Does Preaching Make Any Difference Whatsoever?

In St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary, we are blessed with the very able homiletics coaching of Dr. Dawn Carrillo. With Dawn we have worked out a model for coaching our students who preach. It works like this:

Every Thursday the grad school community has a half-hour ecumenical Midday Prayer service, with Chapel Choir under Dr. André Heywood singing every week. Given the setting, this ecumenical service in fact oftentimes has a Catholic and Benedictine spirit.

Students who are in their second semester or later are eligible to sign up to preach. Their reflections are to be c. 5-6 minutes long.

To give our students experience working with a lectionary and preaching upon a text not of their choice, we devise a lectionary each semester. This is oftentimes based on Give Us This Day, whose readings generally reflect the themes of the Mass readings. (We don’t use the Mass lectionary because this isn’t Mass, and because many of our students attend daily Mass and will hear the Mass readings there.)

Student preachers are expected to submit their texts to Dawn ahead of time, and they strengthen their texts based on her coaching. She gives the final approval in order for the reflection to take place.

Then, students who preach are asked to find two feedback peers. After the service, the preacher, the two peers, and a faculty member meet for a brief feedback session of c. 10-15 minutes. Faculty in all areas of theology take their turn guiding these sessions. These are the questions Dawn has provided for use at the feedback sessions.

  1. How did God’s Word and the preaching touch your life today? (OR) What did you experience in hearing God’s Word in today’s preaching?
  2. Will this preaching make a difference in your life this week? How?
  3. Are there ways in which today’s preacher might have improved in communicating the message?

I must admit, when we began this I didn’t like the second question, and I said so to Dawn. This question is about the listener, I said, but we want to talk about the homily. What we listeners do with it is our business. We should focus on the preacher’s technique – her presence, pacing, volume, content, organization, and the like.

Dawn pushed back. And rightly so, I’ve come to realize. I was mistaken.

If preaching doesn’t make a difference in the lives of listeners, it’s a waste of time. The whole point of a homily is to change lives. Homilists should think precisely about people’s lives, and evaluation of the homily should take up exactly that dynamic.

I’ve come to experience Dawn’s second question as something of a gift in my life, and a real game-changer for how I think about my own preaching. It’s become clearer to me that my task is not to explain religious things, teach doctrine, give historical and theological context to understand the readings better, or the like. My task is to name and encourage the ways that the God of the Scriptures is active in people’s lives today. Thanks for that insight, Dawn.

Another gift to me has been the regular posting at Pray Tell of homilies by Fr. Ed Foley. (E.g. here, and here, and here.) Repeatedly, I’ve been powerfully hit between the eyes by the ways that Ed speaks to the real world and real lives. Thanks for that, Ed.

Here’s to preaching that makes a difference in people’s lives!

awr

8 comments

  1. “If preaching doesn’t make a difference in the lives of listeners, it’s a waste of time. The whole point of a homily is to change lives. Homilists should think precisely about people’s lives, and evaluation of the homily should take up exactly that dynamic.”

    I agree it is a good insight. Perhaps it’s the starting point; the art is, How does the homilist go about creating and delivering a homily that changes lives?

    FWIW – Vatican II saw the homily as “‘a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation”. Not contradictory to the view put forth in the post. It may help focus us on the reality that it is not us the preachers who change people’s lives, but rather God’s wonderful works. It seems our job is to be proclaimers of those works. I find that a good deal less daunting than being responsible for changing people’s lives :-). I find it difficult enough to change my own!

  2. “If preaching doesn’t make a difference in the lives of listeners, it’s a waste of time … my task is not to explain religious things, teach doctrine, give historical and theological context to understand the readings better, or the like”

    It seems like you’re assuming that explaining religious things, teaching doctrine, etc., can’t make a difference in the lives of your listeners. But my own experience is that most homilies are too moralistic, and leave me feeling slightly hectored. Maybe I’m too defensive. But I find that the (apparently apocryphal) dictum of Saint-Exupéry resonates with me:

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”

  3. I might mildly dissent from the “this week” part of Question #2. Sometimes the way a homily (or the Word of God generally) works on us is more long term. A well-crafted turn of phrase may not achieve its full effect all at once.

    Many of the things we deal with on a weekly or daily basis are ephemera. A homiletics focused too much on the quotidian is unlikely to penetrate deeply and call us to conversion. It takes time and contemplation to go beneath the waves and discern the deep and powerful currents that are shaping us. What drives me to despair most Sundays is the shallowness of our preaching. An opening joke, a little light exegesis, and a “be nice to your spouses and kids” ethical message. Thirty minutes later I can’t remember a word of it.

    It’s not that I don’t appreciate the difficulty. I preached for years out at the county jail. It’s really hard to do this well and I failed more than I succeeded. It made me much more humble in assessing the quality of the homilies I listen to. But the People of God deserve better than they are getting right now–from all of us.

    1. Yes.

      There are but a handful of homilies that percolated deeply into me, but I also recognized their jewel-like value at the time of hearing. Not a single one involved “relevance” in conventional terms. All involved re-orienting my perspective in ways that became habitual.

      The earliest being one I bleat about with some frequency, as it comes up in practice at least a few times a week in my life in some form or another: 45+ years ago in my childhood, a single-sentence homily (bracketed by silence, an important detail) on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican with words to this effect: “I wonder how many of us here are thanking God that we are not like that Pharisee.”

      The most recent I heard this past Octave of Easter, contrasting Jesus vs Death and their respective apostles. (While Jesus has broken Death’s sovereignty in the Paschal Mystery, Death has apostles (sin, fear, distrust, et cet.) that remain to draw us into Death’s mission, while Jesus gave his apostles and followers certain gifts to draw us into his mission – forgiveness, joy and belief.)

    2. I would share this dissent. For 25 years, I attended churches where the sermon was much more central than it is in the Mass (Amish-Mennonite, and then Reformed). And there was a lot of life-changing teaching in those sermons–but very little of it changed my life that week in a noticeably way. Some did; that was good; but the real impact was long-term, and cumulative–the whole is much more than the parts. Some of that was “here’s how to think about God and His work”; some of it was practical advice on topics Scripture addresses, that I didn’t need at the time (“husbands are called to imitate Christ” is much more important to my life now than it was when I was 16).

      I think the central importance of preaching in my life, though, has been exactly the “explaining doctrine, and giving context to understand the readings better”–because that has made it possible, little by little and with invisible progress each week, for me to read Scripture for myself and understand it.

    3. I deeply appreciate your insights, Peter.

      I know I am spoiled by my background and the many gifted and talented preachers I have heard over the years. My homiletics professor when I was a student many long years ago at St John’s impressed on me the hard, prayerful labor involved in the homiletic process and our responsibility to the Gospel and to the listener. Not every preacher is gifted, and it is also so obvious that it is not a priority for some.

      As a listener in the pew, your words ring so very true. It is a breath of fresh air when a homily is still with me at the end of the liturgy, and even more so when it knocks on my consciousness in the following days or weeks. It is something that happens so rarely it seems to have even greater impact. As you said, “the People of God deserve better than they are getting right now.” I’m thankful that the St John’s SOT is continuing to foster a strong homiletic education tradition so maybe, just maybe, in the future the People of God will regularly get what they deserve and need.

  4. I’ve a question for those dissenting on the “this week” point. For a homily that only affected you later, did you at least find yourself reflecting on that homily in the week after it was delivered? Perhaps that is the change for the week. Perhaps it is possible that we hear a homily today, do not think about it in the coming week, and then it comes back to us at a later point. But in general memory works better when we rehearse what we have learned, so I would think that short term reflection on the homily would be important for long term change.

  5. If I were a student there, I would have to raise my humility a little after each service.

    What would happen if this were a common practice in each institution where a preacher stood in the pulpit and then met for 5-10 minutes after each service. Results would be immediate but I’m not so sure I would do it. The churches would have to trust the wisdom of the preacher and the wisdom of the hearer.

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