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 preaching that have enriched our lives.

  • We have been warmed by prayer and/or the reading of the Scriptures.

  • We are at a turning point: when a woman walks in to Mass on the weekend after her husband has walked out, her emotional need spurs her to listen for hope; when a teenager returns from a retreat experience, the fire of new-found faith burns to hear more of God. In moments of trial and transition, motivation to listen is high. This also applies to community and worldwide struggles. We communally grapple with, “Where is God in this moment?” Faith embers hope to be stirred into flame.

What can you do in your preaching to increase our motivation to hear you and process what you say?

The earliest moments of the Mass impact our receptivity. The hospitality, the greetings, and the Introductory Rites help us as a community to lay aside distractions and begin to focus on God.

We constantly ask of the homilist, “Are you talking to me?” We focus closely when an inner voice says, “This relates to me!” A youth moves to the edge of his seat when he thinks, “This pertains to my life.” The predominant question that adults ask of a preacher or teacher is, “Can your words actually help me?”

Preaching that is “boring” is de-motivating. What does “boring” mean?[1]

  • From research about attention, “boring” may indicate “I do not know what you are talking about.” Pious abstractions and untranslated “churchy words” put people to sleep.

  • “Boring” can suggest the “same-old-same-old,” as in, “I’ve heard that before. . . .” (Preaching about love? Unpack one of its synonyms in a fresh way—tenderness, passion, ardor, devotion . . .)

  • “Boring” is contagious. It can come from a preacher who is bored with his own preaching and in need of homiletic renewal.[2]

  • “Boring” can come from the way the homily is delivered. Too flat a tone or too consistent a delivery lulls the mind into inattention.

We Remember 

What happens after you preach? Do we live differently on Thursday as a result of Sunday’s homily? Do we grow to be stronger disciples over the long haul because of the preaching that we hear? Memory matters.

(Negative memory, unfortunately, also sticks. As a person in authority, your words carry much weight; the hurt of a homily is also long remembered. Thus, the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm,” is for homilists as well as for doctors.)

What can you, as a preacher, do to help us, as listeners, to remember?

  • Metaphors work.

  • Be interesting. Be interested.

  • Concrete images stick.

  • Clear lines of reasoning “hook” well.

  • The components of common life, such as bread and geese and grandmas, can bring your message to mind later as we butter our toast, interact with Grandma, and hear overhead the honk of geese. When Jesus preached “Look at the lilies of the field” (Mt 6:28), years later, his disciples looked at the lilies and could recall what he said.

  • For us as aural receivers, repetition helps. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “I have a dream” over and over again. As a nation, we still remember.

  • Every homily can and should give us something to take away. Bishop Ken Untener says to preachers:

Do we in fact remember our homilies, and does the memory help? This is more than being able to recount the gist of what we said: It is the kind of remembering that stays with us without our having to think back, like the refrain of a song. If our own homilies stay with us, make us think, urge us to reform, and sometimes haunt us, it’s an indication that we’re on the right track.[3]

We can remember. That memory can help. The Holy Spirit can bring effective words and a fervent homilist to mind, sometimes decades later.

Bearing Fruit

The ultimate test of preaching effectiveness is the fruit that it bears in the community. In 1942, O’Brien Atkinson wrote to homilists, “Think of it [preaching] as the priceless opportunity to step into the minds of the common people . . . to find a place in their hearts where you can tend the fire of their love for God and keep it in high flame.”[4]

Speak to us as though we are precious people in your life. The depth of your honor and respect will help us to focus. Expect our honor and respect as well. We do want to hear you.

None of us are done growing in this interaction: we can grow more receptive as listeners; you can grow more effective as a preacher. Together we trust that the good God wants to touch our hearts through this upcoming Sunday’s homily.

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

[1] For more on “boring” from the author’s empirical study of young listeners, see Karla Bellinger, Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching (Liturgical Press, 2014), pp. 108-109.

[2] For renewal, come to the Notre Dame Preaching Conference, “To Set the Earth on Fire”: Effective Catholic Preaching, July 24-26, 2017. See: http://theology.nd.edu/graduate-programs/the-marten-program/conferences-and-events/

[3] Ken Untener, Preaching Better: Practical Suggestions for Homilists (Paulist Press, 1999), 100.

[4] O’Brien Atkinson, How to Make Us Want Your Sermon: By a Listener (Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., 1942), p. 172.


Karla Bellinger

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

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