The Perils of Preaching

By David Mills

Listening to sermons at Mass, one often thinks, like the professor in the Narnia Chronicles, “What do they teach in school?” Not that the sermons are necessarily all that bad, but they are rarely as good as they would be had the priest been better taught. It’s like listening to a fiddler who hits most of the notes but doesn’t know how to keep time — because, one suspects, he learned the fiddle from an accordion player.

When I was an Episcopalian, friends worried that I might become a Catholic always brought up the liturgy and the preaching. Even then this struck me as irrelevant, but they saw the two bodies as brands in competition, and so thought that I was about to spend the same amount of money for a bashed-up Saturn as I would for a perfectly maintained Mercedes. Why endure old Father O’Shea when you can sit at the feet of the Rev. Canon Horace Q. Swizzlestick III, D.D.?

But in my experience of almost eight years as a Catholic, I have rarely heard a genuinely bad sermon, and I have heard a few very good ones. Even some of the most ineptly composed and delivered sermons included some striking insight that redeemed the mess. Perhaps I’ve been blessed — or maybe my standards are low — but I haven’t found Catholic preaching to be the horror show I was led to expect, even by some Catholics. I hear horror stories, and I’m sure they’re true, but I cannot tell any.

That said, most sermons could be much better than they are. The content is either much better than the presentation or the presentation much better than the content (rare is the preacher who does well in both, but not so rare is the preacher who does badly in both); the treatment of Scripture is almost always inadequate; too little is said to connect the Scriptures with the Catholic Faith; and the insights are usually left unconnected to real life, or are connected abstractly and moralistically.

Some priests only deal with the text when they’re trying to explain it away. Many stick to certain all-purpose themes — “living in community” and “being Christ to the world” are two I’ve heard several times — that produce vague and generic conclusions, which tend to be the same conclusion you heard last week, and in the weeks before that. One rarely gets the feeling that the words of the Word matter. I have heard sermons that offered a deeper, more exacting analysis of a popular song than of the Scripture readings of the day.

Sitting in the pew, I often feel that the priest means well but simply doesn’t see any need actually to prepare his sermon. The false starts, the hesitations, the repetitions, the truisms, the lack of any specific reference to the lessons, the conclusion that just trails off — these all suggest that he spent at most fifteen minutes working on the ten to twelve minutes he would be speaking. That is more than a little insulting.

Though I don’t have any horror stories to tell, it’s the general mediocrity (in both the dictionary and popular senses of the word) of Catholic preaching that leaves me depressed. It could easily be much better. The basic skills of preaching are not that hard to teach, or to learn.

On the other hand, Protestant preaching is not necessarily that much better. Since the sermon is so central to their worship, these bodies choose their ordinands partly on their ability to preach and train them hard to do so, but still, this only takes them so far. If you listen to a randomly selected Southern Baptist minister and Catholic priest, the odds are about six to one that the first will be the better preacher, but this isn’t true across the Protestant board.

Ministers in the mainline churches often offer literary essays with a “spiritual” angle but no uniquely Christian content. You get high production values but no substance, like gourmet cotton candy.

And the skeptical theology in which many of these ministers were trained does not let them say much that is actually interesting on the day’s lessons, since they think the lessons merely primitive expressions of someone else’s experience of the Divine, if not a mode of social control and oppression (St. Paul being Exhibit One). They don’t have to wrestle with the text in the way that creates the most interesting insights. Their sermons may appeal and soothe, but only because they have packaged the comforting clichés of the moment and made them sound religious or “spiritual.” More conservative preachers take the Scriptures more seriously, but even with them there are problems. Some of them tend to preach versions of the same sermon over and over, particularly if they are of an evangelistic bent.

And as good at exegesis as some of them are, they sometimes distort Scripture, because they read it outside of the Church. They discuss conversion as if it does not involve incorporation into the Body of Christ, for example. I have heard sermons on John 6 that went to great and confusing lengths to avoid admitting that it had anything to do with the Eucharist.

A disturbing number preach more like leftist or rightwing political talking heads than Christian pastors. Their sermons reflect an embarrassing cultural captivity, whether to liberal pieties about poverty, government, war, and the like, or to rightwing culture-war stereotypes. Though generally conservative, I have heard sermons that made me want to run from the church and buy a red flag and a picture of Trotsky.

Increasingly, Protestant ministers don’t even preach the sermons they can preach. One superb expository preacher I can recall dropped the exploration of Scripture for life-application sermons, complete with a handout in the bulletin with fill-in-the-blank statements for his congregation to fill in as he spoke.

This is the style favored by the megachurches. The sermons are not unbiblical, but they use Scripture for their own ends, and only to address the questions of their target demographic, rather than reading it as a Word from outside. They make Scripture relevant by turning it into an obscurely written self-help book.

Adequate preaching can be taught, and almost every man called to the priesthood can learn it.I get the impression from talking to priests I know that most seminaries don’t take instruction in preaching as seriously as they ought to, and that some tend to focus on the theory of communication rather than the practical matters of composition and delivery.

Many Catholic leaders seem to think that preaching well is a gift and that, alas, some seminarians and priests just don’t have it. Preaching well is a gift, but preaching adequately is a skill, and a skill that can be learned. Next time I will offer 15 layman’s suggestions for doing just that.

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 February 23, 2009.