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Ten Top Tips for Preaching

Monday, August 31, 2015

fr Richard Ounsworth offers some tips on how best to preach.

It is an undeserved honour to be asked to write this article, and I would like to begin with a health warning: preachers all have to find their own style, and there is no easy recipe for a good sermon. My own style of preaching – which is quite different ‘live’ from the kind of thing I write for this website, in fact – is just that: my own, inimitable, which is probably for the best. The most to be hoped for from what follows is a little food for thought. And with that, here we go…

1. Know your congregation

It is ironic to start with this, as on Torch we are quite consciously preaching to a huge congregation – many thousands of people from all walks of life and every part of the world – about whom we know very little. Doubly ironic in fact for me, because I am not and have never been a Parish Priest, and it is they who often can and should know their congregations inside out, know their people, their problems and their difficulties with the faith both practical and intellectual, and thus do the really important job of a sermon, which is to help the People of God to live out the Gospel of Christ in their everyday lives. A sermon is not just a learned exposition of some point of theology (though it can very often be that too…) but a help to the real practice of Christian faith and morals.

2. …And look them in the eye

When we first start preaching, we often want to have a text in front of us, so we don't dry up. This is perfectly understandable and sensible (see point 4 below!)… but there is a danger of never looking up. Even as we perhaps advance to just a few notes rather than writing it out word-for-word, we can become glued to the piece of paper on the lectern in front of us. Look up! This not only makes the sermon feel to the congregation more like the breaking of the Word and less like a lecture; it also means we can see how well we are doing – do people understand what we’re saying? Are they listening? Can they even hear you? Are they interested, baffled, bored or bewildered? Is it time to stop…? Which brings me to…

3. Know when to stop

One of the pieces of advice I always give to new preachers is ‘no-one ever complained that a sermon was too short’. Now, the people of God are entitled, at least on Sundays and Holydays, to a proper homily – a clear exposition of the Gospel with some real meat in it, not just a token gesture. But I suggest that, even on a special occasion, ten to twelve minutes is ample. It is not a lecture. One thing that is never a good sign is if, when you’ve finished preaching, you look at your watch or the clock at the back of the church and realise you’re going to have to use Eucharistic Prayer 2 because it’s the shortest! Is our preaching really more important than the Eucharist? Instead, look at the clock while you’re preaching, and realise just how much time has already passed.

4. Know how to stop

This is not the same point as the last one. You can’t say everything in every sermon, so having decided one what you’re going to say this time, you then have to know how to bring it to a conclusion. Even if – like me – you very often stand there with not a single note in front of you, you will need to have a good opening line and a good closing line. This not only makes the listeners feel satisfied, it reassures the preacher that, yes, it’s OK to stop. You don’t have to explain it all over again. How often have we heard a preacher who circled round and round and couldn’t seem to come in to land? Plan the landing before you take off!

5. Know yourself

I often find that I am preaching as much to myself as to anyone else in the congregation. At least that way there is one person who gets something out of the sermon! But the truth is that preachers have the same struggles as everyone else in living out the Christian life. Most importantly, just as the Christian life itself begins from acknowledging our sinfulness, so that we fully appreciate the mercy we have received in Christ - and just as the Mass begins with the same acknowledgement - so every sermon should be rooted in the preacher's recognition that he is forgiven and loved, and the love and mercy of God must be at the heart of the message.

6. Plan ahead

Whether you write out your text, jot down a few notes, or just think it through in your head, don’t leave it to the last minute. For a Sunday sermon, at least look to see what the Gospel is on the Monday morning before hand, maybe glance at a couple of commentaries, write down a couple of questions that come to mind, and let it all start to bubble away in the back of your mind. Write things down as they occur to you, even if you can’t see how they relate to anything else – give it time to come together. You may find that you end up preaching something that seems to have nothing to do with where you started from, but you’ve got to start somewhere – and it really shouldn’t be first thing on Sunday morning.

7. Pray

I suppose this should have come earlier, really. The new ‘Homiletic Directory’, which is well worth a read, points out that the homily delivered during the Mass is part of a great prayer – we might say even the Great Prayer – and therefore should be prepared in the same mode. Quoting the Pope in Evangelii Gaudium, it tells us that a preacher who does not prepare and does not pray is ‘a false prophet, a fraud, a shallow impostor’ (EG 151). Prayer is both the ‘proximate preparation’ for a sermon – that is, one must pray about one’s sermon – and, perhaps even more importantly, the ‘remote preparation’, which is to say that the preacher must be a person of prayer, one whose every thought and word springs from a life directed towards communion with God, whose Word we preach.

8. Study

The Directory also tells us that ‘in the preparation of homilies, study is invaluable but prayer is essential’ (HD 26). For the Dominican, these two come together in the notion of contemplation, which is at once prayerful study and studious prayer. To contemplate the scriptures, for me, means being at once attentive to all the fruits of authentic academic scholarship across the centuries, and at the same time suffused with reverence for the Word and a thirst for the knowledge of the Lord that it brings. Then the preacher can do what St Thomas Aquinas tells us is the essence of the Dominican vocation: contemplata aliis tradere – to hand on to others the fruits of contemplation. Concretely, this means both the kind of lectio divina about which the Directory speaks very helpfully, and getting hold of some decent commentaries and, to the best of one’s ability, trying to keep up with scholarship.

9. Join the dots

What is a sermon for? Fundamentally, it is to help the congregation to make sense of the scripture. But what sort of sense? One that helps the People of God to see connections – to join the dots. Briefly, to see the life of Christ as revealed to us in the Gospels, and especially the Paschal Mystery, as the fulfilment of the promises made by God to his people and to the world in the Old Testament: to perceive, in other words, the unity of scripture. Then, to see how the teachings of the Church, in matters both of faith and morals, are neither cold and empty dogmas nor a set of hoops we must jump through, but the organic development of the Church’s prayerful study of the scriptures. Finally, to show the congregation how the scriptures, the Paschal Mystery celebrated in the Mass, and the teachings of the Church can illuminate and transform their own lives in their particular circumstances.

10. Comfort my people, says your God

When I was a child, a priest I admired told me that in his view the purpose of a sermon was ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. I thought this rather clever, and when I was a novice I related it to the Novice Master, who responded that he wasn’t sure we should take it upon ourselves to decide that any particular person deserves to be afflicted by us. What we can be sure of is that everyone, however ‘comfortable’ they may appear on the surface, is in need of the love and the mercy of God, given to us in Christ. It is this, fundamentally, that the sermon must communicate. I sometimes say to people, and it is almost right, that there is only one sermon, and it is just three words long: ‘Jesus loves you’. Certainly we will want to help people see what this must mean for their lives, but at the very least let the people’s ‘Deo gratias’ be a joyful response to the truth, given to them anew at every Mass, that the meaning of life is simply this: you are loved.

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Anonymous commented on 02-Sep-2015 12:30 PM
You gave good practical tips for homilies. I found very enlightening what Pope Francis writes in his Evangelii gaudium and I am a bit disappointed you did not quote from him more, he gave very practical tips too - very demanding, requiring much preparation to give a good homily. For lay people it is the only time we get ;free' formation on church teachings.
thanks anyway. Dominicans usually give good homilies. I still hope they can be more pastoral, a bit less philosophical.
Sean commented on 03-Sep-2015 11:40 AM
Greetings Richard,
Keep up the good work! It's always a delight to receive the weekly call to prayer and reflection. One little things that I have found helpful is the fact that the shortest distance between two hearts is a good story!
God bless!
Tom commented on 03-Sep-2015 12:43 PM
fr. Richard, I have been preaching nearly 40 years and have finally come to a point where I realize the effectivenesss of my preaching has to do with the depth of my sinfulness and the gratitude I have to Christ for always loving me. . I often say to congregants, "If I can't understand and take in what I am preaching, what chance do you have," so making it clear in thought makes the vision of Jesus within us clearer.
Daragh commented on 03-Sep-2015 02:59 PM
Nice article Fr.
Hosanna commented on 03-Sep-2015 08:09 PM
Please, where is the number 7?
Anonymous commented on 03-Sep-2015 11:15 PM
The Torch sermons have been a lifeline for people lke me, hungry for teaching and, at times, stranded in a parish and despairing. To all who preach I beg you, prepare, pray and speak from your heart. Don't water down the message.

Webmaster commented on 04-Sep-2015 09:51 AM
Well spotted, Hosanna! We have just added in the missing paragraph (no.5) and shuffled the others along.
Paco Quijano commented on 13-Sep-2015 03:06 PM
Hello, Richard! I am just thinking around the next “homily bud” that I publish in a site to illustrate spiritual life (adorar en espíritu y verdad). I regularly consult Torch. Thank you for your tips on preaching. I will translate and publish them in an email bulletin we have in Chile. Next week there will be a workshop on preaching conducted by Brian Pierce in Buenos Aires. I will send to him your tips.

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