All posts tagged: sermons

The Ladder of Homiletics: 7 Steps to Effective Preaching, Part 2

In part one of this series, I introduced the first four steps on the ladder of effective preaching. I conclude here with 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 …

The Ladder of Homiletics: 7 Steps to Effective Preaching, Part 1

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 …

God Reigns Over the Nations

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! In our daily lectionary, we are pointed to the incredible depth and range of the human experience that we find in the Psalms. We really do have something for the whole spectrum of the human experience in the Psalter. Today, in Psalm 47, we get the biblical manual for what to do on the day that your resurrected Lord and Saviour begins rising up from the surface of the earth until he is taken from your sight on a cloud: “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.” Admittedly, the account in the Acts of the Apostles is not actually descriptive of the heavenly musical ensemble at this precise moment. And just in case you were confused about what to do at having witnessed this incredible event, the psalmist knowingly added in “sing praises …

“Repent and Believe”: Moral Preaching in the New Evangelization

The Archdiocese of Detroit, to which I belong, has recently taken as a motto for its New Evangelization initiative in the lead-up to a diocesan synod held in November 2016, “Unleash the Gospel.” Borrowing this motto, the idea of which is rooted in 2 Timothy 2:9—“the word of God is not chained”—my proposal is a simple one: that the whole Church is called to “unleash the Gospel” in its entirety. Put another way: what could it possibly mean to “unleash the Gospel” if we leave Our Lord’s moral teaching very much on the leash? To some readers, perhaps the idea of “leashing” the moral component of our Catholic faith sounds far-fetched. It has been my experience, however, that an increasing number of voices these days seem to downplay the role of moral preaching at this moment in the life of the Church. Some experts on the New Evangelization, which has generated its own particular rhetoric, emphasize that the Church is not “about rules” and that we must “lead with love”—i.e., offer an essentially positive message—before …

Effective Preaching, From a Listener—Part 3

Effectiveness in preaching arises from the two-way communication between the sender and the receiver of the message. To continue from last month’s post, how do we as listeners receive, listen, and grow through your homily? You may feel, as you stand to speak, that you are preaching into a vacuum. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Each of us slides into the pew with a head full of ideas and concerns and dreams. We also arrive with different levels of motivation. Motivation to Listen To further the metaphor from the last two segments, if the homily is like butter, and we listeners are like toast, then we arrive at Mass in varying degrees of warmth. Some of us walk in with a sensitive heart and a responsive mind, ready to let your message soak in, like good butter on warm toast. Here are reasons that may happen: We are in love with God. We have had kindhearted experiences of the faith community and/or you as the parish leader. We have had experiences of your …

The Love of the Hound of Heaven

One morning sometime in the middle of August about ten years ago, I lay awake on an uncomfortable bed in my bedroom, which was tucked above the stairs in the Cottage, one of the volunteer houses at Red Cloud Indian School where I was preparing to start my second year of teaching. I hadn’t been able to sleep the previous night, so at about 4am, I decided to watch the sun rise over the ancient hills of Pine Ridge. Throwing on a sweatshirt, I plodded past the elementary school playground, past the green dinosaur, and up a hill to the cemetery. My feet were damp with dew and dust as I took a seat in the far corner of the cemetery, next to Chief Red Cloud’s grave. There I watched the sun come up over Manderson Hill and a full moon set over the buttes out toward Chadron Road. For a single suspended moment they faced each other, as though speaking the strange, secret language of the dawn, an earnestly joyful exchange of light. For …

Effective Preaching, From a Listener—Part 2

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 …

Dying to Christ

“In that day, says the LORD, courage shall fail both king and princes; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, `It shall be well with you’; whereas the sword has reached their very life.” My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster follows hard on disaster, the whole land is laid waste. Suddenly my tents are destroyed, my curtains in a moment. How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet? “For my people are foolish, they know me not; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but how to do good they know not.” I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I …

Effective Preaching, From a Listener—Part 1

There is a mystery dimension to effectiveness in Catholic preaching. For example, I can sit in a pew with five faith-filled folks who hear the same homily and one will say, “Wasn’t that inspiring?” while another will shrug, “meh. . .” A lay preaching student told me that when she was in Preaching I class, she analyzed Pope Francis’ homilies for why he so touched people and wondered, “Just as an experiment, if I preached those same homilies, would they have the same outcome?” In the twentieth chapter of Acts, St. Paul preached on and on—so long that a young man was overcome by sleep and fell out of a window; yet the folks in Troas continued to listen to Paul speak on and on until daybreak. So what is “effectiveness” in Catholic preaching? And how do we get to “it” in ordinary homiletic practice? As Fr. Michael Connors, C.S.C. and I have been preparing for the Notre Dame Marten Program’s conference next summer—“To Set the Earth on Fire: Effective Catholic Preaching”—we have had in-depth …

Effective Catholic Preaching—Part 4

This is the fourth and final installment in our series examining the characteristics of effective preaching in the Catholic tradition today. You could call this a postscript, “What Not to Say or Do in Preaching for Effectiveness.” Here are some admonitions I give myself: Avoid moralizing. We have a lot of moralistic preaching today, I think. I’ve heard moralisms of the right (which usually have to do with sexual morality) and moralisms of the left (social justice). Moralism is moral challenge without the love relationship which makes discipline and right action desirable and achievable. Is there moral challenge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? You bet, and plenty of it. But it is grounded in a vision of joyful discipleship, as Pope Francis continues to remind us. Before you challenge, you need really Good News to plug people into, making meeting your challenge possible. Avoid using the words should, ought, and must in preaching. However true or well-intentioned, those words sound dictatorial rather than persuasive. Lead people into the arms of God and they will …