What makes good preaching “work?” What is “effective” preaching in the Christian tradition? What distinguishes the “excellent” homily from one that is merely satisfactory? Can we identify the qualities that make for homiletic success?
You might think that there are many scholarly volumes written on this question, a matter of considerable importance to the Christian community, but actually that is not the case. There is a lot of homiletic advice out there, but no consensus on the answer to this question in the homiletics community, and relatively little literature addressing it.
We in the Marten Program in Homiletics will be pondering this question over the coming school year, leading up to our sixth major preaching conference next summer. That conference will be entitled, “To Set the Earth on Fire: Effective Catholic Preaching,” and will be held at Notre Dame July 24-26, 2017.
But we’d also like to hear from you, our readers: what do you think are the ingredients or characteristics of truly effective preaching? Whether you are a preacher yourself, as a priest or deacon or lay ecclesial minister, or an ordinary “pew Catholic” who hopes for good preaching every Sunday, tell us what you think. When you’ve heard good preaching, what does it sound like? What did it do for the assembly, and for you? Share your thoughts with us by commenting below or by emailing us at email@example.com. Let’s learn from one another.
But, for now, allow me to get the ball rolling on this discussion.
The first clarifying question would be, to what “effect” is “effectiveness” pointed? That is to say, what do we want preaching to “do” in the life of the church? What is its goal or purpose?
To my mind, the single best succinct statement of what we’re after, at least in liturgical preaching, comes from the U.S. bishops: “The preacher then has a formidable task: to speak from the Scriptures… to a gathered congregation in such a way that those assembled will be able to worship God in spirit and truth, and then go forth to love and serve the Lord.” In other words, the homilist’s goal is to facilitate the hearers’ encounter with God in Jesus Christ, to bring them close to God, to assist them in seeing the ways in which a living God is speaking to them, reaching out to them in friendship, offering mercy, healing, regeneration and transformation. When that happens, people move readily and spontaneously into giving God their love, thanks and praise, immediately at the Eucharistic Table and also in the unselfish way in which they live lives of generosity and service beyond the church building.
Many of us who preach settle too cheaply. We smile pleasantly in the back of church as parishioners file past and some say, “Nice homily, Father.” But occasionally we receive the incomparable gratification of the person who says sincerely, “Father, your homily really moved me…. It brought me closer to God…. Your preaching made me see my life and its possibilities differently…. You made me want to take Jesus and my relationship with him more seriously….” It can feel to us like this is what we live for – and for those of us with a vocation to ministry, it is! This is why we do what we do: to bring people closer to God. Nothing else matters as much as that.
But, as preachers, how do we do that? What sorts of words, messages, strategies, narratives, images make that intimacy with God more likely to happen? And, are there things we might be doing, unknowingly, that work against our goal?
In the coming weeks in this column I will share my personal list of 20-some qualities that I believe characterize effective preaching. (Does that sound like a lot? Actually, I fear my list is too short!) In the meantime, let me share the four most important pieces of homiletic advice I give to my preaching students.
- Every homily must be (the) Good News. The central message or theme of every homily must be really good news for our lives. This means it will center on God and what God has done, is doing and wants to do. Implicitly if not explicitly, such preaching always springs from the story of Jesus Christ and his abiding presence with us in the Spirit. Scolding and moralizing are out of place here (and ineffective, besides). Homiletic challenge is necessary and important too, but it has to flow obviously and naturally from the Good News we gather to celebrate, the Good News which empowers us to meet the challenge. Our task is to invite faith in and response to the Good News.
- A homily should make one point, and one point only. If we want our preaching to be memorable, and make an impact beyond Sunday morning, it has to be unified. Every hearer should be able to go away from Mass and say what the homily s/he heard was “about,” even if such summary statements don’t reflect the full power of the message. And it cannot be a “light” point”; it must have some depth to it, some gravity for our lives. The coherence of a homily is crucial to its memorability and incisiveness.
- Every homily should appeal to all three dimensions of the human person: mind, heart, and will. This one comes right from Saint Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, the oldest extant homiletic manual in the Western church. (Augustine got it from Cicero, who was relying on Aristotle.) It is still a very serviceable picture of the hearer. The power of God’s grace wants to reach into all corners of the human person. We leave any of these dimensions out at the risk of sacrificing the wholistic, integrating appeal of God’s Word.
- We must preach in a way that animates, stimulates, calls forth, or focuses the proclamation of the Good News by all the baptized. Liturgical preaching is not meant to be the full compass of the church’s preaching mission, nor is it an end in itself. It is meant to embolden the faithful to discover and announce God’s goodness in their daily, secular lives. Our goal is to preach in such a way that our hearers want to accept and live into the full meaning of their baptism, which deputizes them as God’s witnesses in the world.
So, we’ve started a discussion. Now it’s your turn. Comment below or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1982), p. 21. Emphasis mine.
Featured Photo: Bishop Patrick Joseph McGrath giving a homily at Saint Albert the Great in Palo Alto, California. Photo by Opusdeiphotography. CC BY-SA 3.0