Some of you know this about me, but I transcript my sermons. You won’t be surprised to learn that I can be a bit blabby, and the more passionate I am about something, the more apt I am to ramble on redundantly about it. So I’ve found that when I’m preparing a sermon, it’s best for me to write out precisely what I mean to say. Now, this may or may not have any positive impact on you experience of my preaching on Sunday. On the one hand, perhaps all of this effort isn’t really paying off and you feel I’m still plenty gabby. On the other hand, can you imagine how much worse I’d be without that transcript?
Regardless, there’s an added benefit to writing out my sermons—I’ve always got an archive handy of every word I’ve preached. And around this time, I usually take a minute to look back at my year in the pulpit. And if you’ll excuse the self-indulgent navel-gazing, I’d like to share a little about what these sermons had to say.
First, the basics. Pulling it all together, here were my stats: 17 sermons, 175 pages, 47,000 words. When I fed those words into a frequency counter, I could see a little more up close where my focus was. The most commonly used nouns: God (293), Jesus (265), love (126), and Christ (123). The most common action verbs: see (147), know (138), love (126)*, do, (121), want (93). I talked about grace (53) more than sin (38) or judgement (8), resurrection (48) more than death (20), and faith (35) more than works (8). I used we/us/our (1794) more than I/me/my (554) and you/your (545) combined.
There’s a lot here that looks and feels right, and it’s a comfort to know that at this macro level, my preaching reflects the mission of our church and the message of the gospel. But it’s what these sermons don’t say that troubles me. For example, while my sermons focus a lot on God and Jesus, I averaged only one mention of the Holy Spirit per sermon. I may not have intentionally downplayed the presence and purpose of the Holy Spirit, but the text confirms what’s too often true in the church—we are gun-shy about talking about this person of the Trinity. There are also too few mentions of the Spirit-enabled work of God’s people: prayer. Less than twenty times in my sermons do I mention this essential activity of a disciple of Jesus.
I also note that while I am quick to speak of Jesus’ work on the cross and of the empty grave, there’s surprisingly little about repentance or forgiveness (less than 10). It’s enough to make me fearful that the gospel message is being flattened out, generalized into ‘good vibes’ instead of the necessary, triumphant work of justification and salvation.
Perhaps most surprising—perhaps most convicting— is that I mentioned thankfulness or gratitude less than five times in the last year. This strikes me as particularly tragic. In the context of our weekly service, it would seem impossible for the sermon not to be effusive with thanksgiving. Having worshipped together and heard from God’s Word, how else could we respond? As we are drawn toward the table to receive God’s grace, what else could fill our hearts? I can’t help but feel I’ve let you down pastorally, that in a year such as this I haven’t directed us again and again to give thanks for God’s goodness and mercy even in the midst of difficulty.
This is one of a few little exercises I’m doing this week to reflect on my year. These aren’t practices meant to pat me on the back or to weigh me down with unreasonable expectations for the future. They are simply opportunities to place my life before the presence of the Father and to humbly submit to him—letting go of my failures and surrendering my successes to God’s larger work of restoring all things.
I hope you have your own ways of retreating into stillness and solitude at the beginning of this new church year, and I pray that as you look at your life you see God moving and you hear his voice beckoning you to follow him. As for me, I’ll be spending the days of this week re-learning what it means to give thanks. And let me begin by saying here—since I apparently haven’t said it enough—I’m so thankful for all of you. God bless you and your family this thanksgiving!
*Ok, I know that love can be a noun or verb—I didn’t go back and count each use!