Christian faithful complain and comment about everything in Church life, and analysis of liturgical music and preaching are sure to be near the top of the list of discussion topics. In my own experience as a deacon and teacher, people are distracted during the liturgy, but they often pay attention to preaching. The homily is a subject of discussion in the car, at home, at coffee hour, and online. “We need better preaching” is a common lament of Christian people of all denominations.
What is good preaching? Every Christian tradition has its own perspective, and there are qualities of homilies that people either praise (when they are present) or desire (when they are absent). Based on comments I have captured over the course of many years, good preaching is:
- A breaking open of the Bible;
- Authoritative and informed;
- Memorable: the people recall the core message with ease;
- Challenging; it includes an exhortation to amend one’s life or repent.
Obviously, one could add many more distinguishing features of a good homily to this list. I presented a summary based on what I have observed over several years, and did not mean to offer an exhaustive list.
Pastors who accept the challenge of preparing a quality homily find inspiration in a number of models. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches looked to the patristic tradition. The publication and translation of hundreds of homilies from the Greek and Latin manuscript traditions reintroduced theologians to a classical period of preaching from late antiquity. Of course, Protestant and other Christian traditions had already revived preaching and restored it to the Liturgy, and redefined it as a central component of the proclamation of the Word. Some Protestant traditions that celebrate the Eucharist infrequently accentuated the proclamation of the Word in general, and the homily in particular as a liturgical epiclesis, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembly. Many of these attempts to renew and restore the homily were implemented in response to the disappearance of preaching from the liturgy. In my own Orthodox tradition, vestiges of patristic preaching remained in the Liturgy despite a general decline in preaching, through the Church’s hymnography. The hymns of the Byzantine Rite are echoes of patristic preaching, inspiring the late Orthodox theologian Constantin Andronikof to claim that the choir of the Church is the pulpit of theology. The restoration of the proclamation of the Word of God led to a new emphasis in teaching and practicing homiletics in seminaries and graduate schools of theology.
The results of the restoration of preaching to the Liturgy and the reclaiming of its value are uneven. There are still many instances of impoverished liturgical preaching. Homilists are prone to confusing a homily with a lecture, deviating from their core message, delivering too much content, ignoring the appointed lectionary for the day, and perhaps worst of all, not knowing when to stop talking. Inexperienced and deficient homilists can improve, especially if the preacher is self-critical and committed to improving their skills and polishing their preparation and delivery.
Can one attribute the perception of bad preaching to ill-prepared and unskilled preachers? Not entirely. One must ask about the expectations for preaching. Do we dismiss homilies that fail to excite us or do not make us feel good about ourselves? Are we averse to messages that do not tell us what we want to hear about God, the world, and us? Do we lack the patience and discipline to hear and listen to all homilists? The faithful who hear preaching might be prone to tuning out less polished public speakers whose messages proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. Perhaps some homilists who speak quietly or have monotone styles of delivery offer lifegiving messages that have the capacity to challenge and awaken us, if we weren’t so easily distracted. Hearing and listening are activities requiring energy and attention, and the assembly’s hearing and listening is a way of actively participating in the Liturgy.
Christian faithful continue to call upon their pastors to improve their preaching to lead the assembly into the kingdom of God by breaking open the riches of Scripture. The faithful are also invited to improve their ministry of the Word, by sharpening their senses and devoting full attention to preaching, lest the lifegiving word be missed on account of distraction.