Preaching: What Works? Why Does it Matter? – Updated

Father Longenecker* writes about his frustration as a homilist here, and he raises a good question: Does good preaching matter?  And if so, what kinds of homilies (or lectures) are effective, and what effect do they have?

I’m going to answer as someone who teaches the Catholic faith outside the pulpit, who’s been subject to the very best and very worst of Christian preaching and teaching, and who spends an awful lot of time with Catholic lay people who say the things they don’t say around priests.  This is what I know:

1. Of course you want to be a good speaker.

It goes without saying, but since not everyone who speaks does it well, and not everyone who can speak well speaks well all the time (guilty as charged), we’ll just tuck that reminder away.

A quick tip for the mediocre: If speaking isn’t your gift, go short, go organized, and stay tight to a well-written script (and it’s okay to borrow from better script writers, no problem).  If you do those three, as long as you can be physically understood, you’ll be fine.  I’ve seen piles of dubious speakers produce perfectly good, useful, helpful, inspiring talks just by following those rules.

Most of us (that’s me, and I don’t want to talk about how I know and I wish you wouldn’t either) can’t afford to break those rules.

UPDATED: Here’s a link to the Sound Cloud account of Fr. Renaurd West.  A friend shared his Epiphany sermon with me, and it’s a great example of just a normal sermon by a normal guy.  You can do this.  Anyone can do this.  Teach the Catholic faith, clean, simple, sincere, done.

2. Of course you’ll stick to telling the truth.

If you lie from the pulpit, that’s like a super serious mortal sin.  Just sayin’. So stick to the Catholic faith.   Don’t make stuff up** that isn’t actually the truth. Thanks.

3. When evaluating feedback, consider the source.

There is something to be learned from each comment you receive, and from every silence as well.  The trick is in knowing what you should learn.  Since you aren’t omniscient you’ll screw this up sometimes, but it’s a skill you can hone.   Here’s Father L. talking about one of the frustrating kinds of feedback he gets:

Let’s say I preach about the need to be more generous to the Lord’s work. Invariably I’ll have some rich businessman come out the door and say, “Great homily Father!” I happen to know this guy is a millionaire and that he himself gives very little to the church, but he makes a big show of it when he does actually cough up and write a check for a hundred bucks. He hasn’t heard the homily on sacrificial giving at all because he thinks he IS a sacrificial giver and thinks everybody else are the tightwads.

What does this feedback from Mr. Delusional tell us?  It tells us that a) the sermon was for someone else, not this guy and b) this guy needs some remedial work in a few other areas.  Mr. D’s just tipped you off on where you need to go with your preaching next.  It’s the double-whammy sermon: AND you gave an important message to who knows how many people who needed to hear what you said and took the message home to ponder in privacy, AND you baited your other congregants into showing their hand.  Can’t ask for more than that.

4. Yes, sermons do change lives.

The thing about being a priest, speaker, teacher, or ordinary person who just says stuff to people, is that you never really know the impact you have.  People do listen.  People do take to heart what you have to say.  People do go home and act upon your message.  You won’t hear about it much.  The kind of people who listen and act are not usually the kind of people who hog piles of your time with a play-by-play on their personal lives.

If you don’t say it, no one can act on it.  If you do say it, you might literally be the reason someone is alive today, someone returns to the Church, someone accepts the Gospel, someone responds to a religious vocation . . . there’s no end to the good that is secretly wrought by the work of tireless preachers.

5. The pews are not full of Catholics.

If you’re a priest, you don’t get to know people as well as we layfolk do.  People put on their clergy-face when they talk to the clergy.  But you can read polls, and that’s a start.  The pews are full of people who come to church on Sundays, but those people may or may not know the Catholic faith.  Most of us do not know our faith, and nearly all of us don’t know our faith as well as we should.   I recently heard a priest lament that he can’t offer adult faith formation because he hasn’t got anyone to teach it — there simply aren’t knowledgeable adults in his parish who are capable of teaching the faith to other adults.

When you step to the pulpit, podium, or blackboard, assume your audience knows nothing.  Nothing.  This is hard to do, because when you’ve mastered a topic it seems self-evident to you, and so you worry you’re going to bore your listeners rehashing the same old tired facts.  Never mind that.  Suck it up, tell that joke about the two dogs who met at the corner if you must, and then explain the Catholic faith.  People don’t know it and they need to learn it.

Anyone who is already perfectly evangelized and catechized will politely say a rosary for you while you speak, and they won’t mind it one bit.

6. We are swimming in lies.  We need not just the truth, but the whole truth.

If you’re preaching fire and brimstone, you’d better be preaching eternal blessedness alongside.  You might could keep someone from committing a mortal sin by instilling in them a sound fear of Hell, but you won’t produce martyrs and saints without a sure hope of Heaven.  (You know who does this well?  Msgr. Pope.)

To get more practical, here’s what people seem to respond to well: Hearing the basics of the truth over and over again.  You have to be “foundational” about this, as one of my favorite preachers is fond of saying.  We’re living in a world where people have no ethical sense whatsoever.  They’ve been steeped in utilitarianism since the moment they were conceived.

So you have to daily, yes daily, preach basic things like, “You have inherent worth as a human being simply because you are you,” and “People are not products meant to fulfill the desire of others.”  You have to say things like, “You can’t do something evil that good might come of it,” and “Every child longs to be raised in a stable, loving family with his own mother and father, and we need to do what we can to make that happen, and never choose to intentionally undermine that basic need of the human person.”

People don’t know this stuff.  They can’t understand the teaching against IVF unless they first understand that children aren’t a product to be manufactured and sold, and that we can’t do evil that good might come of it, and that sometimes we must forgo something very, very good (the joy of family life, in this case) in order to have something better (the joy of treating other people as they deserve, rather than as objects of our own gratification).  It’s only after the foundations have been laid that you can build the structure.

You can reasonably assume that nearly every person sitting in the pews isn’t just a house built upon sand, but a shack that’s built upon a sinkhole.  You’ve got to fill it all in with solid rock.  That’s a lot of rock.

 

7. The troops need to be encouraged.

There are a few well-informed, sane, sober, eager Catholic souls residing at your parish.   People who could probably preach your sermon for you, and might even do a better job delivering it than you do.  (But they can’t, because they aren’t clergy: God put you in the pulpit because He knew you needed to suffer more.  You’re welcome.)  These people are not therefore invincible.

Your dream parishioner is not a superhero.  Your stalwart troops aren’t uncrushable, like Wile E. Coyote.  They show up at Mass because they know they desperately need all the divine assistance they can get.  They need to hear the truth over and over again, because life in the world sucks the spirit dry.  (And we all live in the world, even those of us who live alone in our hermit caves.) If your homily were superfluous, it wouldn’t be part of the liturgy.  We’d skip it and go straight to doughnut hour ten minutes earlier.

We need to hear the truth.   We need to be reminded of what we already know.   We need to be put back on course when we inevitably start to drift off a bit.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. We need to hear today the thing that when we heard it a year ago, we weren’t in a position to act on it in quite the same way we can now.  We need to hear today the thing that just didn’t apply to us a year ago, so we weren’t listening so closely then.  We need to hear today the thing that we’ve been fighting against for a decade, and if we aren’t reminded, again, that the fight is worth it, we’re this close to giving up and going home.

***

Conclusion: Yes, Father Longenecker, there is a Santa Claus.  Um, that is, thank you Fathers and Deacons for your willingness to preach, even though you have to preach it to us slobs in your parishes, instead of the people in Heaven who finally have their act together.  Don’t give up now, you’re not dead yet.

 

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*Note to readers: Father Longenecker is a great speaker.  Totally worth booking for your next event.  If you like his blog, you’ll love his talks.

**Not only is making up junk for your sermon a mortal sin, my kids will mock you for the rest of their lives.  They have finely-tuned BS detectors and a penchant for satire they got from . . . um, I don’t know where.  We’re maybe a touch more Jerome than Therese around here.  So don’t stay stupid stuff.  Small children will be amused at your expense, and you don’t want that.
Artwork by Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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