Fifteen Tips for Better Preaching

By David Mills 

In The Perils of Preaching,” I offered a lament for the general mediocrity of Catholic preaching (and was treated to a number of thoughtful responses, for which I’m grateful). What follows are my layman’s suggestions for Catholic preachers. Strictly speaking, they aren’t exactly a layman’s suggestions, in the sense of being given by someone who doesn’t know the subject. As an Episcopalian, I used to preach in the seminary chapel and in churches, so I know something of the challenges, which I do not underrate — especially for men who are as pressed for time and quiet as Catholic priests. Preaching well is a harder task than most laymen realize.

1) Stay in the pulpit. Not only because it is the Place for Preaching, a sign of the authority with which you speak, but because staying there may also help you remember that you are a servant of the Word and of the Church. Standing in the aisle with a microphone can tempt the humblest man to think he’s the star, and will tempt almost anyone to play to the crowd (Did they get the joke? Are they smiling? Do they look bored? How can I get them back?). Plus you can keep your manuscript or outline there.

2) Preach from a complete outline or a manuscript. A few people can offer complex, developed ideas from memory, but you are probably not one of them. The value of a sermon often lies in your sharing something one or two or three levels deeper than the obvious lesson, which needs to be explained with some care and precision. Very, very few men can do this off the top of their heads. You will need to practice speaking this way to do it well — if you write out the sermon, reread the manuscript till you’ve got it at least half memorized — but better to have substance read a little stiffly than piffle well-delivered. And having an outline or manuscript will keep you from running on.

3) Speak in a personal voice, using “I” and “you.” I mean the kind of voice you hear in G. K. Chesterton’s or C. S. Lewis’s writing, not the kind of self-display you get from a guest on Oprah. Your hearer should think you are trying to show him something you see, not trying to make you look at him. Though you are speaking as an authority, and ought to speak with authority, you are also a man speaking to friends. Most people speak more clearly when they’re talking to someone they know than when they are speaking to an abstraction called “the congregation” or “the 10-o’clock crowd.” And most people listen better when they’re being addressed by a friend rather than a lecturer.

Use “we” only when you are part of the group to which you’re referring. Some priests use “we” when they mean “you guys” or “some of you” or “those jerks.” This by itself makes a sermon abstract and sound insincere. Your listeners will know when you are not speaking honestly, when your “we” is just a cheap way of claiming an identity you don’t have or pretending you’re not criticizing someone else.

4) Speak from your own experience and your own knowledge. If you have a story from your own life that illustrates the lesson, tell it — but only if it works as a story. A good rule is not to tell a story about yourself you would not tell if it were about someone else, and don’t tell any story that does not have a direct relation to your theme.

5) Never use a cultural reference, especially a pop cultural reference, to look knowledgeable or hip or to “connect” with your people. It’s annoying, like a 50-year-old wearing his baseball cap backward. And you’ll probably get the reference wrong anyway, or you’ll use one your people have already heard half-a-dozen times. (I don’t know how many sermons I’ve heard that opened with the same quote from Joseph Heller’s 1974 novel Something Happened, one of which I heard just last year.) Only use such references when you would use them in conversation and un-self-consciously.

6) Exposit the Scriptures. Tell the congregation something about the lessons they will not see on their own, especially about their background and context, the connections between the texts, and the way the great theologians have expounded them. This means reading the texts for themselves, not beginning with your ideas and finding some of them illustrated in the text — which is, I’m afraid, the dominant form of priestly exegesis and explains why some priests’ sermons begin to sound alike when you’ve heard more than ten or so. This will keep your listeners’ attention, because people like such information, if only in the way they like trivia questions.

More importantly, the close study of the day’s lessons should give you new insights and save you from repeating your favorite themes. Close study should include the reading of the great preachers’ sermons on the same passages. Immersion in the minds of others is the only way most of us can avoid saying something inane.

At the same time, don’t reduce the supernatural to a moral lesson, as if the history given in Scripture were Aesop’s Fables. The Resurrection is not primarily an illustration of the value of hope and perseverance. Do not try to explain what the story “means” until you’ve made clear that something amazing once happened. As Rev. Alvin Kimel wrote in response to “The Perils of Preaching”:

Somehow the Catholic priest must begin to understand the homily as akin to giving the Eucharist. It’s not just a matter of saying things about God or Jesus or morality . . . . Preaching is communication of Jesus Christ himself. It is a word, the Word, that enables us to live our lives in faith and hope. The preacher must not just speak about the gospel: he must do the gospel to his hearers. “The preaching of the Word of God,” Martin Luther said, “is the Word of God.”

This is what the Catholic preacher must begin to understand and practice. Too many sermons tell people to do good only — not even to be good, through the instruments the Church provides, but just to do good. We know we should do good, but, with St. Paul, we find ourselves not doing it. We need to be helped to see more clearly and to love more deeply the One in whose service we would do better than we are.

7) Do not inveigh against “Fundamentalism.” Even conservative priests do this from time to time. You probably don’t know what you’re talking about, and in any case the effect will be to tell the congregation that Catholics don’t believe Scripture says anything directly. Of all the groups to criticize by name, the Fundamentalists are about the last you should pick on. If you’re going to criticize someone who is a real danger to the Faith, criticize dissenting Catholics.

Also, don’t water down the meaning of the text to avoid being considered fundamentalist or right-wing or rigid or Biblicist, or whatever label is being applied to people who take the Scriptural teaching as seriously as the Church takes it. Priests do this all the time. When the lesson hits hard, you must hit your people with it. You are a doctor helping sick people, and the medicine they need will often make them feel even worse, like radiation and chemo for cancer. But when you hit them, explain the good news in the pain, the health that taking their medicine will bring them.

8) Always remind people that they are sinners and give them examples in which they can see themselves. It will not be news to them: Almost everyone knows he’s a sinner, even if he doesn’t like the term. Your people are not who they want to be. A sermon proclaims some part of the Good News, and you will waste your listeners’ time if you don’t deliver the bad news that makes the Good News good. Too many priests offer All Good News All the Time, which isn’t helpful or compelling. You do want to affirm your people, whose lives are often hard enough as it is, but you want to affirm them in Christ, which is rather different.

9) Make sure your points connect and form a single argument. Have a theme or thesis, and cut ruthlessly anything that doesn’t advance it. I don’t know how often I’ve heard a preacher build an argument, promising a moving or enlightening conclusion, and then switch to another subject entirely. (The odds of this happening rise if he’s preaching from the aisle.) It’s like listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and a few minutes into the last movement hearing the orchestra switch to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Even the Mozart fanatic will feel the letdown.

To put it a different way: Before you begin composing the sermon, decide on the single point you want the congregation to remember, then do everything you can to implant that point deep in their minds. Remember that the point will rarely make your listeners smack their foreheads and say, “Wow!” (the kind of effect we all hope for), but may only encourage or challenge them in a small, but nevertheless important, way. Don’t swing for the fences and risk striking out, but aim for the single that, added to a single the next week and those in the weeks after that, will over time score a lot more runs.

10) Do not use any favorite metaphor that you think profound. Words like “journey” and “pilgrimage,” and phrases like “living the song,” and anything else that makes you feel as if you’d just seen a basket of kittens. (Readers are encouraged to help fill out the list.) They will drive your thinking away from the realities you should be proclaiming into comforting and useless abstractions.

Since no one who uses such words recognizes them as clichés, you’d best avoid them and find a parishioner alert to such things to warn you when you start using one. Metaphors should be considered guilty until proven innocent. For that matter, you would do well to have a sharp-witted parishioner critique your sermons in advance.

11) Speak of “the Catholic Faith” and “the Catholic Church” and offer stories of the saints and insights from the writers of the past as often as you can do so naturally. You are not just teaching and exhorting your people, but encouraging their sense of belonging to a real thing, an historical community with a history, with heroes, sages, and officers, with duties, rewards, and privileges. It’s unnatural for a Catholic priest not to use the word “Catholic” a lot and speak often of the Blessed Virgin and the saints. Someone who only heard the sermon should know without a doubt that it was given by a Catholic priest.

12) When appropriate, and it quite often is, preach dogmatically, with explicit references to Catholic teaching. I’m told that liturgical “experts” dislike this. Ignore them. Your people need all the help you can give them in understanding the thing to which they’ve committed themselves, and your sermon is probably the only instruction they will get all week. Help them to see how the Scriptures lead to the doctrines of the Faith and how the doctrines help us understand the Scriptures, and how the two together contribute to human happiness.

13) Once in a while, clarify the differences between what Catholics believe and what our Protestant brethren believe. Include an apologetic explanation for the Catholic belief. Your listeners may well hear Catholicism criticized by Protestants they know (I’ve been surprised at how gratuitously even learned Protestant friends will slap at the Church), and they need to be encouraged in their Faith and given help in responding. You will usually have to respond to some dim, if not doltish, anti-Catholic claim, but when possible, respond to Protestantism’s best representatives, so your people know what are the real differences.

14) Connect the truths you are drawing from the Scriptures to the Mass, the Church year, and the sacramental life. This lets you present the congregation with a tangible experience of the gospel you’ve just proclaimed. I have heard too many sermons that led naturally to the confessional as a comfort and a liberation, but ended instead with declarations of God’s general interest in us and the exhortation to just keep on trying. This doesn’t satisfy our need for action, nor does it tell us anything we couldn’t have gotten from the Episcopalian down the street. God gave us the Church and the sacraments for a reason.

15) Preach for transformation, even though the transformation will be incremental. Expect your parishioners to change. Point them to Jesus: to meeting Him, to knowing Him, to growing more and more like Him. Point them to the crucifix and to the tabernacle, and help them think more deeply about what they mean. What you show them of Jesus, the Jesus who died for them, will make everything hard you’ve said bearable. Don’t talk about “living in community” but about living in the Body of Christ.

Don’t talk about healing, but about Christ’s healing. Don’t talk about doing good works, but about Christian charity, which requires much more. Don’t talk about perseverance, but about Heaven, which expects less of us but promises much more.

To sum up: You are standing before your people as a mediator, and a mediator makes connections — connections with Christ above all, the Christ who came to us and will come again, but also with the Body of Christ, and with the Church’s Scriptures and her teaching; with her saints, theologians, devotional writers, with the departed, and with each other. You are speaking to people whose lives are disjointed, broken, and disconnected, and you want to remind them that they are part of a large and old and wise thing, a family, a body, a vine, stretching backward and forward through history and into eternity. You have the Good News in its fullness to give your people. That’s what we want and what we need, and what only you can give us just before we receive our Lord.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared on the Crisis website on March 12, 2009.