (for example, “37% of all Catholic churches used the word ‘homily’ at least once during the study period.”) These analyses aggregate all sermons delivered at a single church and analyze them together, to represent what a consistent attendee at that church would have heard over the duration of the study period.
The findings about the most common or distinctive words are based on the share of churches, because calculating the share of all sermons that use a particular word would give little indication of whether the word was used across a wide swathe of churches or just many times in a few churches. The findings about the median length of sermons and how often they include citations of books of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament (which includes the Christian Gospels) are based on the content of individual sermons.
Pew says, “Some terms are distinctive to a religious tradition but are not very common even within that tradition. For example, the three terms most disproportionately used in evangelical sermons include variants of the phrases “eternal hell,” “lose … salvation,” and “trespass … sin” (which appear online in actual sentences such as, “Either allow what he did to pay for your sin, or you are going to pay for your sin in eternity, in hell. That’s the Gospel we have.”). But only one distinctively evangelical phrase (“Bible … morning”) was used in a sermon at more than 10% of evangelical congregations during the study period.”
Missouri-based researcher Chris Colvin, who helps pastors prepare sermons, said that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which contains some of the most powerful passages in the Scriptures, can be read aloud in less than 15 minutes.
–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice