In addition to calculating the most common terms across Christian traditions, researchers also identified the words and phrases that congregations of each major Christian tradition were disproportionately likely to hear in sermons, compared with congregations in the other traditions. Researchers identified these “most distinctive” terms by calculating the share of all churches in a Christian group with sermons that used a given word or phrase over the study period, as well as the share of all churches not in that group where the word or phrase was used, and then dividing the former by the latter to establish a ratio. In addition to converting each word to its stem, as in the preceding analysis, researchers removed any words used in sermons at fewer than 250 churches (4%) or at more than 95% of all churches (6,109).
Some of the findings are commonsensical. For instance, Catholic congregations were 21 times more likely than others to hear the term “homily” at least once during the study period, and they were 15 times more likely to hear “diocese” and “Eucharist.”
In other cases, a tradition’s most distinctive terms may reflect some aspect of its teachings or its lectionary (a calendar of weekly readings). For example, Catholic sermons from the study period are more likely than others to contain the word “paschal,” which refers to Easter and to what the Catholic Catechism calls the “paschal mystery” of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Certain expressions may be distinctive to the sermons of a particular Christian tradition but not especially common even within that tradition. Evangelical sermons are an especially notable example of this phenomenon.
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 who attended every service at a given evangelical church in the dataset 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.”
In addition to being less common overall, the most distinctively evangelical terms also are less distinctive than those of other Christian traditions. For example, evangelical congregations were only three times more likely than others to hear the phrase “eternal hell” in a sermon during the study period, while Catholic congregations were 12 times more likely than others to hear the word “paschal.”
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