Sermon Traditions Around the World

The first time I heard a sermon by an American mega-church pastor, I experienced a bit of a culture shock. I hadn’t previously seen anything like that. I was used to Latvian sermons that make you sleepy, and all this running around and screaming in American sermons seemed very unusual for me. Latvian pastors instead tend to talk in calm and soothing voices, they don’t scream, they don’t run around, their body language is subtle and minimalistic.

Here is a video of one of Latvia’s most famous preachers, Lutheran Archbishop Jānis Vanags. He’s talking the usual religious nonsense here, so never mind not understanding what he says. Just pay attention to his manner of speaking, the calm and soothing tone of voice, lack of hand gestures. This is how Latvian preachers talk during sermons. This is what I was used to. Well, maybe not really “used to,” as I grew up in an atheist family, and I have never attended a sermon in person, but this was what I had seen on television. This was what I expected from sermons, they were supposed to be boring to listen to, and they usually made the audience sleepy.

This is a German sermon. In case anybody had some stereotypes about how German language sounds, well, German preachers don’t scream or sound angry. In this case, the melancholic tone is nowhere near as strong as in the Latvian example, but the speaker is calm and doesn’t scream or run around.

And then I watched the documentary Marjoe, which featured footage of American sermons. I wasn’t particularly surprised about how preachers cynically manipulated and exploited their followers, but I felt stunned about American sermons themselves. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen it already, Marjoe is worth watching, it’s a documentary that reveals the tactics that evangelists use to manipulate people and coerce donations from them. You can watch this documentary here.

At 12:55, there’s footage of Marjoe preaching. It is very loud, upbeat, energetic, his charismatic stage show is modeled after those of contemporary rock stars. Basically, it is designed to create a cult of personality.

Now contrast this with the solemn, serious, calm, soothing, even melancholic European sermons.

In general, American revival preachers talk in a specific way. Here are two examples:

If you grew up in the USA, you may perceive American sermons as the norm, you won’t notice anything unusual about them. Yet a person like me who in European will instead ask what is going on with these sermons. Why do preachers perform the way they do?

To begin, they certainly want to make sure that the audience isn’t bored. Keeping them entertained brings in more money. (European-style sermons are plain boring.) But American preachers are also trying the create cults of personality, and such behavior would be discouraged in, for example, European Lutheran churches. Yes, an individual preacher is supposed to attract an audience and collect donations for the church as a whole. But individual preachers aren’t expected to stand out too much, they aren’t expected to create a cult of personality, they are expected to ensure that believers follow the teaching of the church as a whole rather than idolizing one specific preacher who works for said church. Moreover, individual preachers are collecting donations for the church; they cannot use this money to get private jets instead.

Even Catholics who do create a personality cult for the Pope idolize the position itself rather than a single individual person who happens to be a Pope right now. Believers are expected to idolize the Pope rather than Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a single person who cannot even use his real name while doing said job.

If you watched the videos featuring Jim Bakker and Billy Graham, you might notice that the way how they speak resembles Donald Trump’s speaking style. Trump’s voice, the rhythm, the cadence, and range he uses reminds me of a mega-church pastor, he also regularly uses repetition, and emphasizes the key words he is trying to drill into his listener’s brain.

There’s a reason why preachers who live in the same region and preach to the same audiences all tend to speak similarly. Firstly, they learn from each other; secondly, their believers are already primed to accept being lied to in that tone of voice. The same words and phrases, tone, rhythm, manner of speaking are already most familiar and comforting to the congregation (or constituents).

By the way, personally, I loathe Trump’s manner of speaking. (The same goes also for Jim Bakker and Billy Graham.) I find Trump’s speaking style irritating and off-putting. I cannot really pinpoint a single reason for my distaste. Emphasizing some words? That’s what every good orator is supposed to do; after all, speaking monotonously is a bad thing. Repetitions? There were plenty of repetitions in “I Have a Dream” and “Ain’t I a Woman?” yet I perceive those speeches as pretty great. If I attempt to analyze the way how Trump speaks, it gets even harder for me to tell a single reason why exactly I dislike it.

For me the problem appears to be more general—it feels like Trump doesn’t treat the audience as thinking human beings. He doesn’t intelligently explain his opinions, instead he is trying to drill key phrases into the listener’s head. It feels as if he expects the listeners to admire him and feel small in front of him.

Besides, I absolutely hate being screamed at. In my opinion, the following is a textbook example for how not to make a public speech. Whenever somebody starts speaking (read: screaming) like this, I automatically get extra suspicious.


  1. Allison says

    I don’t know about the German or Latvian examples, but the USA-an example is something of an outlier.

    In the USA, every religion comes in many, many varieties, and each variety has a lot of variety within it. I can assure you that the sermons in most “mainstream” Christian denominations are generally just as dull and soporific as anything Latvia or Germany can offer. I grew up being taken to an Episcopal Church (= USA version of Church of England), and the only emotion that was acceptable there was a sense of smug superiority. However, my ex’s uncle was an Episcopal priest, and he was part of a group of Episcopalians who were into miracles and faith healing and a personal relationship with Jesus.

    On the other end, there are churches (often effectively a denomination consisting of one church) which are based on the pastor-founder’s charisma — i.e., his (almost always his) ability to arouse a deep emotional sense of sinfulness and salvation in his flock. Sort of a mixture of entertainment and demagoguery. This is part of a long-standing tradition in the USA, typically referred to as revivalism.

    I think Europeans who have never lived in the USA or spent a lot of time in USA-an expatriate groups have a hard time grasping just how heterogenous USA-an society is.

  2. says

    I can assure you that the sermons in most “mainstream” Christian denominations are generally just as dull and soporific as anything Latvia or Germany can offer.

    Well, that makes sense. As somebody who isn’t from the USA, I’m more likely to notice the televised sermons of mega-church pastors compared to something that’s happening inside a small town church where nobody even tries to record said sermon.

    I think Europeans who have never lived in the USA or spent a lot of time in USA-an expatriate groups have a hard time grasping just how heterogenous USA-an society is.

    My impression is that Christians sects are somewhat homogenous in Latvia, at least more so than in the USA. All the outliers simply don’t survive that long and fail to attract many members. Sure, there are the Catholic, Lutheran, and Russian Orthodox churches, and a bunch of minor ones as well, but they don’t really differ than much.

    The state also regulates religions more tightly. All the leaders sure as hell have much less “religious freedom” to abuse church members.

    For example, last May a 21 years old woman died in childbirth, because she belonged to a crazy religious cult, and its leader forbade her to seek medical care. The idea was that going to a doctor means having a weak faith and constitutes an attempt to go against God’s will. If a church member gets sick, the rest are supposed to pray for them. Thus the young woman and her family were pressured to skip going to a doctor and tried to give birth at home with no medical professionals nearby. The woman and her baby both died.

    Now the church leader is in prison. Three people were in that room where the woman died, all of them are now facing a court case. The final sentence isn’t yet known, but these people have already spent some time in jail (they asked for bail, it was denied). It appears like they will be sentenced to at least a few years in jail.

    Here are the two sections of the criminal law that are now used to prosecute the religious leader who caused the death of this woman:

    Section 137. Unauthorised Medical Treatment
    (2) For a person who commits unauthorised medical treatment, if such has caused the death of the victim or serious bodily injury through the negligence of the offender, the applicable punishment is deprivation of liberty for a period up to eight years.


    Section 141. Abandonment without Assistance
    (2) For a person who knowingly commits abandonment without assistance of a person who is in a state in which life or health is endangered and who is unable to save himself or herself due to his or her juvenility, old-age, illness, or feebleness, if the offender was able to provide assistance to the victim and had an obligation to take care of him or her, or the offender himself or herself has put the person in the life endangering state, the applicable punishment is the deprivation of liberty for a period of up to two years or temporary deprivation of liberty, or community service, or a fine.

    This was a somewhat small and secluded cult, they had only about 150 members. Now it looks like this religious organization will be destroyed by the state.

    The state gives religious organizations some freedom, but the moment they directly cause the death of some person, that’s highly likely to be the end of said religious sect.

    You can imagine how incredible it feels for me that the USA allows various religious cults to directly cause the deaths of thousands of people, and all those religious leaders keep on getting away with it.

  3. says

    There is this weird kind of sneering thing that American evangelical preachers do – a kind of bored-sounding smug drawl. Donald Trump uses it, too – presumably because his followers are already programmed to react to that delivery.

    It is all extremely creepy to me.

  4. Jazzlet says

    In the UK there are certainly some evangelical churches that are like the American evangelicals along side all of the other christian denominations which include everything from the Plymouth Bretheren and the Wee Frees who are the most austere of protestants through the Methodist, Baptists, the Church of England ect to the various flavours of evangelicals along with Catholics, Eastern Othodox, Russian Orthodox etc. As in the USA there are some almost exclusively black churches, which may also have a high proportion of members whose families orignate in a particular African or Carribean country. My best mate lives next to a Methodist church that lets it’s space to a Black Evangelical church on Sunday afternoons, you hardlly notice the Methodists are there, only a little when they are singing, whereas the black Evangelical pastors are loud enough to hear when they preach or pray and the singing is far louder (and better) too.

  5. Ridana says

    I don’t think Trump speaks like an evangelist. MLK certainly did, and Obama sometimes when he got rolling. That style of speaking can be very powerful, if the speaker is sincere. Trump is not. He lacks the fire and passion of an evangelist, even when he’s pissed off (which usually makes him just stop and pout). His tone is more mocking, or if he has to read from a teleprompter, sing-song and utterly bored. His delivery is more like a stand-up comedian in a Vegas lounge, without the humor, except for the derision that passes for humor among Republicans.

    His word repetition isn’t to drive home the talking points (well, the repetition of the whole idea, in speech after speech, is), it’s to stall for time while he figures out what he wants to say. Where normal people use “uh, um, like, ya know,” and other place holders, he repeats his familiar, go-to words and phrases (in part because his vocabulary is so limited). He never uses any of the common fillers, he just repeats. “They are a great, great people, great people. Nobody knows this more than me, nobody. We had a beautiful, beautiful meeting, that was perfect, perfect, it was so, so beautiful.” “We have to find the oranges of this investigation. Nobody asks about the oranges. I say, what were the oranges, the or-gins, of all this.”

  6. says

    The only ones I know are the catholic ones I was dragged to as a kid, and only in British Columbia, but that was the same in several towns.

    There wasn’t much yelling and screaming, but there was a *lot* of “do what we tell you or you’ll go to hell”. Especially if your kids didn’t grow up catholic, for which my atheism sent the egg and sperm donors into a tizzy.

  7. servalan says

    As a once candidate for Presbyterian Ministry, and now a long time atheist, whenever I hear some American “preacher” praying, it always sounds less like what I think of as prayer and far more a speech to the choir. It seems to be less about god, and more about the preacher’s supposed power over god. Less about worship, more about demands. Are there hearts really that hollow?

  8. enkidu says

    I suspect that sermons in New Zealand are usually more like Latvia than USA, not that I’ve heard one for many a year.
    When introducing the very sensible Latvian laws, I think you meant “prosecute” rather than “persecute”. The preacher concerned would probably agree with your post as it stands.

  9. says

    enkidu @#8

    When introducing the very sensible Latvian laws, I think you meant “prosecute” rather than “persecute”.

    You are correct, I messed it up. It’s fixed now.

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