Review of “Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching”

I was super-excited to get my hands on a copy of the latest in the Rebuilt Parish family of books, Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching (2015). Here’s why–way back in 2011, when I first started paying attention to Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD, it was because of their preaching. Homilies lasted longer than 12-minutes. They were in carefully crafted series. They were pre-evangelistic and kerygmatic. They always included action steps. I loved it. Live-stream videos of Nativity sermons were my go-to for edifying listening anytime I was cooking, doing dishes, or road-trip driving 🙂

Okay, so what’s the book like?

Rebuilding Your Message is written in the same style as Tools for Rebuilding, really short chapters (like 2-4 pages each) centered on a Bible verse and axiom with explanation. The mini-chapters are arranged around four themes: 1) the role of the communicator, 2) the context of the message [warning: this section is largely a repeat of ideas from Tools for Rebuilding], 3) delivery, and 4) outcomes. The benefit of this style of organization is that it would be a great book club read for a parish staff, where a short chapter could be assigned each week (or day!) and then discussed together. Be forewarned, the downside is that it means each idea is presented quickly without a lot of depth. This means that if you’re wanting to study preaching or homiletics beyond an introductory level, you need more than this book has to offer (and to be fair, writing an in-depth preaching text isn’t the authors’ goal).

Where does this book shine?

Rebuilding Your Preaching is at its best in Parts 1, 3, and 4 as an excellent easy-to-read primer for preachers, teachers, and communicators–especially those in a parish setting. Here are some of the most relevant and needed tips they offer:

  • Tell stories from your life (21)
  • Find your burden–“the one thing that holds your heart and weights on your mind when it comes to your message” (34)
  • Know that you have to earn your audience’s trust in a post-Christian, post-modern era (37)
  • “Be creative, not original” as a Catholic preacher (48) [this is an especially good axiom for the New Evangelization, as St. John Paul the Great explained in 1979, the “new” in Evangelization is about “ardor, method, and expression”–the message is still the original]
  • Stick to a single passage with a single challenge (54) (here’s more on picking a Scripture passage)
  • Practice out loud (62). Yes! Record yourself. Watch and listen to yourself.
  • Everything connects to the Good News. As White and Corcoran explain, “The basic and the ultimate message of our faith is that God loves us, despite what we have done wrong. We have and hold good news that sin and selfishness are not the last word: life is stronger than death, and loves wins no matter what. All good news” (118). This evangelistic content is essential.
  • Always be able to have a clear answer to: What do you want them to know? Why do you want the to know it? What do you want them to do? Why do you want them to do it? Otherwise it will never be clear in your messages! (140-141)
  • Don’t read manuscripts. “Notes, outlines, and even complete texts are all fine; it is a question of knowing how you hold and remember information, how you think on your feet, and basically what works for you” (144). “Don’t ever refer to them [notes] when you are asking people to do something or issuing a challenge. Make sure you are looking your audience in the eyes when you do that” (145).
  • Plan your messages long-term. Don’t be afraid to use series to help emphasize and develop a point more fully than you could while sticking to a single passage/challenge focus (128-129).

And this inspiring exhortation:

“Preaching is a craft. Craftsmanship requires both formulaic knowledge about how to do something—the ability to actually do it—and dedication to constantly fine-tune that ability. Any genuine craft also requires an artist’s touch that springs from a pure love of the work…Take time to discern your gifts when it comes to communication, and determine the skills you need to develop to improve your craft” (153).

These are outstanding basics for preaching (or would they want me to say ‘communicating’? I like preaching better. It’s a powerful word we should claim more often!). These sections of the book would be excellent reading for those preparing for catechetical ministry, RCIA, youth ministry, etc. and I’ll be recommending some of them to my own students as they prepare to give oral reflections on Biblical texts.

Characteristic to Be Aware Of? Singular Focus

This book is a great primer on evangelistic communications for the Catholic community. However, there are huge (probably deliberate) silences from the authors when it comes to how to go from exegesis to message with Biblical texts, the particular craft and liturgical theology of the Eucharistic homily, and preaching outside of the context of Mass. You’re not going to get concrete guidance on ways to preach with/without notes, organizing messages, etc. You’re not going to get details on the art and movement of evangelistic messages. You’re getting the basics–that’s it. It’s a singular and limited focus–which might be great for some readers, but leave others a bit disappointed.

Recommendation?

If you work in parish or campus ministry, read this book. And don’t worry about being too experienced for the introductory approach, use it as an examination of your own work–though much of it is basic, you’ll probably find areas to improve in and new ideas.

But here’s the real key–don’t keep it on your shelf 😉 find someone to pass it on to. Rebuilding Your Message is written as a “first word,” not a “last word.” Start a conversation, start encouraging others to care about developing great Catholic communicators, start honing your own skills, and keep the conversation going, as we’ll be doing here in coming weeks–discussing some of the concepts in Rebuilding Your Message worthy of much more attention.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. Opinions expressed are my own.

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