What Do You Actually Say When You’re Preaching?

When Your Daughter Counts Your Word Choices

The language we use in church really matters. The language we use in our preaching matters especially.

Last Sunday I was on the way to our customary Sunday-afternoon-after-church fast-food experience, and my 13-year-old daughter, Anna, said: “Dad, today was a really good sermon. I paid a lot more attention today than most times…no offense.”

None taken.

Then she began to tell me how my mom, who had stayed with the kids while Emily and I were attending a Pastors Conference, had given them a couple of notebooks in which to take sermon notes. They were themed and formatted for the task. I thought to myself, “What a great idea.” Then the it came:

“I counted the number of times you said Jesus.”

“Cool. Why’d you do that?”

“Because in the book it lists a bunch of words, and has you count the number of times you said each one of them.”

Hmmmm… I thought…do I want to ask this? Yes… “What words were listed, and how many times did I say them?”

Pause here. The magic of this exercise was that I didn’t know I was being watched when I did it. But, it is also a helpful way to tell what I actually say by forming a “heat map” of the language I actually used…not just what I was “trying to say.” In a sermon on the healing of the paralytic by the pool of Bethsaida, here were the top 4:

  • Jesus/Christ/Son of God – 83 (“Jesus,” was 63 of the 83)
  • Spirit – 18
  • Power – 13
  • Paralytic/paralyzed – 8

I actually felt kind of relieved. I had someone check what I actually said, and I felt like I honored God and the text with my language. That little pop quiz helped me a lot, in sermone.

I’m going to have someone tallying language for a while—if for no other reason than it will hold me accountable for the language I use. It is also helpful for me as a preacher to know what words I’m actually using as opposed to what I hope I use.

How about yours, my fellow preachers? What language comprises the precious real estate of your sermons these days?

Would “election,” “Donald Trump,” or “Hillary Clinton,” appear more than Jesus? How about, “justice,” or “growth?” Would “Kingdom,” appear more than any reference to the King? Admittedly, this is a somewhat blunt instrument, but it is an instrument to use in analyzing what we actually say when we preach—not what we intend to say. It is a blunt instrument, but an instrument nonetheless in holding ourselves accountable for the language we use.

Here’s another question: if someone did that exercise on our preaching during times of frustration with the church, depression, or pridefulness…would it stay the same? Or, would the sermon have more, “me,” “I,” or such language in it. I don’t know. But, I know my 13-year-old daughter gave me a great gift, without meaning to. She reminded me to pay attention to the language I use.

Does it lift up Jesus? Does it imitate His language? Does it communicate the highest ideals and emphases of the Kingdom?

So, who’s counting for you this weekend? Make a list of 15 or so words and have them count. Don’t get weird with this—forcing in odd words for no reason. Just be aware that what we say matters…to God and to those 13, 25, 50 and 80-year-olds who glean understanding of the Scriptures from our sermons.

Here’s a beautiful and humbling truth: Your preaching matters.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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