One of the complaints made against priests is that their homilies are largely a waste of time. Personally, I think that a good portion of the blame for this lays with the hearer (e.g. lack of preparation, inability to focus, unrealistic expectations), but there is LOT of room for improvement on the priest’s part as well.
Especially for the Orthodox, good preaching in church is like good teaching at research universities; it’s great when its there, but the system doesn’t train or select for it.
This is unfortunate and it needs to change. Here are some recommendations from Ken Untener’s book Preaching Better; Practical Suggestions for Homilists (with thanks to Rev. Todd Peperkorn and Professor Scott Stiegemeyer who reviewed the book on their vocations podcast Crux of the Matter). For more preaching resources, visit Fr. John Peck’s Preacher’s Institute. – Fr. Anthony
The Context of the Homily is LITURGICAL. When we work on a homily, we are involved in the same process that created both the scriptures and the liturgy. We are, in effect, composing part of the liturgy. This is a very high calling, but it should also be a joyful one. When we engage in the creative process, we are exercising our calling as God’s imagers. We are, despite our failings, the chosen instruments for this work. However, it is “not the power of the homilist, but the power of the Word of God” that changes lives.
The Effect of the Homily is Cumulative. While it is wonderful to hear a perfectly constructed motivational sermon given by a top performer, it is more useful to hear good homilies week in and week out. Bishop Unthener compares the good homilist to a cook and the parishioner to those whom he feeds; the effects of providing healthy meals “are not strikingly manifest after the first day or week… Only after the long haul do we sense the effects of eating well. The same is true of fine homilies.”
There is no need to warm up the audience. Jokes and other introductions and the like are useful when giving talks, but they interrupt the flow of the liturgy. The antiphons, litanies, psalm verses, and readings are designed to prepare the people to hear the homily. Treating it like a talk separates it from its proper context, even placing it above the rest of the service (and subtly demeaning it).
Keep it Simple. Bishop Untener stresses that it is better to develop one thought well than several thoughts lightly, even if (others would argue ESPECIALLY if) this shortens the length of the homily. This may involve leaving out some excellent material. This really isn’t a problem, especially given our one-year lectionary! Remember, homilies are a process (i.e. are iterated). There is no need to cover everything in one Sunday.
Write (but don’t read) the Homily. Writing and editing brings clarity and discipline to the process. Take advantage of that. But having a good written homily is only the first half of the process. Next, Bishop Untiner recommends pulling three or four sentences out of the homily (one for each major section). Go over these until they are perfectly clear and they flow well from one to the next; let go of all the other material. That “lost” material was never the homily, but only part of its construction (like a cast for a mold). “The primary purpose of writing in preparation for a homily is not to produce a great text; it is to think though a thought that will become a great homily and to work through ways of expressing and organizing this thought…. Take hold of the thought and you take hold of your homily.” Our egos fight this part of the process.
Say Something Important and Worthwhile. Only deep and real homilists can give deep and real homilies. People crave meaning, but too often we just give them rehashed and formulaic words and good performances. Moreover, it isn’t enough that what we say be true and well-crafted; it has to resonate with something in the listener’s life. However, the homilist cannot just use the scripture as an excuse to talk well about something important; people need the power of the Word of God. The real-life applications need to flow from the message of the Gospel.
Be Careful with Stories. Don’t include stories that do not add to the message (i.e. ones designed to build rapport or entertain). A proper story homily will be stripped down to its essentials and illustrate the main point of the homily. People remember stories better than they remember theological points; make sure what you tell is important.
The Proper Length of the Homily is Contextual (and shorter than most assume). The Liturgy has a certain rhythm; everything (the litanies, Creed, Anaphora, etc.) has its own apportioned time. If the homily is too short or long it messes with this rhythm. Collect data (to include the timed length of your homilies and people’s attention span; our wives are great for this!) to help get this right. Remember that there really is nothing wrong with a short homily and as good as your homily may go, no one enjoys it as much as you. Bishop Untener also gives this counter-intuitive gem; the greater the event, the shorter the homily. The liturgy is huge and wonderful; the homily cannot increase its majesty (but it can put people off from enjoying it).
Stay away from Jargon. The Orthodox have been collecting precise words and phrases for almost two thousand years. Much of seminary education is spent getting men to internalize those words and phrases. Unfortunately, the people in the pews do not speak this language. Nor do they need to. The job of the homilist is not to teach the people a new language but to give them the Gospel in a way they can relate to and understand. Words that evoke images in the mind are better than abstract ones. This is hard for priests to do; Orthodoxy has a clerical (and ego) bias, and priests and theologians seem to enjoy talking over people’s heads. Homilists should study how good communicators speak and imitate these professionals (and not their seminary professors).
Subdue the Ego. Pride finds many ways into the homily process. People want the homily to be personal, but it should never be self-centered. Here are some practical suggestions for keeping the effects of pride in check: limit the number of times you refer to yourself (e.g. “I”, “my”, “me”); use “we” instead of “you”; be aware of your own need for salvation; create a system for gathering good feedback on your preaching. I’d add that “winging it” is a great way to invite pride to speak.
End well. Endings should be brief, well-constructed/prepared, and allow the people to easily transition into the next part of the service. “More can go wrong with the ending (e.g. dragging it on, going off on a tangent) than any other single part of the homily. You can take this one to the bank: “Don’t ever begin to preach a homily unless you know what the final two sentences are going to be.”
Epilogue; Ten Demons that Plague Preaching. Here are ten biggest problems Bp. Untener found during his research:
- Retelling the Gospel. People are okay with short quotes, but retelling it is felt to be a waste of time.
- Using a Pulpit Voice. This may be common (and Southerners aren’t the only “ethnic group” of Orthodox that are tempted by this!), but people are turned off by its inauthenticity.
- Warming up Old Homilies. We can use the insights from old homilies, but we should never just use the same homily twice (even if the audience is completely different).
- Repetition. People complain about this, even when it is being done intentionally for emphasis.
- Cut and Paste Homilies. We should learn from other homilists, but when we paste together good material the sum is often less than the parts.
- Long and Too Many Quotes. These work great in essays but turn people off during homilies. Quotes need to be perfect, short, generally understandable, and inclusive. “Quoting a passage from scripture, even one from the scriptures just heard, can be effective, especially as an ending.”
- Leaving out Singles. Marriage and children examples are useful, but unmarried and childless people may feel left out. This doesn’t mean homilists should stop using these, only that they need to make sure they also use other ones, too.
- Stick to the Lectionary. The Orthodox can’t change the readings for the day they way others can, but we are still sometimes guilty of picking what we preach about based on our own feelings rather than what is contained in the scripture readings.
- Lousy PA Systems. It cracks me up when visiting homilists refuse to use the lapel microphone I give them (as if they know the acoustics of the space and the needs of the parishioners more than the parish priest; or as if they think their voice is bigger than mine). Some spaces require microphones. However, if you do use a microphone, make sure the sound system is up to the task.
- Unnecessary Qualifiers and Fillers. Priests waste a lot of time (and lose traction) with fillers. Army schools fail soldiers who use more than two or three fillers in their presentations; seminaries should do the same. No one realizes how many fillers they use until someone counts them. In general, it is useful to watch recordings of your own homilies (but be ready to eat some serious humble pie!).
I’ve left out a lot; certainly more than enough to make the book worth reading on its own!