By Pierre Hegy
The series “60-second sermons” has been going on since December 2018. It may be time to evaluate the results. This is no easy task because of the special nature of these sermons, yet evaluation remains important. Generally speaking, every preacher has his/her own style and usually becomes more confident in it over the years but also more frozen in it. Without outside evaluation, sermons become more predictable and less creative. Without evaluations, the 60-second sermons may simply reinforce the preachers’ sermonic styles.
I will evaluate twenty 60-second sermons, first in light of other sermons and second, in light of preaching criteria. In 2012 the National Catholic Education Association published eight examples of good sermons given in various parishes during Lent, which I analyzed. I also recorded and analyzed the Lent sermons from the three sources, the U.S. bishops’ daily video reflections, America magazine, and the National Catholic Reporter. At various times, the founders of the New Rhetoric published model-sermons which I analyzed. I previously had analyzed about hundred homilies in Catholic parishes and a few Protestant sermons.
I have selected the ten 60-second sermons given during Lent in 2020, from Ash Wednesday to Easter plus Pentecost Day, and the ten of 2020 Lent. This is a limited sample, not representative of all sermons.
60-Second Sermons in a Comparative Perspective
My first step is always to transcribe and summarize the sermons. At once emerged the tripartite structure I found in most of these sermons, namely an introduction, the main idea, and a concluding message. In the introduction the preacher endeavors to gain the attention of the audience by speaking about commonalities, common feelings and experiences, for instance:
It breaks my heart when …
Lenten discipline reminds me of my minor seminary
The number 40 is important in the bible
Fast from understanding, feast on mystery
It is difficult to find one’s way through Athens with a wrong map
I went to Sychar and Jacob’s well
I walk among the trees that know the pain of dying
At Easter celebrations, there are always broken people
In Panama I joined the Feast Day procession
I recently ripped out three ugly bushes
Who would you rather be, Martha or Mary?
An extraordinary act of bravery touches us deeply.
There are such introductions in nearly all the samples described above. In the pre-Vatican II days, as far as I can remember, the sermons did not have such beginnings. Moreover, there are no such introductions in the sermons of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Billy Braham, Methodist Adam Hamilton, Catholic bishop Robert Barron, and Presbyterian Timothy Keller who will be introduced below. The need for such a beginning stems from the 1960s and the New Rhetoric when relevance, narrative preaching, and emphasis on the authentic self became the new norm. Changes in how the listener receives the gospel message were likewise acknowledged in Paul VI’s landmark exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii nuntiandi (1975): “Modern man [sic] listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (EN 41). These introductions catch the attention but they often do not really introduce to the main topic of the day. More importantly, in many of the 60-second sermons, these introductions take half or more of the sermon time. When this is the case, the center of the sermon becomes the self of the preacher rather than a gospel message.
The second part of sermons is usually the topic selected by the preacher. In the Catholic tradition, homilies are expected to explain the readings of the day but this norm is flexible as one can select another text. What I found in parishes is that most priests do not comment on the readings or another reading, but go on a tangent about a topic of interest to them. Of course, there may be parish events that require immediate attention. Priests may also summarize the three readings without explanations before drawing some moral conclusions. A second characteristic of these parish sermons is that they seldom quote scripture, or they tell biblical stories in their own supposedly more inspiring words. Similarly, in Pray-Tell sermons, instead of an explanation of readings, the 60-second sermons tend to offer personal reflections without biblical quotations, thus drawing attention to the self of the preacher rather than to the word of God. Obviously, the 60 second time frame sets very stringent limitations.
In parishes, the topic of the day and the moral conclusion are usually separate and easily distinguishable. In the 60-second sermons, the conclusion is often also the main topic which makes it redundant; when this is the case the whole sermon becomes a moralizing speech with a foreknown conclusion. Here are examples (I have included the word “conclusion;” without it the sermons are lengthy exhortations from beginning to end).
In Jesus’ words, “It is time to repent.” It is time to write that letter to my senator, to do more than recycle my plastic. Conclusion: Our God also demands repentance and true conversion.
On Ash Wednesday 17 people at a high school were killed in a shooting. Conclusion: Let us hold close to the countless people dying because of violence.
What are the ramifications of Jesus’ temptations? Conclusion: Let us be aware of the ramifications of our words and actions.
Jesus tried to find the man thrown out of the Temple. Conclusion: Maybe Jesus wants to find us in this Lenten season.
Hosanna! Crucify him! Surely, I will not deny you. Hail, rabbi! I do not know the man! Conclusion: We so desperately need to be able to say, “Truly, this was the son of God.”
The first Easter wasn’t much of a party, either. The habits of our hearts obscure what God is doing. Conclusion: May we experience Easter upside-down.
The Pentecost mystery knits together our broken world. Conclusion: Pentecost, therefore, calls us to change.
Main point and conclusion: Prayer and fast should be the disciplines of our on-going Christian life, not just of Lent.
Main point and conclusion: For us the 40 days of Lent is a time to consider something new in our own lives.
Criteria for Sermon Evaluation
Are there universal evaluation criteria? Theoretically no, and we all agree. Practically, all teachers, lawyers, judges, pastors, or even parents implicitly believe that their criteria have universal value. Without the belief in universal criteria, teaching, judging, preaching, and guiding children would be impossible.
In order to find criteria for good preaching I turned to mentors, namely, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Billy Graham, Adam Hamilton, Robert Barron, and Timothy Keller. From their examples I have come up with the following criteria.
A basic principle of communication is self-revelation: revealing or hiding one’s deep self invites others to do the same. More specific are Aristotle’s three criteria of persuasion which apply to preaching. They are: credibility or authenticity (whether one practices what one preaches as indicated in one’s self-revelation or the lack of it), emotions (enthusiasm and passion for God, not just emotionality), and rationality (systematic knowledge of bible and theology beyond the level of a seminary freshman). Basic rhetoric requires that there be a main point announced at the beginning and developed progressively rather than the three unrelated parts of introduction, a main point, and a moral conclusion.
The most important parts of rhetoric are the structure of the argument and the creative use of figures of speech, besides delivery. A basic rule of writing is to develop one point, and one only, but this is very difficult as we increasingly write by association of ideas as in advertisement and emails. Moreover, all scientific paradigms, schools of theology, and church doctrines involve symbols and metaphors which are the core of people’s collective identity. Both classical rhetoric and the art of advertisement emphasize the importance of images, symbols, and metaphors.
I have added two semiotic criteria to my evaluation of religious speaking: kerygma and mystagogy. They are the equivalent of Aristotle’s emphasis on emotions (mystagogy is the sharing of the preacher’s inner motions of faith, hope and love) and rationality (kerygma is the preacher’s coherent understanding of the mysteries of faith).
Kerygma in apostolic times was defined by a few articles of faith. Today it is more than one’s theology of salvation; broadly speaking, it involves the symbolic core of one’s faith. This symbolic core is likely to include one’s preferred biblical texts and narratives, one’s understanding of salvation and sanctification, one’s practices (e.g. the rosary or bible reading), one’s iconic images (a crucifix or a wooden cross), one’s image of God (as judge or friend), one’s conception of human sinfulness (as totally depraved or in need of sanctification), one’s preferred hymns, music, art, etc. Preachers inevitably reveal their personal core in the course of ten or twenty sermons. A preacher’s greatest gift to the world.is the sharing of his/her symbolic core, that is, of his/her personal understanding of the mysteries of faith; the rest are accessories.
The opposite of sharing one’s core faith is role-playing. One necessarily begins preaching by imitating the model heard over the years. At the beginning it is hard, but with time it becomes easier, as one develops one’s own preaching style. From then on, preaching may become role-playing, as one can produce 50 sermons in the same style every year, for quite a few years.
Then preaching has often become sermonizing.
Mystagogy in early Christianity referred to the teaching of the Christian mysteries in the weeks following baptism. I use the term in the broad sense of leading people to a transcendent reality through worship, music, singing, and preaching. Mystagogy means leading people to greater faith, hope, and love through one’s faith experiences and the examples of others. Moralism, biblical commentaries and exhortations, although commendable, do not seem very mystagogical to me.
Ultimately, mystagogy (inspiring faith, hope and love) and kerygma (the understanding of the mysteries of faith) are the two basic criteria of effective preaching in my view, but things are often a little more complex.
What is the purpose of publishing short sermons? Is it to convert the readers? Is it to propose preaching models for others to imitate? The space provided for comments and replies after the sermon suggests that the purpose is discussion. It does not work. There are very few comments and they all are congratulatory. Nobody is going to offer a critique of a colleague’s sermon. Why do preachers offer their 60-second sermons to the public? Is it to show off their talents? No. I think they want feedback for improvement.
In order to help, one needs to know what the preacher is struggling with, in terms of kerygma and mystagogy. A preacher must identify his struggles which go deeper than role-playing and producing weekly sermons. It is about these struggles that a preacher needs suggestions, not mainly about the mechanics of sermon writing.
Currently it is the editor who writes the headlines and subtitles. I propose that the preachers select a title—a real title, not just “60-second reflection on … for the X Sunday of…” Second, preachers should indicate, in just a few lines, what they have been struggling with over the last few years and which is reflected in their current sermon. Alternatively, they can indicate what they hope to achieve over the next few years. The basis of professional evaluation is the assessment in the light of one’s goals, in preaching as in business. Third, give your e-address for, hopefully, a sustained conversation about preaching between a mentor and a mentee or between equals in a common struggle.
Encourage articles about the art of preaching (in the series ars predicandi). For maybe two thousand years, from Aristotle to the middle of the 19th century, students spent years learning the art of persuasion by applying the principles of the art of rhetoric. Only an agreement about basic principles in the ars predicandi makes possible a critique of sermons and their improvement.
Alternative proposal: Invite eminent guest speakers to address specific preaching issues. Most conferences invite such guests long in advance to allow for timely preparation. Without guest speakers and a critical selection of the papers, many conferences would only be open markets for competing interests with no guidance for the future.
. . .
I could summarize my points in the words of the Apostle Paul. “While I was with you, I made up my mind to forget everything except Jesus Christ and especially his death on the cross. So, when I came to you, I was weak and trembled all over with fear, and my teaching and message were not delivered with skillful words of human wisdom, but with convincing proof of the power of God’s Spirit.” (1 Cor 2:2-4, GNT). Paul takes Jesus Christ and his death on the cross as his symbolic core. He has told the history of his conversion on several occasions. His basic emotion is one of awe (traditionally described as fear and trembling) before the mystery of God. He counts for nothing human skills, relying rather on the power of God. These are the criteria by which Paul wanted to be judged. These are also the ultimate criteria of sermon evaluation, even of very short ones.