Tomorrow marks the 400th anniversary of the first recorded sermon on American soil and the first printed here. Since there were no ordained ministers to come to Plymouth colony aboard the English ship Fortune, a deacon named Robert Cushman delivered to the Puritan group a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:24.
In honor of this anniversary, here are nine things you should know about sermons.
1. Defining what a sermon is can be surprisingly difficult.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a sermon as “part of a Christian church ceremony in which a minister gives a talk on a religious or moral subject, often based on something written in the Bible.” Such definitions provide a useful starting point but exclude much of what has constituted a sermon throughout church history. A more useful, though still too narrow, definition was proposed by Austin Phelps in his 1895 book The Theory of Preaching. Phelps says, “A sermon is an oral address to the popular mind, upon religious truth, as contained in the Christian Scriptures, and elaborately treated as a view to persuasion.” W. E. Sangster adds the helpful clarification that “an address is man talking to men; a sermon is a man speaking from God” [emphasis in original].
2. Homilies can be sermons, but not all sermons are homilies—and both are related to homiletics.
A sermon is the work produced or created by the art of preaching, which is called homiletics; homiletics includes both the composition of sermons and their delivery; a person who practices homiletics is known as a homilist or preacher; a homily is similar to a sermon but is typically shorter and more devotional; sermon studies is the interdisciplinary field that explores the historical, literary, and social aspects of sermons.
3. Sermons are found in the Bible, even though the word “sermon” is not.
Determining what constitutes a sermon in the Bible is made more difficult since the word “sermon” is not used (in English it is derived from an Old French word meaning “discourse”). The best-known sermon in the Bible—the Sermon on the Mount—was not called that by the biblical author (Matthew) and only picked up that moniker later in church history. Identifying sermons in the Bible therefore requires looking for occurrences of preaching. Using this standard, the longest sermon series is by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. The book with the most sermons mentioned is likely Acts, which refers to 19 sermons by Peter, Stephen, Philip, James, and Paul.
4. Expositional and topical are the dominant forms of modern sermons.
Throughout history, sermons have been used for a variety of purposes and taken on a variety of forms. But the two primary categories today are topical sermons and expositional sermons. Topical sermons are those in which the preaching is centered on a specific topic rather than a specific biblical text.
An expository sermon, as Mark Dever explains, is based on preaching in which the main point of the biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached. A topical sermon can also be expository. Topical expository sermons, Timothy S. Warren notes, ground their message in two or more different texts or units in their individual contexts that share a common subject. And as Tim Keller points out, “all expository preaching is partially topical. Then again, any topical sermon that is faithful to the Scripture will have to consist of several ‘mini expositions’ of various texts.”
5. There was a “golden age of sermons” in the modern West.
Some scholars in the field of sermon studies have identified the period from 1689 to 1901 as the “golden age” of sermons. During this period, printed copies of sermons were one of the most dominant forms of literature. Throughout the 18th century, about six pages of sermons were printed for every one page of fiction. The “sermon event” (the experience of a congregation hearing a preacher) was one of the dominant forms of public discourse. According to the Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689-1901, “In total, a quarter of a billion potential sermon events [within the British Empire] between 1689 and 1901 is probably an underestimate.”
6. Catholic sermons are shortest while black Protestant sermons are longest.
Pew Research performed a computational analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons posted online between April 7 and June 1, 2019, a period that included Easter. The study found that the median sermon sampled from congregational websites is 37 minutes long. 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. At 54 minutes, historically black Protestant churches had the longest sermons—more than triple the length of the median Catholic homily.
7. In America, evangelical sermons are more likely to mention “sin” and “eternal hell” than other traditions.
The Pew Research study from 2019 also found certain words and phrases are used more frequently in the sermons of some Christian groups than others. Some words—such as “know,” “God,” and “Jesus”—were found in sermons at 98 percent or more of churches in all four major Christian traditions included in the analysis. But evangelicals were more likely to use words such as “eternal hell,” “lose . . . salvation,” “trespass . . . sin,” and “home . . . heaven” than other groups. Words used most distinctly in historically black Protestant congregations included “powerful hand” and “hallelujah . . . come.” The latter phrase appeared in some form in the sermons of 22 percent of all historically black Protestant churches across the study period.
8. Black Protestants in America say inspiring sermons are more important than denominational affiliation.
An overwhelming majority (77 percent) of black Americans say inspiring sermons would be a very important factor when looking for a new house of worship. In comparison, that is more than double the number who say staying in their current denomination would be very important if they were looking for a new congregation, and three times more than the number who say it is very important for leaders to share their race or ethnicity (14 percent) or that most people attending share their race or ethnicity (13 percent).
9. U.S. churchgoers are mostly satisfied with the sermons they hear.
A survey taken by Pew Research in 2019 found that 90 percent of Christians who attend worship services at least a few times a year are satisfied with the sermons they hear. Six in ten evangelical Protestants (61 percent) say they are “very satisfied” with the sermons they hear, almost twice as many as those who say they’re “somewhat satisfied” (32 percent).