Veteran homiletics teachers are asked a perennial question: what qualities make for great preaching? In 2016, the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary took a survey on the dimensions of effective preaching. The usual suspects were mostly all there: make the sermon biblical, relevant, authentic, theological, and effectively communicated in delivery and form.
But what about the sequence of these qualities? Are there aspects of effective preaching which build one upon the other, something like St. Benedict’s famous Ladder of Humility? Configuring dimensions of effective preaching like steps one after the other asks homilists to get a sure footing in one of these preaching steps before moving on to another. Here is what seven of these stages might look like.
1. Claiming a Personal Theology of Preaching
The foundational principle of all preaching rests on developing an integrated theology. Why preach? When teaching seminarians studying for the priesthood, it is not unusual to hear that the initial call to ministry had little to do with a call to preach the Gospel, but centered more generally on sacramental and pastoral engagement. Fair enough. Yet the USCCB underlines the importance of a theology in Fulfilled in Your Hearing [FIYH] (1982) and Preaching the Mystery of Faith [PMF] (2013). Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [EG] or The Joy of the Gospel (2013) gives the liturgical homily pride of place as an essential pastoral and biblical encounter with the People of God. I would underline what FIYH calls the preacher in the context of the liturgical homily: “the mediator of meaning.” If the preacher intends to name grace by proclaiming God’s Word, how can such gifts be disclosed to the liturgical assembly unless the preacher is a personal witness to God’s saving action in the Bible and the world? Preaching is an integrating discipline, inviting the homilist to draw together the fruits of theological reflection, pastoral care, and biblical study into a public testimony of faith. Committing to a personal spirituality of preaching focuses a vocational call in the light of the New Evangelization and the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel.
2. Preaching from the Table of the Word and Sacrament
St. Jerome says, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” It is worth the time and effort on the part of everyone who preaches to develop a learning plan with the Bible, which would include prayerful meditation in lectio divina, as well as reference to ancient and contemporary commentaries. One of the more challenging aspects of ministry in the Christian tradition these days remains articulating a unified story of salvation history. Scripture acknowledges a God who loved creation into being, and who will one day set it “free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). But in a Western culture which promotes largely episodic lives—untethered to historical memory—preaching faces intense competition with Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms which thrive only in the disposable present. In addition to Scripture, there are enormous resources available to the preacher in the rich Catholic historical and liturgical tradition which continues to remember the saving work of God in Christ. A familiarity with the liturgical texts in the Roman Missal is a remarkable thesaurus for the liturgical homily, drawing from the language of the collects, proper prayers, and prefaces. Preaching inside the Church’s memory in the language of Word and Sacrament repositions the liturgical assembly from the chaos of a busy world into God’s sacred narrative of salvation. That mission is the preacher’s unique call. Too busy for this? Then return to Step One and (re)consider your call.
3. Crafting a Unified Homily
There is one underdeveloped aspect of the Sunday homily which drives listeners to distraction and often right out the doors: too many ideas. That may seem odd, since it appears counterintuitive that in a world craving information the hearer would resist more ideas. But this misstep on the ladder of preaching remains close to fatal. Preachers write for collective human ears which require a center of gravity. Much of the craft of preaching is linked not to pulling out themes in the text, but developing a single focus sentence, which finds its way to the listener through artfully positioned tactics driving that focus home. Good preachers deploy what the late Bishop Ken Untener referred to as a single “pearl” to carry the homiletic event through to the end—which is the listener. And as FIYH reminds us, the purpose of the Sunday homily is to “deepen the faith of the baptized,” not to dole out scattered observations.
4. Finding a Homiletic Method
Creating unity comes from finding a kind of armature on which to hang the homiletic text. Too many unarranged ideas without a focus yield confusion and frustration in the hearer and a lack of unity in the text. In his Poetics, Aristotle observed that plotting in narrative depends crucially on the arrangement of the material. As it has been developed over the last several years by pioneers such as Fred Craddock, David Buttrick, and Eugene Lowry, narrative homiletics follows Aristotelian methodology in which preachers re-present the action of the biblical text in a kind of plot for the hearer to unpack through stages. These methods, then, allow for the hearer to become silent dialogue partners, as they would when they engage any narrative, such as a novel, film, or play. Using an appropriate form, homilies are plotted inductively with narrative tension and then are gradually resolved by the hearer. Paul Scott Wilson’s method, for instance, includes a four-part paradigm: Trouble in the Text / Trouble in the World / God’s Action in the Text / God’s Action in the World. Overall, these homiletic methods help the preacher to create the unity identified in the previous (third) step by an effective arrangement of the text. But engaging this process means acknowledging the crucial importance of the listener, whose cultural circumstances will shape the text and be the subject of Part 2 in this series, which will present the final steps in the Ladder of Homiletics.
the final three steps.
5. Communicating in Contemporary Culture
The New Evangelization cannot be other than a Christian encounter with the world within our contemporary horizon. As they say, context determines content. Gaudium et Spes calls the Church to recognize the commonality that the disciples of the Lord share with all humanity, especially the poor. If the homily is unified in its method by a deployment of inductive narration, then the preacher recognizes the crucial role of the listener in an engagement of the text. Rather than simply a series of sentences supplying information, the homily becomes an event—a kind of sacrament—which forms the Christian assembly. As a formational text, then, the homily gathers and shapes the listener in Jesus’ name with a pastoral imperative to reach the contemporary ear. In this regard, the preacher keeps substantial developments in contemporary language and culture at the ready. A familiarity with the contemporary rhetoric of advertising and mass media is a necessity for preachers who encounter an assembly schooled by an oversaturated, overstimulated society. How can the Gospel’s countercultural demands be recognized if those who evangelize are media-ignorant of contemporary culture in its rapidly changing forms? That does not necessarily mean inviting the congregation to tweet during the homily, but understanding media does suggest that those gathered for an hour of worship on Sundays have been substantially engaged in rhetorical forms which may have robbed the attention span. Do preachers recognize that multigenerational preaching will involve a familiarity with the images and language patterns of a variety of age groups? We are all made and remade by language. Metaphors shape us. Preaching, then, is an invitation to reshape the hearer by deploying a methodology appropriate to a particular cultural stance.
6. Understanding the Globalized Homily
If we are to take seriously the Lord’s Resurrection and the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, then the call to mission can never exist in a vacuum. The Samaritan woman (Jn 4: 4–42) and later Mary Magdalen (Jn 20: 11–18) took on new identities in the face of new circumstances. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles was transformed from the quivering disciple who denied the Lord to a courageous preacher in the midst of a diverse—and sometimes hostile—assembly. As the face of the Church changes, so also goes its preaching. If we are committed to preaching for the listener and understanding the hopes and joys, heartbreaks and sufferings of the People of God, then an empathic, globalized understanding of the homily is in order. In my estimation, the key to unlocking a globalized homily resides in the ear of the assembly. Preachers exegete not only a text but also their people. To lack an understanding of the people before us makes the text a personal monologue and not a homily. Anticipating the needs of an immigrant population in particular (especially the Hispanic community) whose worldview may not be shared by North Americans will require a conversion for many preachers. That means letting go of safety nets and allowing the People of God transform the preacher. Contemporary preachers are like missionaries who live and breathe the diversity of the flock entrusted to their care, all of which may challenge traditional economic and political safety nets. Increasingly, that Catholic Christian community faces political and cultural opposition when it comes to evangelizing because of real or supposed threats to national “security.” Racism is alive and well in the U.S.A. Over the last several decades, the U.S. bishops have reimagined a North America where there are “Strangers No Longer,” because the Hispanic community is a “blessing.” Receiving such a blessing carries with it the risk of transformation by and for the People of God, who come as the Body of Christ without borders.
7. Confronting the Obstacles to Effective Preaching
The biggest step to improving preaching it is this: feedback. We know from a variety of research studies, notably Lori Carrell’s study (2000) from a University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh grant, that what will make good preaching better is feedback from the listener. That exchange is more than something like, “nice homily” or “thanks for thoughtful words.” I have identified a series of questions which might be printed on cards and distributed to the congregation. These comments are not simply affirmations, but tools for homiletic reassessment:
1) In one sentence, can you say what you heard?2) Did the preacher use the biblical readings from the Lectionary well?
3) The homily motivated me to __________________________.
4) The homily did not really motivate me. I felt it ________________________.
5) The delivery of the homilist was:
i Excellent; ii. Good; iii. Needs to improve.
Preachers whose native language is not English face a special challenge which might be remedied by replacing bad sound systems or printing up the homily ahead of time. We also might remember the special difficulties the elderly endure when it comes to hearing effective proclamation. Secondly, using small groups for feedback also provides an effective way to transform preaching. A new area of exploration is emerging in homiletic circles: group supervision. Those who have come from good homiletic training know the invaluable experience of classroom feedback from peers and instructors, as well as one-on-one video monitoring supervision. But the teaching does not have to stop in the classroom. Local pastors and catechists might gather to share their homilies, before or after preaching them. Recently, a Lilly grant was awarded to the Marten Program in Homiletics under their Strengthening Preaching initiative. The resulting project is the Fr. William Toohey, C.S.C., Notre Dame Preaching Academy, which supervises several cohorts of preachers in order to develop some models of on-going homiletic continuing education. We do this by checking in with the listening assembly, peers or a supervisor, the homily is bound to improve with some amount of feedback.Finally, Carrell also noted a second way to improve preaching: developing a solid spiritual life. That leads us back to our foundational step one in effective preaching. If the spiritual life is either rusty or on shaky ground, the preacher will be on a very difficult scaffold indeed.