Computational analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons reveals differences in length and content across major Christian traditions
Frequent churchgoers may have a good sense of what kind of sermons to expect from their own clergy: how long they usually last, how much they dwell on biblical texts, whether the messages lean toward fire and brimstone or toward love and self-acceptance. But what are other Americans hearing from the pulpits in their congregations?
A new Pew Research Centre analysis begins to explore this question by harnessing computational techniques to identify, collect and analyze the sermons that U.S. churches livestream or share on their websites each week. For practical reasons, this exploration is limited to Christian Churches and does not describe sermons delivered in synagogues, mosques or other non-Christian congregations.
This process produced a database containing the transcribed texts of 49,719 sermons shared online by 6,431 churches and delivered between April 7 and June 1, 2019, a period that included Easter. These churches are not representative of all houses of worship or even of all Christian Churches in the U.S.; they make up just a small percentage of the estimated 350,000-plus religious congregations nationwide. Compared with U.S. congregations as a whole, the churches with sermons included in the dataset are more likely to be in urban areas and tend to have larger-than-average congregations. The median sermon scraped from congregational websites is 37 minutes long. But there are striking differences in the typical length of a sermon in each of the four major Christian traditions analyzed in this report: Catholic, evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant and historically black Protestant.
Catholic sermons are 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 have the longest sermons by far: a median of 54 minutes, more than triple the length of the median Catholic homily posted online during the Easter study period.
Protestant and Catholic sermons: These two groups are, respectively, 39 percentage points and 40 percentage points more likely to mention a book of the New Testament than to mention a book of the Old Testament by name in any given sermon. This may reflect the fact that most ministers in the mainline Protestant and Catholic traditions preach on the day’s Gospel reading, which is always from the New Testament.
References to books of the Bible also vary over time. For instance, the share of all sermons that mention a book of the Old Testament by name declined by 13 percentage points on the week of Easter Sunday (to 49% from 62% the previous week) and then rebounded the following week.
Nevertheless, the nearly 50,000 sermons collected in this analysis offer a window into the messages that millions of Americans hear from pulpits across the country. The view is limited and does not come close to revealing all the meaningful communications between American clergy and their congregations, but it is an attempt to look systematically and objectively at a large portion of those communications.
Among sermons shared in video or audio format in a sufficiently high-quality file that the Centre could determine their length, the median sermon in this dataset runs 37 minutes in length.
However, the length of a typical sermon varies widely among churches in different religious traditions. The median sermon collected from the website of a historically black Protestant Church (54 minutes) is more than three times as long as the median Catholic homily (which runs just 14 minutes). Evangelical and mainline Protestant sermons fall somewhere in between: Sermons found on the websites of evangelical churches run a median of 39 minutes, fully 14 minutes longer than those collected from mainline Protestant Churches (25 minutes). These findings largely hold true when word count, rather than duration, is used to measure the length of sermons. However, there is one notable exception: Historically black Protestant sermons are roughly as long as evangelical Protestant sermons when measured by word count, but 38% longer when measured by duration. This suggests that there may be more time in sermons delivered at historically black Protestant congregations during which the preacher is not speaking, such as musical interludes, pauses between sentences or call and response with people in the pews.
The sermons that American churches share online are heavily laced with scripture: 95% reference at least one book, Gospel or epistle of the Bible by name, and more than half (56%) cite particular books from both the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew scriptures) and the New Testament (which includes the Christian Gospels) in the same sermon. These numbers vary across Christian groups, with evangelical churches being the most likely to reference a book, Gospel or epistle of the Bible by name – doing so in 97% of all sermons. Pastors across the country are more likely to reference the New Testament by name (90% do so) than to mention the Old Testament (61%).
In contrast to the preceding analysis, this section of the report is based on sermons, rather than churches. Because almost every congregation in the dataset heard at least one sermon that mentioned books from both the New and Old Testaments during the study period, using the percentage of sermons as a frame of reference allows for a more revealing assessment of differences across religious traditions.
In addition, these findings may be influenced by the method used to identify references to the Old and New Testaments, as well as the ways that different churches share elements of their services online. For example, if a Catholic Church posted the scripture reading that generally precedes a Catholic homily, the text processing tools would likely count it as naming a particular book of the Bible. But if the leader of a different church referred to those readings by saying, “in our first reading” or “as we heard in our second reading” – without naming the readings themselves – it would not be counted as a citation of a particular book of scripture.At least one book from the New Testament is named in 90% of all sermons, while a book of the Old Testament is cited in 61% of sermons.
Clergy in evangelical and historically black Protestant Churches mention the names of books from the Old Testament most frequently. Roughly two-thirds of sermons delivered to these congregations mention specific books of the Old Testament, compared with 43% of mainline Protestant sermons and 28% of Catholic homilies. Evangelical sermons also are the most likely to name a book from both the Old and New Testaments in the same sermon: 62% of all sermons from evangelical churches did so in the study period, compared with 56% of historically black Protestant sermons, 37% of mainline Protestant sermons and 22% of Catholic homilies.