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Effective Preaching, From a Listener—Part 2

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In the first article of this series, I talked about effectiveness as “preaching that sinks in like good butter on warm toast.” Much is written about the “good butter” that a homilist is to prepare. In the last segment we talked about the Holy Spirit who is the source of that “sinking in.” But what makes for “warm toast?” What would be helpful for preachers to know to help us listeners to grow in faith?[1]

First, understand what our lives are like. Week after week, you are like a rock star. As you walk thirty feet or drive 60 miles to the church building to say Mass, hundreds, maybe thousands of us are getting ready to hear you. After the fight with the ten-year-old over brushing his teeth, after changing the diaper or the bandages, after putting on the knee brace or the hearing aids, we turn the handle to the church door, file in and slide into the pew. Phew! We got here. Do you know how much effort it takes for us all to get to church? Hundreds of us got here today. We got here! How many people in modern American life have the opportunity to speak weekly to a live audience of hundreds of people? We are here! Why? You matter to us. Your preaching matters to us. To preach effectively to us, then, learn to know us.

Most of us are not theologically trained. But we do know the Paschal Mystery (even if we don’t know the phrase). We know crucifixion—we know what it is like to venture out into life with a dream and a hope and then to see it turn dark through illness or betrayal or job loss or personal failure. We know resurrection—we know the joy of seeing a wayward son finally graduate, a new baby born to a couple who despaired of ever having a child, a friend who begins to walk after months in a hospital bed. Such difficulties and blessings come to us, male and female, young and old, as we try to live a Christian life.

What can you preach that no other can give us? The secular world would sell us lattes and yoga and beer and self-help books to help us be/do/feel better. But we did not come to Starbucks or Barnes & Noble this morning. Why? We are looking to encounter God. Some may dismiss the preaching and say, “I come for the Eucharist,” but at its best, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist come together to bring us to God.[2] In homilies, we often hear the “what” of Christian life—do this, do that. . . . Preach to us the “Who” of Christian life. Life can be tough. Preach the Someone who brings light to our darkness. We hunger to know that we are not alone. Life is chaotic. We need to know that there is One still in charge. We are time-stressed. Tell us of the Comforter who will bring peace to our anxiety. Stories about your vacation have to point us to something richer. We want to know the One who transforms us. We ache to be elevated to heroism and contemplation and godliness. In the depths of our hearts, even when we are not consciously aware of it, we want to enter more deeply into the mystery component of life.[3] A cup of coffee will not do that for us. Through your homiletic words and images, give us more of God.

But is it enough just to talk to us about God? Does it matter how you talk to us of God?

One thing to take into account is our ability to listen. Some of us in the pews may have advanced degrees and successful careers, but we are not theologically educated.[4] Some of us are not scholarly. Some of us do not speak English as our first language. Some are young or have little life experience. Thus, your choice of words and the way that you deliver them can be too high. Out in the parking lot, we may say, “He goes right over our heads.” If you overheard us in the car on the way home from Mass, you might hear, “I wish he would just talk to us!” Even the standard words of the liturgy and the Scriptures—words like grace, salvation, and mercy—are not in common usage in our lives. Justification and consubstantiality. . . ? That’s not what most of us talk about at dinner. Thus, ‘churchy’ words have gone flat—like a tire, they have to be pumped up with the air of understanding. Otherwise we dismiss them as ‘things-that-the-priest-or-deacon-says’ and thus they are of no use to us in the way that we live our lives.

When you send us a large amount of complex information, our minds struggle to keep up. We do want to hear what you have to say, but some styles of preaching are delivered so rapidly and come at us so fast that we cannot manage it. We grow mentally tired. We tune out.[5] The end result is that some of us are “left out of the loop” Sunday after Sunday. We may shake your hand and say “Good homily, Father” because we’re polite and we respect you, but we don’t “get it” and it doesn’t change our lives.

The theology of the Church is rich. It has to be translated by a spiritual preacher who deeply understands and lives it. Then we too can partake of the wealth of God. Don’t talk down to us, for we are not stupid and we do not wish to be spoken to disrespectfully, but make it plain. Make your words straightforward. Make one point. Make it relate to our lives. Make it clear. We want to understand. That’s a start.

Next month, we’ll look at what “boring” means to us, as well as how to preach in a way that helps us to remember.

What do we really want you to know? We want you to know that your simple words from the pulpit have the opportunity to soak into our hearts. You could waste that moment. But your words can also delight our minds. You can enrich our hope. You can strengthen our courage. This one homily on this particular day, to us, your pilgrim people—this is your opportunity. We aren’t looking for a seven-course meal; a simple peanut butter sandwich, lovingly prepared, will do. And preach the “Who” of our faith—bring us to God. When you do, we send up silent words of gratitude to the All-Merciful One who has brought into our challenged lives a priest or deacon who knows how to preach.

Featured Photo: Catholic Diocese of Saginaw; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] I do not speak for all those who hear homilies, but we listeners have much in common. From compiling the results of surveys and studies, there are things that collectively we can say to those who preach.

[2] Most Catholics can point to a preacher whom they evaluate as “effective.” There are pockets of preaching in the Church where we are doing well. Many wish they could point to more. For data on this, see chapter 7 of the author’s Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching (Liturgical Press, 2014).

[3] For those who come to Mass only once a year, the number one reason that they come is “prayer and reflection.” See http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[4] The more theological training that a person has, the more he or she does not remember what it is like not to know theology. (This is true in any field—the more you know, the less you don’t know that you know.) See “The Curse of Knowledge” in the Heath brothers’ book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007), 19–21.

[5] A mismatch between the word sent and word received can also cause miscomprehension—we can also “get it wrong.”

Karla Bellinger

Karla Bellinger is the Associate Director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame.