by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher
Sermons can always be better, that is, more effective. Improvement does not happen by accident, but by the deliberate process of understanding key elements of sermon effectiveness and constantly evaluating one’s performance based on these criteria.
Three key elements, or criteria, are suggested by the ancient writer Plutarch’s likening of public speaking to the successful exercise of playing catch (On Listening, 3). One, something worthwhile is thrown, or related (i.e., the content). Two, what is thrown must be aimed with proper trajectory (i.e., delivery). Finally, what is aimed and thrown must be caught (i.e., the receptivity of the audience).
The effectiveness of a sermon can thus be surmised by answering the question: How well are the preacher and hearers playing catch with the Word of God? We will consider the three elements above in reverse order to arrive at an answer in a constructive way.
Evaluation One: Audience Receptivity
While the preacher cannot control how the hearers will receive the sermon, he must be acutely responsive to the audience’s receptivity to have any hope of effectiveness. To small children, you lob a softer ball underhand at close range. To older children, you graduate to faster velocity a little farther away. To mature adults, you hurl a hardball at different angles to challenge their abilities.
No matter how logically constructed and theologically sound, or how perfectly enunciated with appropriate gestures, if the hearers cannot, or are not prepared to, receive the sermon, then positive results will be few. After all, the hearers’ progress in the Kingdom of God is the ultimate intended result of any sermon!
All master orators down through the ages have taken the state of the audience as first concern. Are the hearers older, younger, or a mixed crowd? Are they sympathetic, hostile, or apathetic to the speaker and/or message? Have they attentively prepared to listen through prayer and the reading of Scripture and the Fathers, or have they arrived at Liturgy by habit after a long night of partying, drinking, or worse? The Roman Cicero states that the first task of an effective speaker is to prepare the mind of the hearers to receive his words, either by waking them up, putting them at ease, or engaging them as persons in need of what he’s giving, adjusting the introduction to the state of the hearers.
The careful preacher will evaluate his sermons based on audience receptivity before, during, and after the actual delivery of the sermon. Experience teaches the Parish Priest who the recipients are from week to week, their intellectual abilities, their emotional perceptions, their pet peeves, and their willingness to listen. Preachers have to adjust their sermon(s) on the spot based on whether people are sleeping in the pew, yawning, fidgeting, nodding in agreement, sitting meditatively, gazing in rapt attention, etc. If the preacher doesn’t care about the audience and develops no real-time visible or oral empathy with the hearers, then the people will tune him out. All these factors must be the focus of reflection when evaluating sermons for effectiveness, especially when preparing for the next encounter.
Evaluation Two: Preacher Delivery
The sermon is a multi-sensory, interactive event involving sight, sound, touch, memory, and emotional and intellectual awareness. The delivery of an effective sermon takes advantage of all these means. Consider the Orthodox platform of the sermon: spoken by a vested clergyman, surrounded by icons, candles, and incense smoke, and encased in hymns, prayers, and the readings from Holy Scripture. The sermon is delivered in an atmosphere of the holiness of the age to come as exemplified by the assembly of the Body of Christ in the Orthodox Temple.
Cognizant of the physical setting (whatever it is), the sermon must still be delivered, and the primary delivery system is the preacher. Certain aspects of delivery are absolutely essential: words must be pronounced clearly and audibly with understandable grammar, and the speaker preferably needs to see, and be seen by, those listening – this enables eye contact and gestures to be used. Preaching in a foreign language (including unfamiliar theological jargon), whispering, not projecting in consideration of the space (is there a sound system?), and reading the sermon in a monotone represent extremes to be avoided at all costs.
From an effectiveness perspective, it is better to preach extemporaneously while looking the hearers in the eye, even if somewhat less prepared, than to read a sermon word-for-word thus having, basically, no interaction with anyone else present. The preacher needs to demonstrate confidence with the subject matter, honesty of conviction, and care for those listening. These are accomplished during a sermon by relating conversationally with people, sometimes asking questions, raising and lowering the voice for emphasis, and utilizing movements of gesture and changing location to draw attention to salient points.
The delivery of the sermon needs to be natural, not forced. So the preacher must resist all temptations to trivialize the opportunity, for instance, by excessive joke-telling or bizarre actions. Sermons are not occasions for entertainment and histrionics lest the message be overshadowed by the performance and a cult of personality develop. Likewise, preachers learn to overcome nervousness to be effective. Refer to a note card to remember key ideas! The majority of people there to hear are there because they want to learn and be fed by their spiritual father placed there to feed them. A genuine pastoral relationship between Priest and Parish generates ease when preaching.
Evaluation Three: Content
“Every teacher, in order to edify all in the one virtue of charity, must touch the hearts of his hearers by using one and the same doctrine, but not giving to all one and the same exhortation” (St. Gregory the Great; Pastoral Care III, Prologue).
The preacher throws, and the hearer catches. What is being thrown? – charity (i.e., love) with doctrine in the form of exhortation suited to the hearers. To state things a different way, content contains the so what (love), the what (doctrine), and the how (form of exhortation).
Public speaking transfers ideas using an oral medium, and the medium (the how) becomes part of the message. An understanding of oral quality leads to more effective strategies of how the sermon is crafted. The preacher can implant ideas in the memory by the use of repetition of key words and phrases, building on them during the course of the sermon in a spiral pattern of presentation, introduction of a new idea, and return to a previous notion now with additional implications. Concepts which evoke concrete images, word pictures, and illustrations from common life are superior to abstract vocables (cf. the parables of Christ). Certain words and gestures (e.g., a smile, or frown) convey emotion, compassion, or haughtiness regardless of intent, so they must be placed deliberately within the framework of the discourse, or not used at all.
The sermon provides the crucial teachable moment in the life of a parish. The people are “captive” for 15 to 20 minutes, present to be edified. They need to learn, and the preacher is the teacher of what they need to know for life and salvation. Sermons usually employ two methods of instruction, the expository and the topical. An expository sermon explains one of the Scripture readings of the day verse by verse, or unit by unit, weaving doctrinal themes from and into the outline of the text itself. Topical preaching expounds a chosen theme by arranging it into related points connected to the three chief doctrines of the Church: the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Church, the Body of Christ. Preaching in the Orthodox Church always has a liturgical context, so references to the hymns, prayers, and actions of the Church services unite every sermon to its ongoing matrix of truth and knowledge.
Effective preaching progresses from week to week in planned series drawing the audience deeper and deeper into the mysteries of God and the Church. The preacher has the task of imparting not just the rudiments of the Faith – often done with a simplistic, patronizing, and platitudinous tone – but the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Ongoing personal theological study and weekly conversations with parish members concerning doctrinal topics keep the what of sermons fresh and relevant.
Finally and ultimately, the so what of preaching drives the what and how, shaping the sermon from being a dry lecture or oratorical show into an edifying, life-changing, transformative event. Does what is heard enable the hearer to better love God and their neighbor? Does what is heard help the hearer lead a genuine Christian life of faith, hope, and love amid the trials and temptations of this world? Ultimately, truly effective preaching moves the hearer away from a sentimental, legal, or intellectual understanding of their religion toward an all-pervasive experience of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Toward this end, effective preaching doesn’t just talk about the desired spiritual goal; sermon content actually provides the tools for attaining it: how to give, how to fast, how to pray, how to overcome passions and sins, how to defend the Faith, etc.
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Anyone who wants to grow in a discipline must seek evaluation. Preachers should always seek critique to become more effective in their craft. They need to engage in self-criticism (automatic feedback and self-evaluation). The preacher should ask his hearers what they heard and what they think it means, and not just the people who say,
“Good sermon, Pastor.”
Rather, ask in return,
“What was good about it?”
– you may be surprised what they caught with their ears. Particularly helpful are the comments of other preachers. Hopefully with these three things in mind – content, delivery, and receptivity, you can begin to evaluate your own efforts in homiletics in a structured way and become a more effective preacher.
The Rev. Jonathan H. Cholcher is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America.He is pastor of the St. John the Baptist Church in Warren, OH, and is the former Headmaster of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Classical School in Mogadore, OH, the first of the Orthodox Christian Schools of Northeast Ohio. He is an expert on Classical Education and a veteran parish preacher.