Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #2, Always Be Evangelizing

Continuing to dig deeper  (beyond a review and key takeaways and Big Idea #1: Series) with Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilding Your Message (2015), today we’re highlighting an endemic debate in Catholic (and even wider Christian) preaching–preaching to mixed audiences, audiences of believers, seekers, and everything in-between.

White and Corcoran assert that it’s a pervasive misconception that:

“if you try to reach lost people then you are abandoning the work of growing disciples… preaching to lost people helps church people because it forces you to return again and again to the basics, which our church people need as much as anyone else…[it] keeps us from sinking into theological language and churchy insider language that not just for the lost, but a lot of church people don’t really understand…it strips away the pretense so many congregations operate under that we’re an assembly of fully formed disciples” (p. 157)

I agree–it’s a false dichotomy to pose preaching initial proclamation and response [aka evangelistic preaching] or pre-evangelistic preaching as an either/or or in competition with preaching for discipleship, stewardship, mission, etc. Why? Because these moments and stages in the life of a seeker/believer are just that–stages and phases–they lead into one another, and support one another.

A personal response to the Good News in relationship with Jesus Christ is the essential foundation of all future conversion and integration of the life of a disciple. By re-framing, repeating, reminding, and re-imagining this foundational life-changing conversion (cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est §1) time and again in all preaching, we both strengthen and clearly communicate that foundation, so that none walk away with the misconception that “the church just wants my money” or “that parish just wants everyone to be busy and involved.” But instead, walk away understanding “ah ha, Jesus loved me first, as I grow in relationship with Him, empowered by the Holy Spirit, _________________ becomes part of my life and response.”

Secondly, as White and Corcoran note, preaching to mature disciples involves forming believers to be proclaimers, to be evangelists. One of the best ways to “teach” evangelization is to hear the Great Story of Rescue by our Loving God over and over again. In different contexts. With different examples. This is a very human, and very effective way to learn. I see it in my own small children, as they hear a narrative again and again it doesn’t become boring (to them 😉 ), it becomes more real, their ability to retell the story grows. The same is true for us when we hear how much God loves us and how much God does to Rescue us from sin, sadness, and ultimately death.

Finally, we should always be evangelizing in our preaching (regardless of the more proximate or specific topic/theme/purpose) simply because the world needs it.

As a much younger adult, I once heard a fundamentalist Baptist pastor poignantly pour out how regardless of if it was a wedding or a touring choral group the congregation was hosting, he felt the burden of always finding a way to include the initial proclamation and offer a concrete option for response–because what if someone came to visit, just for the music with a deep need for healing in their life? What if that was God’s plan, and he as a pastor decided to take a break and remain silent that night? And I know he’s not the only pastor to discern his words this way.

So what about me?

Lost and Found Bullion
Image: Eric Golub, CC-BY-2.0

As a Catholic pondering the great images of Scripture, I think this applies to us too. the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-7) and the Parable of the Lost Coin (Lk 15:8-10) give us striking examples of a preferential care and concern for the “missing” one, the one most in need of foundational Love and healing.

If God acts this way, it’s certainly not wrong for us to use our words similarly, to always cast at least one line (using a fishing metaphor) for those away from the flock, for those whom God loves more than we can ever fathom, this side of eternity!

In closing, avoid creating division over this question. Seek integration, so that while a message might have a main focus of one purpose, it always includes evangelistic invitation and response (even if it’s just in a tangent–presented with clarity and directness). If you feel like “that’s nice, but I don’t have the time”–I urge you to reconsider. Don’t think so small. Be creative. Read a book like Rebuilding Your Message and find the ways to move beyond A vs. B, and find a C option that works for you and opens your preaching, speaking, and teaching up to the Holy Spirit as a way to communicate the Good News of God’s love to everyone.

 

Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #1, the Series

As promised back in September, I wanted to dig a little deeper (beyond a review and key takeaways) with Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilding Your Message (2015) and keep this important conversation on preaching going.

One of the interesting things about Rebuilding Your Message is that some big, systemic, significant ideas were embedded within the practical mini-chapters (in an understated way). White and Corcoran (probably wisely) choose not to dig into these since additional depth would distract from their primary focus. However, I think they’re worth pulling out here for furthering discussion.

Big Idea #1 — Message Series

The Rebuilt Parish books have mentioned message series again and again. Series are important for preaching in our cultural context. White and Corcoran advocate for the use of series since it enables a preacher/staff to:

  • avoid starting from a blank slate each week (tie it into something larger)
  • promote conversation among the assembly/parishioners (since they can remember central themes)
  • move the parish in a disciplined direction
  • emphasize liturgical seasons
  • go deeper into specific topics while repeating key themes (128-129).

While Rebuilding Your Message provides lots of short tidbits on crafting sermon/message series, I think given how rare they are in Catholic preaching, a more comprehensive “how to” would be in order. Church of the Nativity has, I recall, devoted a podcast episode to the nuts and bolts behind series planning, but a sequel book from them might be in order to really share this with the wider Catholic community in the United States.

There are some excellent resources on this from our Christian brothers and sisters (I’ve found Adam Hamilton‘s insights into sermon series planning very useful), but a comprehensive guide from a Catholic parish might be what’s needed to spur this forward in more parishes. This guide could discuss liturgical seasons, discerning the local “calendar” and cultural context, relationship to other ministries in the parish, and more.

Using this Big Idea as a discussion springboard:

  • What do you think of sermon series? (in general, at Mass, in any Catholic context?)
  • What hesitations do you have or what holds your ministry back from experimenting with a series?
  • Why do you think that the idea of a “series” has become typical in many growing non-Catholic congregations, yet is startlingly rare in Catholic settings?

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.

Evangelistic Preaching Idea Prompts and Suggestions

Note: Though these topics are suggested by non-Catholic authors, they provide springboards of opportunity for Catholic preachers [within Eucharistic homilies or in other Catholic settings] to build and convey the fullness of our tradition while inviting individuals to initial stages of conversion, discipleship, or inspiring curiosity.

List of Topics, Idea Prompts, Suggestions, Etc.

From Paul Johns in The Future of Preaching (Geoffrey Stevenson, Editor)

Theology of institutional power: “governments and corporations—provide much of our news now. A theology ‘the powers’ understands them to be both spiritual and material” (p. 106)

Popular culture: “the need is not for a theology that stuffily dismisses popular culture as inherently opposed to Christ, nor for one that trendily embraces it, determined to find something of Christ in everything. The need is for a theology of critical engagement…This is one that acknowledges in cultural life a deep ambiguity (p. 107)

Dislocation: “the reality we thought we knew and within which we felt secure changes, and seems to leave us stranded. It may be sudden, like a natural disaster, or the crash of a bank, or the announcement of massive redundancy [layoffs]. It may be gradual like the process of global warming, or the slow but nonetheless troubling transformation of a monocultural neighborurhood into a multicultural one. It is the experience of familiar landmarks disappearing, reality as I have known it changing and pitching me into uncertainty” (p. 107-108)

 From Larry Moyer’s Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Sermons (p. 69-73, 81-87)

  • Book of John
  • Passages that answers specific questions non-Christians are asking
  • Passages that answer provocative questions of interest to non-Christians (i.e. How many of the 10 Commandments do we have to keep to get to heaven?)
  • Select passages that deal with objections non-Christians have 87
  • Family, money, loneliness, peace of mind, living after divorce/hurt, coping with pain disappointment, living a purposeful life, etc.
  • Responses when confronted with a crisis or emergency that attracts local or national attention
  • Response to a moral issue
  • Aspects of popular understandings of Christianity (i.e. movies like The Passion of Christ or The Da Vinci Code)

From Ramesh Richard’s Preparing Evangelistic Sermons: A Seven-Step Method for Preaching Salvation

Universal spiritual needs that lend themselves to audience-driven development: forgiveness, peace, stability, hope, afterlife, love, survival, wisdom, purpose, spiritual quest, demonic oppression and supernatural evil forces (p. 140-141)

Intellectual questions: What is the nature and existence of truth? Does God exist? What is the nature of God? What about the problem of evil? Is religion efficacious? Are miracles possible? How do you reconcile religion versus science debates? Why is Jesus God? Why is Jesus unique? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is the Bible reliable? Do the Bible and science conflict? (p. 141)

Existential issues: anxiety, fear, inner conflict, happiness, freedom, satisfaction, significance, broken relationships, loneliness, restlessness, sense of loss, self-concept, victimization, inability to change, adventure, sense of limitations, direction in life (p. 142)

Have you had a positive experience preaching evangelistically (or pre-evangelistically) on any of these topics? What would you recommend adding to the list?

Top 10 Homily Prep Tips for the New Evangelization (aka Evangelistic Preaching: Part 14)

Slide29

Find out more about each of these strategies in this series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

 

 

Evangelistic Preaching (Part 13) — Strategy Wrap-Up

This is the thirteenth post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

Our final three–strategies #8, 9, and 10…

Slide26

The use of narrative structures in preaching, pioneered by homileticians such as David Buttrick, Fred Craddock, Thomas Long, and Eugene Lowry, has proved tremendously important for Catholic Eucharistic preaching since the Second Vatican Council—and for good reason, a faith community gathered for the Eucharist is participating in a meta-narrative that includes both the mystical and visible elements of Christianity. However, for the potential hearers of evangelistic sermons, this narrative is largely unknown and in a culture that displays tendencies of becoming increasingly episodic, rather than narrative in thinking, other sermons structures—i.e.  expository, textual, declarative, dialectical, rhetorical, polar opposites, pragmatic, topical, quadrilateral, etc.—may be better suited for evangelistic preaching.[1] Why not give some other structures a try?

 

Slide27

For those who have already made a committed response to Jesus Christ, any application of Scripture or doctrine to their life is implicitly an invitation to deeper relationship with God. Yet, for the audience of evangelistic preaching, more explicit invitation to a tangible action is essential for encouraging response to encounter with Jesus Christ. Catholic ministers, Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran emphasize the importance of preaching the “outcomes of the message” and “life-change”—without this a preacher can easily fall into the habit of “aim[ing] at nothing” and “hit[ting] every time.”[2]

 

 

Slide28

 

 

Stephen Wright observes a commonsense reality–response to the Gospel usually takes more than one pitch, more than one message. And, given our Catholic theology of the breadth of evangelization, we understand that any decision that flows from hearing an initial proclamation is just a starting point, not the final outcome. An initial encounter requires on-going conversion and life in the Christian community. Because of this, every evangelistic sermon should include an intentional what’s next—a clear step or follow-up action or opportunity for those who may have encountered Jesus Christ and are seeking a way to respond. It also points to the potentially fruitful use of series in evangelistic preaching, so that the preacher can offer multiple topics and build a relationship with a hearer.

Okay, so those are my top 10 strategies for preparing homilies [or sermons, or messages] with evangelization in mind. 

I’m not going to claim that these ten practical strategies for Catholic evangelistic preaching are the only techniques, but they are at least a solid a starting point, and every preacher will develop his or her own preferred methods and techniques. The underlying premise is intentionality, not just choosing one technique or imitating a particular preaching, but truly applying ourselves to the task of evangelizing our preaching. As the Venerable Paul VI wrote, “ evangelizing preaching takes on many forms, and zeal will inspire the reshaping of them almost indefinitely”—it’s our job to figure out how.[3]

—–

[1] Thomas G. Long, “Out of the Loop” in What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching? Essays in Honor of Eugene L. Lowry, ed. Mike Graves, David J. Schlafer, and Eugene L. Lowry, (Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008), 126.

[2] Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 144.

[3] Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 43.

Evangelistic Preaching (Part 12) — Strategies

This is the twelfth post in a series on evangelistic preaching in Catholic contexts.

We’ve reached the point of discussing how to preach evangelistically in our Catholic context. Here are strategies 5, 6, and 7.

Slide23

Effective evangelistic sermons are memorable so that hearers can continue to ponder the message after it has ended, reviewing and considering (hopefully prayerfully) the call for action or decision. To help make a sermon more memorable, preachers consider clarity (if the one delivering the message can remember it without notes, then a hearer might also be able to remember the logic of the sermon and even potentially recount it to another person), repetition, not simply restatement, of key phrases, and use of illustrations.

Slide24

 

“Present-day audiences are oriented toward story in sight and sound in addition to verbal instruction,” and are indeed “accustomed to receiv[ing] and shar[ing] much of our communication through images.”[1] The use of multiple media to convey a message could be as simple as offering Scripture verses projected on a screen  for those who are unfamiliar with a Bible or Missal [photo example: Fr. Michael White of Church of the Nativity, Timonium, MD], or as intricate as the use of interwoven theater or drama to communicate a message. Medieval preachers, for example, used a visual homiletic that included drama, plays, and a specific repertoire of gestures known to audiences from paintings.[2] When incorporated with care and discernment, the use of a variety of media can make an evangelistic sermon more evocative, vivid, moving, and memorable.[3]

Slide25

In an evangelistic setting, where establishing the credibility of the preacher and a way for hearers to follow-up and continue to ask questions are of particular importance, creating multiple points of engagement can help create lasting impact for the sermon. This means considering opportunities for dialogue, discussion, interaction and questions after or during preaching, using the internet and text-messaging to offer opportunities for virtual engagement, and exploring how to make the audience part of the sermon moment.

——-

[1] Richard, Preparing Evangelistic Sermons, 155; Wright, Alive to the Word, 162.

[2] Thomas H. Troeger, Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multimedia Culture, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 12.

[3] Wright, Alive to the Word, 164.