This is the first in a series of essays on preaching written by lay people.
About five years ago, I wrote a little essay about preaching. That piece weighed in on a conversation that had emerged between several other contributors, all of them ordained. I decided to chime in because I believed that the exchange was lacking a layperson’s perspective. The article also laid out some advice. I am very pleased that Covenant is now publishing a whole series of posts on preaching from laypeople.
The thrust of my advice in the earlier piece was straightforward. I encouraged preachers to approach their task less as an exercise in individual literary or artistic expression and to embrace an appropriately more modest (and chastened) set of expectations: “Give up on crafting an impressive and artistic sermon. Try instead for a merely serviceable or passable or tolerable one.”
The advice was sometimes pointed, and some readers objected to the pointier parts. Nevertheless, I don’t think I would change substantively what I said. My ideal sermon remains “an entirely derivative word on the day’s readings.” I would still say the same thing to preachers or seminarians — your goal should be “an utterly anonymous sermon” on “whatever it is that the Bible is telling us about that day.”
I’m not against sermons that are moving or beautiful, but most aren’t and don’t need to be. Thankfully, we have thousands of sermons from Augustine and John Chrysostom to read, and I do wish today’s preachers would read them more. But they have been preserved for us because they were exemplary, not because they were representative. I suspect that preaching has been mostly pedestrian through most of the Church’s history, and it yet withstands the gates of hell. Of all the good and bad preachers I’ve heard in my own forty-some years, I can really only remember one or two who habitually produced excellent sermons of a quality that you could justly call “literary.”
Sermons aren’t bad because they fall short of Augustine or Chrysostom. Preaching doesn’t fail because the preacher isn’t a sufficiently eloquent writer or fluid speaker. I once heard a good sermon in which the preacher committed a grammatical error (unironically) and then went on to repeat it probably half a dozen times as a kind of refrain. Good grammar is better than bad grammar, but it doesn’t make for a good word, or for good news.
And there isn’t one right way to do it. Good sermons can be clever, funny, smart, moving, inspiring, erudite, literary, or convicting. But sermons don’t have to be any of those things to be good. Likewise, bad preaching isn’t bad because the preacher needs more polish, or more knowledge, more confidence, or better verbal and rhetorical skills. Any one of those things might make your preaching better, but none of it will make bad preaching good. Bad preaching is bad because it’s empty, banal, insubstantial, thin. Bad preaching is bad because it isn’t about anything, and so it holds no nourishment.
Concern for catechetical, or instructional, substance in preaching seems to have become widespread in recent years. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI called repeatedly for a renewal of the preaching ministry — specifically, improved Sunday homilies and an emphasis on their catechetical import. When the Catholic bishops of the United States produced a new instruction on homiletics in 2012 — Preaching the Mystery of Faith: the Sunday Homily — they cited both the Pope’s calls and also an urgent catechetical need (pp. 2-5.) It’s hard to disagree with this concern. Preaching may accomplish other things too, but it must include catechesis. If it doesn’t instruct or teach, then it probably isn’t doing much of anything else. But what does it mean to say that preaching should be mostly about catechesis or instruction? In my view, a good deal of catechesis just comes down to telling a story.
In about 400 a deacon in Carthage approached St. Augustine with a few questions about catechesis. Deogratias had some very practical questions — for example, what exactly was the right place for moral exhortation? He also wondered about his own delivery and effectiveness. Occasionally he himself was bored with his discourses and he had doubts about his effectiveness or fruitfulness. Augustine answered him with the short treatise On Teaching the Uninstructed (De catechizandis rudibus, often cited as cat.rud.) It’s not explicitly about the task of preaching, but both the deacon’s questions and Augustine’s answers bear directly on it.
According to St. Augustine, it isn’t hard to summarize the basic Christian story. And that work of summary — offering a ‘comprehensive account’ is really what catechesis amounts to. You’ve told the whole story, he says, when you begin at creation and end in the present time of the church. Telling the biblical story, we don’t flatly rehearse the whole sequence of the Bible’s contents. Rather, we highlight and dwell on its key ‘turning-points;’ we hold them up, unwrap them, and admire them. (cat.rud., III.5) Scripture unfolds a story and that story includes us. Indeed, incorporating us into the story is its very purpose or objective. (cat.rud., IV.7-8) Naturally, the center of that story is Christ, and his coming accomplishes the salvation of human beings.
There is no getting around the story. Desire for theological “substance” leads some well-meaning preachers to sidestep the story and go straight for the content. This nearly always leads them astray. I’m sure we have all heard little lectures that have been passed off as sermons. Besides being eminently forgettable, overly didactic homilies fail because they shrug off this important task of narration. Instruction from the pulpit should be mostly aimed at effecting or encouraging the congregation’s own narrative appropriation of the Scripture:
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
If your congregants can give a passable definition of transubstantiation but can’t really say who King David was, you are likely falling short. “Catechesis” of this kind can form people who’ve learned ideas or concepts but who may not really know their part in any of it — they don’t know their own story and don’t inhabit it. Knowing the story can never be an “extra” for the Church, because the Church only comes into being in response to the story.
According to Augustine, the Church is the purpose or “what-for” of the biblical story. The body or community of people in whom God shows his love, the Church is the people who respond in love toward God because he has first loved them. (cat.rud. IV.7-8) God intervenes out of love for humankind precisely in order to create a people who can love him in return — to kindle human hearts with love. (cat.rud. IV.7)
There really isn’t one right way to do it. Augustine’s little treatise includes plenty of advice about how to approach audiences of different backgrounds (XV.23) and how to adapt discourse to their educational background or intellectual formation (VIII.12-IX.13). Perhaps no one size fits them all. From my own point of view, almost anything is fair game. You can use literary words, or you can avoid them. You can tell a joke. You can tell a story.
Sometimes, telling a different story can even elucidate ours. C.S. Lewis must surely count as an exemplary storyteller of this kind. But it’s easy to get wrong. If your people go home gushing about some little fable or personal anecdote you told, but can’t really say what the readings were, then you haven’t illustrated or explained the text so much as replaced it. Stories about your grandfather won’t save you or me from sin and death. All you have to do is tell the story, but you cannot leave it out or displace it.
“Feed my sheep,” our Lord enjoined St. Peter. (John 21) That’s what he wants from you too. It’s also what I want — I’m hungry, the world is hungry. Feed me, feed us. “I am the Bread of Life,” says our Master. “He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). I am dying and the whole mortal world with me. We are all headed for that vast and terrible bonepile that Ezekiel saw, falling apart and coming unstrung. What Word will quicken me when I am only dry bones? Who will breathe on me and re-fashion this mortal dust with his life-creating spirit? We are the bearers of the only hope for this whole dying world.
It may sound dismissive, but I do really mean it as an encouragement — the bar is not high. Take heart and rely on your message! If you are talking about the extravagant love for us that God has shown in Jesus’ condescension and humiliation, you are doing right the one truly necessary thing. If you are talking about it with awe, wonder, gratitude and love, you are preaching well enough.
Caleb Congrove is a high school Spanish teacher.