Years ago my wife Kersten pointed out that the preacher at our church made almost exclusive reference to the world of men in his preaching. Once she pointed it out to me, I paid attention week after week, and found that she was correct.
Recently as I’ve co-taught a course of “preaching and culture” with Dr. Greg Scharf, where we have collected transcriptions of more than a thousand sermons by dozens of leading preachers today, I thought I would take a few hours to explore my wife’s suggestion that many male preachers communicate in ways that are male centric.
Initially I thought I would search sermons for the names of contemporary people being referenced by name in the sermons, and compare the number of men to the number of women being referenced. So I started with 54 sermons by John Piper, and making use of the software program NVivo arrived at the following list by gender.
Piper referenced 10.5 times as many men as women. Of the women referenced by Piper, one was a secular scholar, one a secular journalist, two were missionaries at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the twentieth, one was a child praising a man who was the central focus, and one was a woman who ministered to the physically handicapped.
I then proceeded to do the same thing with 18 sermons by Nancy Beach, delivered at Willow Creek Community Church. The following were the names referenced:
Even here there were slightly more references to men than women, but the difference here (1.4 times as many male versus female versus 10.5 times as often) is sizeable. Nancy Beach’s sermons are filled with references to and stories about a wide variety of women in all walks of life.
While suggestive, a sample of two preachers does not prove anything. Furthermore, it took me nearly a full day to do this much research, and I did not have time to do the same for a large number of preachers. So I needed a search strategy I could carry out more quickly. I decided to focus on male pronouns (he, his, him, himself) versus female pronouns (she, her, hers, herself). I selected 20 male preachers and 12 female preachers, and divided the number of male pronouns by the number of female pronouns – to arrive at a “male centrism score” for each preacher. A preacher using 50 times as many male as female pronouns would receive a score of 50, while a preacher using 3 times as many male as female pronouns would receive a score of 3.
Since Christian sermons will focus on Jesus, and will thus use male pronouns for Jesus, and since most preachers will also use male pronouns for God, I assume sermons will have more male pronouns than female. Thus there is no magic number at which point someone can be said to be male-centric. Rather, the male-centrism score allows us only to compare preachers as more or less male-centric in their preaching.
Several observations can be made. Four of the five preachers who are lowest on male centrism are women. Nine of the top ten preachers who are highest on male centrism are men. The mean score for men is 22. The mean score for women is 6. On one end of the continuum we have Beth Moore and Tim Keller who use 2.5 and 2.7 male pronouns for each female pronoun, with on the other end John Piper using 45 male pronouns for every female pronoun and John MacArthur using 105 male pronouns for every female pronoun used. Not surprisingly, the motto of MacArthur’s The Master’s Seminary is congruent with this: “We train men as if lives depended on it!”
It is also worth pointing out that preachers who are theologically very similar (such as John Piper and Tim Keller) diverge markedly in the extent to which women feature centrally in their preaching, with a male centrism score of 45 vs. 2.7. Clearly more is going on than simply formal theology.
Finally, we have changing conventions in use of pronouns, and increasing sensitivities to gender related issues, so I was curious as to whether those preachers born more recently would be less male centric than those born earlier. I was unable to find dates of birth for most of my female preachers, so the following chart plots male centrism in accord with date of birth for male preachers only.
There is a negative correlation with date of birth and male-centrism. That is, the earlier a preacher is born, all other things being equal, the more likely their preaching is to be male centric [r = -.625**). But outliers like MacArthur, Piper, or even Billy Sunday would suggest that much more is going on than simply date of birth.
For the first time in history it is possible relatively easily to get access to full transcriptions of the sermons of leading contemporary preachers. And the current availability of powerful research tools like Nvivo or SPSS allows for all sorts of interesting research to be done in relation to preaching. This is simply one minor suggestive example of the possibilities involved.