The Sociology of a Superb Sermon

One Point at a Time

It is common knowledge that the homilies offered in many Catholic parishes—how can one say this charitably?—often have a lot of room for improvement. The quality of Catholic homilies, of course, varies widely according to the specific parish and priest involved. I have actually heard some of the best sermons of my life in Catholic Masses. But I have also heard plenty of lousy homilies too. So, if the common view on Catholic homilies has at least some basis in fact, it can only strengthen the Church if those responsible for offering homilies consider ways to improve them.

As a sociologist of religion who has studied and reflected upon church meetings and sermons for many years, I suggest the following, which I think can significantly improve the quality of many Catholic homilies. One of the main reasons that homilies and sermons are bad is because they are unfocused; they try to make too many points at once. If so, that problem is readily fixable.  How?

Before addressing this problem, let us remember as background that success here is not defined by the homily itself, but about how hearers are formed by homilies—their practical effectiveness in communicating truth. It does not matter that a homily is amusing or elegant or theologically astute or anything else in and of itself. Preaching is not ultimately about the homily or the person giving it. It is rather about effective communication by which the Church forms God’s people in truthful and good ways. Ideally, the homily and homilist should become somewhat transparent, so that the message of the homily stands out and impresses itself upon the hearers in a way that forms them well.

That said, how can the problem of unfocused homilies be fixed? The answer, I think, is to focus the homily on one and only one really important point. Way too many sermons (both Catholic and Protestant) have, as I have said, little focus. They often ramble about, saying various and sundry things that are more or less true and may be quite admirable. But, having listened for fifteen, thirty, or forty-five minutes, those in the pew end up walking away with little clue about what the speaker actually said. Much is spoken with minimal impact. Everything we know about human cognition and learning tells us that both operate with severe limits, even for smart people. People can only absorb so much information and engage so many challenges at one time.

Every homilist therefore needs to get perfectly clear upfront regarding what exactly the people who hear it should walk away believing, thinking, knowing, or doing as a result. In what specific way should the listeners be different as a result of hearing the homily? If this homily were to succeed marvelously, what specifically would that success look like? How would its hearers live differently because they heard it? Then, every possible idea that does not clearly help to achieve that one purpose, that single focus, that clear vision of success, should go. Just cut it out.

This maxim does not mean that the homily consists of repeating the same thing over and over again. Talking about one important point is not the same as simply repeating oneself. In fact, it is usually necessary in any good presentation to craft a talk that leads up to, makes, circles around, and reinforces the same one important point in a variety of ways—perhaps including personal stories, scriptural reflections, doctrinal teaching, real-life illustrations, and so on. But never should any of that be included in a homily if it does not clearly contribute to communicating the one clear important point of focus.

In short, always focus everything—every story, argument, reference, illustration, and exhortation—on the one point of the homily. Everything else is expendable, because it gets in the way. If something else is still really important but unrelated to this homily, it can be said later, in some other homily focused on that valuable idea. Remember: one point at a time.

So, when the homilist sits down to work on the homily, the mantra should be: “Less is more. Focus. Make only one important point. Less is more.” If such a homilist can get their listeners to really hear, absorb, and work on living into or out of one important point per week, adding to fifty-two distinct, significant homily points per year, that would be a major success; compared to what usually happens, which is too many unfocused ideas not well retained or acted upon by anyone. And fifty-two really important points accumulated and reinforced over many years will surely help to form God’s people in good ways.

I hope this section of my essay itself illustrates my point. So, in keeping with this approach, cramming too many ideas into one homily is a bad idea. It backfires. The more homilies demand their listeners to hear, the less they actually get. We know that. So, Catholic homilies may be dramatically improved by implementing a few changes, the first of which is to always focus on one key point and to make sure everything that gets said in the homily states, clarifies, develops, and reinforces that one important point.

Less Moralism, More Gospel

The second common problem with bad Catholic homilies is this: far too many preachers neglect the Christian Gospel, true evangelization, and instead merely peddle sentimental moralism. Too often Catholic homilies are bad because they do not always work from and toward the amazingly Great News of the Christian Gospel.

The center and key of all reality is that God the Father has primordially loved every human being from all eternity and is at work reconciling each of us and our entire sinful world to himself in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now that is great news! And that Gospel message is the only and totally sufficient basis, orientation, and motivation from which all of Christian faith and life must be believed and lived. There is no other foundation, no other reason, no other energy than this Good News for anything that happens with and in us. Every good idea we believe, every good work we do, every good attempt to grow and live better lives for ourselves and others must be rooted in and energized by that Gospel message. Otherwise, our preaching is just a lot of human-centered good intentions, with which the world is already saturated. Even worse, moralism can easily slide into mechanisms of institutional social control. That is not Christianity.

Unfortunately, it must be said, far too many Catholic homilies consist of merely touting various moralistic admonishments and encouragements. Some such homilies fail even to be discernibly Christian—many could very well be offered at the Rotary Club or Unitarian Universalist Association: be a good person, care for others, try to forgive, love God better, care about social justice, etc. All of these messages are obviously good, but they must be animated, motivated, and directed by the reality of the Gospel.

Homilies that peddle moralistic admonishments and encouragements are at bottom, no matter how nice sounding, massive failures to speak the truth—to reorient listeners to the one and only important reality named above. The authentic Christian Gospel is the heart of what the Church has to say, the only starting point and ultimately the sum of what she is about. For Catholic homilies to say anything else while neglecting the Gospel is a massive failure.

This truth has been said many times, but it bears repeating: people are not well motivated by feelings of guilt or sentimentality. Such inducement of guilt or sentimentality does not get anyone very far (nor are they the way of the true God). Life is difficult and change is hard. So, homilies need to cut out the inducement of guilty feelings and sentimentality designed to prod people to “try a little harder.”

So, what then remains? What has the power to motivate real human change, but is also distinctively Christian? Unconditional, faithful, genuine love. And what is this love’s only source? Nothing else but God the eternal Father, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, at work to reconcile the world to himself. This Christological and Trinitarian approach must be the starting line, the touchstone, the launch pad of every single Catholic homily delivered.

Of course the Gospel is inherently embedded in Church liturgies, in the Christian calendar, and much else besides. Even so, God’s primal love and salvation for humans are so easy to forget that the liturgical words and practices readily become rote. We humans easily focus, not on the Church’s truly Great News, but instead on our own problems, interests, and efforts. This self-oriented idolatry is an ever-present temptation, keeping us away from living in the freedom and love in Christ.

But the ever-evangelizing Christian Gospel—not our little “doings” and “tryings”—is ultimately what reality is about. Therefore, every Catholic homily must recurrently, continually, and unfailingly draw the attention of its hearers back to the central fact of all reality—God’s eternal love for and reconciliation of humanity in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit—as the basis for everything else that is said and done.

Let us put it another way: humans never could or should live good and right lives in order that God might love and save them; that is pure anti-gospel moralism. No, God has already absolutely loved and saved humans in Jesus Christ, period. That is the Good News. And in light of that unalterable fact, we humans are now free to live good and right lives in communion with God and each other, which leads to human flourishing. That is the evangelization that everyone needs to hear again and again.

Ultimately, the problem with Gospel-empty homilies is that they unintentionally make Jesus Christ and the Church expendable. Everyone needs Christ and the Church for the Gospel and Eucharist. But nobody must have Christ and the Church for sentimental moralism. That can be found anywhere. Homilies without the Gospel thus advance the unintended but real effect of communicating that the Church is superfluous, just another chattering voice in the cacophony of cultural noise.

Homilies play a limited but important role in the Mass; they are not everything. Homilies are, however, valuable opportunities to reflect on the meaning and implications of the Scriptures. But any reading from the Scriptures can itself be meaningless to listeners, if not positively misguiding, when it does not work to direct them—like the pointing finger of John the Baptist—to the life-giving person of Jesus Christ. Whatever else of value that gets said in any homily must always be oriented and informed by proclaiming and unpacking the implications of Jesus Christ, the Great News.

So, those who prepare and deliver Catholic homilies must consciously work to make every single one explicitly Christocentric and thus Trinitarian. First and foremost, homilies must not be about what their listeners must do, but rather about what God the Trinity has done for them. Only then will our own actions make any sense. No homily should ever be delivered that does not explicitly reference and motivate its central point by proclaiming the Christian Gospel. Every homily must in one way or another re-declare and work within the truth of the particularly Christian, re-evangelizing, fantastically Good News. When the Gospel gets preached in this way, people will want to come and hear it, and it just might change their lives.

Explain the Liturgy

I might in addition suggest a handful of other ideas to help improve Catholic homilies. One would be simply to make time to prepare homilies. Priests are often so busy that preparing homilies can get short shrift. But focused preparation is essential to a good homily. I might also suggest keeping homilies to less than ten minutes long. There again, the adage “less is more” pertains when it comes to communicating a key point effectively.

But I think one other substantive suggestion is particularly important. Homilies should take advantage of opportunities to explain various parts of the Church’s liturgical practices throughout the Church year. Many priests may take for granted that parishioners understand the meaning of the various words, movements, colors, vestments, elements, and gestures of the liturgy. But many do not comprehend or appreciate them. Some Catholics surely understand what is going on in the liturgy. But many Catholics have only a vague idea, yet would never ask about it. Others are largely ignorant.

At the University of Notre Dame, I have the privilege of teaching many smart and accomplished undergraduate students from Catholic backgrounds. But many of them readily admit that they do not know what is going on during Mass. They grew up with it. It feels familiar. But they have little idea what any of it means. Nobody ever explained it, they report. So it is all a mystery to them. That is a problem.

Celebrating the Liturgy of the Word and Eucharist is the central practice of faith among the Church’s many practices. By definition, a practice in faith is a spiritually, theologically, morally significant repeated behavior. The role of the body and material elements in liturgy are crucial, of course. But so is understanding. Practices like the liturgy need in some real way to be significant and meaningful to those who participate in them. Otherwise, they become rote, empty behaviors. Liturgy certainly forms people, by God’s grace and Spirit. But liturgy’s formative power is enhanced when people learn its fuller meaning, its significance. That requires teaching.

I have observed parishes where the liturgy is continually being explained in subtle but enlightening and interesting ways. It does not take much. Simple reminders here and there of what we are doing in liturgy and why are usually enough. Priests in such parishes seem to love the liturgy, are proud of it, and want the faithful to enter into it deeply. Gradually, worshipers in such congregations become more literate about liturgy and more meaningfully involved in it. In an upward spiral of growth, I have observed that people’s understanding of, formation by, and participation and interest in the liturgy increases.

I have also observed parishes, however, where the meaning of the liturgy is not actively cultivated, where its beauty and power are seemingly not appreciated or highlighted. I have even witnessed priests who seem embarrassed by some of the elements involved in the liturgy. I remember one case in particular when a priest presiding at Mass in a major cathedral casually apologized for having to wear rose-colored vestments on Gaudete Sunday (the Third Sunday of Advent), saying that he felt uncomfortable “in pink,” so people could just ignore the vestments. Rather than being confidently invited into the rich meaning and power of the liturgy as it unfolds across the Church’s liturgical year, those in attendance were confused and alienated from it. We can do better.

My suggestion here is simple. When appropriate, priests should utilize their homilies well, creating opportunities to explain the abundant meanings of various parts of the liturgy, especially as related to particular times of the Church year. It simply cannot be taken for granted that people in attendance—especially young people—know and understand those meanings. They need to and can be taught in winsome, inviting, and compelling ways.

Does this third piece of advice for improving Catholic homilies undermine my first two suggestions? Not necessarily. Over a span of weeks, even months, it is entirely possible for a homilist to illuminate parts of the liturgy, while keeping each homily focused only on a single important point, weaving liturgy and Scripture together. Such explanations, rather than wandering off into distracting side points, can often indirectly or directly help to reinforce the homily’s central point. Over time, preaching that unites the Scriptural and liturgical life of the Church helps to convey a more comprehensive, integrated sense of what the Church and faith are all about.

Does the practice of explaining parts of the liturgy in homilies contradict my second suggestion, to avoid sentimental moralism by grounding every homily message explicitly in the Gospel? No. The liturgy and the Gospel are naturally interpenetrating. Thoughtfully prepared homilies can both explain the liturgy and ground their content in a Christocentric, Trinitarian message of new evangelization. Homilies of such a caliber are what will most effectively strengthen the faith and practice of the people of God.

In sum, instead of imagining that people in the pews understand the meaning of the Church’s liturgical practices—which many in fact do not—homilists should proactively seek appropriate opportunities to draw their hearers into a deeper understanding and appreciation of the meaning of the liturgy. Over time, this ought to produce a people more in love with the Church’s liturgy, sacraments, and worship—and therefore, more in love with God.


Christian Smith

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Social Research, Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and Principal Investigator of the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame. Smith’s research focuses primarily on religion in modernity, adolescents, American evangelicalism, and culture.

Read more by Christian Smith