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Press: The New Yorker gets to grips with the sermon

15 October 2021

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SOME of you may have sat through sermons on eternity; more, through sermons that merely seemed eternal. But now the Pew Foundation has done the quantitative work, and The New Yorker has written it up. The median sermon in an American church is only 37 minutes long. The median length for sermons in Black-led churches is 54 minutes (remember, that means that half of them are longer), but in Roman Catholic churches, only 14 minutes.

It is hard to imagine any British magazine giving the kind of time and thought to this subject that The New Yorker, the quintessence of metropolitan chic, has done. But Casey Cep, a New Yorker staff writer, goes some distance behind the headline statistics: “Sermons remain the core of worship. They also represent a curious literary genre. Like short stories, sermons have certain formal characteristics; unlike sonnets, they have no set form. They can focus on a single verse or several passages, take on a specific theological concept or doctrine, be timely and topical or conspicuously old-fashioned. Christians continue to preach today because Jesus preached during his ministry; the Gospels document the sermons he gave in the years preceding his crucifixion.”

The Pew survey covered nearly 50,000 sermons, preached in 6400 churches, in the months of April and May 2019, just as the pandemic was getting under way. They scraped the sermons from the churches’ websites, which obviously skewed the sample a bit — there are more than 350,000 congregations in the United States.

One very striking finding, to a journalist who thinks in word counts, is that the average Evangelical sermon runs out at about 6000 words. That is far longer than anything that the papers in this country think of as a “long read”; and yet people sit through them happily. “When surveyed by Gallup, a full seventy-five per cent of respondents indicated that, of all the offerings from their places of worship, they cared most about sermons, preferring those which taught scripture and were relevant to their lives,” the New Yorker article said.

Even “mainstream Protestant” churches had sermons about 3200 words long — a little shorter than a Guardian “long read”. The RCs came out at 1850 words, which was more than twice the space I ever gave people on the God-slots that I edited. Perhaps this is just another obvious finding: although it is hard for an opinion writer to believe, few newspaper readers approach their task with the reverence of a churchgoer.

The other thing that I really liked about this survey was the way in which it undercut the easy readings of some potential news lines. To quote from the survey itself: “Evangelical sermons contain a number of distinctive words and phrases relating to sin, punishment and redemption. But most of these terms were used in sermons at fewer than 10% of all evangelical churches across the study period. For instance, sermons from evangelical churches were three times more likely than those from other traditions to include the phrase ‘eternal hell’ (or variations such as ‘eternity in hell’). However, a congregant . . . had a roughly one-in-ten chance of hearing one of those terms at least once during the study period. By comparison, that same congregant had a 99% chance of hearing the word ‘love’.”

 

AND, from that, a header into the British tabloid press. An SDF-funded church in Bournemouth, St Michael’s, decided to start calling itself “St Mike’s”, and to open a coffee bar. The Sun found someone (a parishioner? the news editor?) to complain: “a source told The Sun: ‘The idea that teenagers will be more interested in going to church if we rename it ‘St Mike’s’ is ridiculous. What’s next — St Dave’s? St Pete’s?’”

Rod Liddle, in The Sunday Times, picked up on this: “A church in Bournemouth called St Michael’s has changed its name to St Mike’s. The vicar, Sarah Yetman, said this is to make the church ‘attractive and engaging for younger generations’.

“I’m sure that will do the trick, Sarah. Especially if you refer to our Lord as Jezza C and His Badass Crew. Sarah says there will also be a coffee bar. Ooh! Will there be ping-pong too? I bet the kids will swarm in.

“Not all churches are seeing attendances plummeting, by the way. Lots of evangelical churches are doing just fine — by basing their teachings on that clapped-out, boring old book the Bible.”

 

NOT to be outdone in religious ignorance, the Telegraph discovered yet another example of the plague of bishops: apparently there is now an “Archbishop of Hackney”: Elizabeth Adekunle, who contributes to Thought for the Day in her cover identity as a mere archdeacon. The focus of the story was Sarah Sands, the former Today editor, who had said that she’d wanted to kill off Thought for the Day because she didn’t control it, but also because “it has no relation to the rest of the programme.”

Apparently, the presenters are forbidden to refer to it or show any interest in their links before and afterwards. This is an astonishingly effective form of marginalisation. Sands called it “Absolutely visibly the total [separation of] Church and State”.

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