How To Preach

We began the “Sixty Second Sermon” series at Pray Tell last Advent, and readers tell us they love it. Some preachers report that these one-minute sermons give them good starting points for their lengthier Sunday homily or sermon . Pray Tell readers will be interested in the following suggestions we have sent out to our roster of preachers. How many of these points apply to all preaching? – awr

Be yourself, in the way that is most sincere and authentic for you. Don’t be afraid to let your unique personality come through – whether that is extroverted, reflective, analytical, humorous, poetic, or something else. Play to your personal strengths: it is your “schtick” that will draw the listener in.

Have a point, and only one. Everything in your sermon leads to this, flows from this, and drives your decisions about what to include. Your point should be the main thing you want to stick with the listener.

Don’t be dull. Online listeners have short attention spans. If you have a dull patch that goes on for more than 10 seconds, you may have lost them.

  • Emotion is interesting.
  • Humor is interesting.
  • A unique insight is interesting.
  • Stories and anecdotes are interesting.
  • Drama is interesting.
  • Creative turns of phrase are interesting.
  • Depth of conviction is interesting.

Don’t be content with teaching religious and theological stuff. Tell us how the Reign of God – grace – is at work in today’s world and real people’s lives, and how the Gospel speaks to that.

Don’t summarize or re-tell the Gospel reading. Apply its message to the real world and real life.

Think of using evocative rather declarative language.
“Humans have a tendency to mark important moments with family gatherings and meals” is rather abstract. This is more evocative:
→ “I can still smell the pumpkin pie as I walk into my Grandma’s kitchen, all these decades after her passing – the smell of celebration, the smell of love.”
“The Gospel mandate is to serve others, even when it makes us uncomfortable,” by itself, is rather abstract. It might be illustrated with language like this:
→  “The man at the food shelf stunk. He burped when he spoke to me.”

Make sure your interesting elements – joke, the anecdote, the saying – are tied to your main point. Sometimes it takes a bit of thinking to find just the right thing.

Use what is helpful in these suggestions and forget the rest. Be creative and go in the direction you want with this. It is your creativity which is most likely to go viral!

Featured image: from Clip Art Library.

14 comments

  1. Excellent suggestions that can be used by anyone. My favorite quote from a homiletics class is still, “If you can’t say it in 10 minutes or less, you probably can’t say it.” I know presiders who complain that some of the music is too long. They then continue to preach for half an hour.

  2. The length of a homily depends on who is doing the preaching. Can anyone imagine telling Jesus or Paul that they must limit their talking to ten minutes? Or Fulton Sheen? A charismatic, articulate, engaging priest with an ability to relate the material to real life may disappoint an assembly if he preaches less than 15 minutes.

    1. Being neither charismatic nor engaging by nature, and not given to the clever phrase or thought, I make sure when delivering a homily that at the least, I don’t bore them too much.

      So I always type out the text, and it has to be a single sheet of A4 and in 14 point, no spacing. That ensures an average length of about 5 minutes.

      Having had long (35mins) homilies inflicted on me in my time, I take the medical instruction ‘Do no harm.’

      AG.

      1. A good preacher can hold me on the edge of my seat for 15 minutes.
        But a less good preacher can manage to be boring in a 2-minute homily at daily Mass! It has happened.
        awr

      2. I suspect that people who dogmatize about how long a homily should be simply have limited homiletic experience. I think I am usually around the ten-minute mark myself, but when I think of the very best preachers I have heard, most of them have tended to go longer than that (in the case of some protestant preachers, considerably longer than that).

        At the famous/notorious Church of the Nativity outside of Baltimore, the “message” (what the rest of us call the homily) is typically 20 minutes long. Whatever complaints I may have about Nativity, the preaching is in my estimation excellent and none of the thousands of people who attend there each week seems to complain about the length. They archive them all on video so people can judge for themselves whether the homilies are too long.

        Perhaps the rule should be: most preachers should preach for about ten minutes; some should preach for less than two; but some can preach for as long as they like.

  3. “Don’t summarize or re-tell the Gospel reading. Apply its message to the real world and real life.”

    Break open the Word so we can see what is inside or pull a piece out we can chew on all week, wrap it up so we can carry it home with us. But don’t repeat it in less powerful or elegant language. I sometimes wish this were engraved on every ambo.

    1. Also, don’t pre-preach/preface it, either. Allow the faithful in the pews to hear the Word without being told to what to pay attention to. Pre-homilies/homiletic prefaces put the Word and the faithful in service to the homily, rather than having the homily serve the Word and the faithful.

      Just yesterday, the celebrant at the Mass I attended engaged in a pre-homily of several minutes length during the introductory rites, which was quite redundant given the actual content of his otherwise fine homily.

      1. Please send this to all parish liturgy committees who insist on a pre-Mass lecture telling the people what they should get out of the liturgy.

      2. There should be a Kathlick version of this perfect take-down of TED talk-style from 2016, which style seems to be infecting aspects of what is seen as model “church building” Amurkan-style these days:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZBKX-6Gz6A

        Or maybe we have to rely on the LutheranSatire site for that kind of thing in a church context….

  4. I think the late Bishop Utener’s little intros to the Scriptures are all that is needed at the beginning of the liturgy of the Word,

    1. I grew up in a parish with a priest (who came in 1975 and retired in 1993) bringing with him a binder of mail order “introductions” which he dutifully read out at the beginning of every Mass, before the first reading (covering the whole of the readings for that day), and before the start of the Canon. This was on top of the mail order sermons which soon followed and were also dutifully read. Then there was the post-Communion wrap-up which was in his own words. (Going to the Polish Mass brought no relief as he eventually found a similar service in Polish.) I am thankful that now I can attend Mass where there are no opportunities for such interpolations and that the only place that the celebrant can express himself/herself is during the sermon.

  5. “Drama is interesting.” “Can anyone imagine telling Fulton Sheen that he must limit his talking to ten minutes?”

    I can’t stand histrionic preaching. Exaggerated gestures and mannerisms, affected speech and pronunciation, overly dramatic intonation and pauses — I can do without the melodrama. The pulpit is not a stage.

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