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 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.

Featured Image: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (17th c); courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Guerric DeBona, OSB

Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB, a monk and priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey, is also novice junior master for St. Meinrad Archabbey, and professor of homiletics in the department of pastoral studies.

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