Why is preaching in churches so bad?

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt.

The Church, as C.S,Lewis observed, often arrives late and usually a little breathless. And this is certainly true when it comes to preaching in churches, at least Catholic ones. All too often, the style, and the content, seems to be stuck in a time warp.

This was brought home to me when I listened to two bishops preach. Both did so in what seemed like a foreign language: Churchspeak. All I could think of as I gazed absentmindedly about me at the dozing congregation was Alan Bennett’s wonderful television sketch in which a waffling vicar likens God to a tin of sardines. Clearly neither of the men had ever been told that a homily requires a good take-off and a good landing. They didn’t even make it down the runway.

Unfortunately, this failure to get airborne is one that also afflicts many priests. Someone who comes out of seminary and is unable to preach a homily is like a plumber who studies for six years and is unable to fit a washer to a tap.

The best preaching I’ve ever heard was not in a church, but in a cinema. I’m talking about the homily Philip Seymour Hoffman gives at the beginning of Doubt. In its relevance, clarity and conciseness it was a model of what a homily should be.

Fr Daniel O’Leary argues in his book, Begin with the Heart, that people will only go where they get fed. Could this failure to communicate, rather than simply secularism, be a reason why many Catholics, young and old, have opted out of Sunday Mass?

Someone described the current situation in the Church like this: “The audience is restless and leaving the auditorium, the cast is not sure of the lines, even of the plot; and the microphones are not working.” We might add to that: “But there’s always a collection.”

So what can be done to change this situation? Well, one thing is for priests, and all ordained clergy, to use stories to illustrate what they want to say. We all love stories because, if they are well told, they have a point, and can be remembered.

Another thing is to think carefully about language.   Too many abstract nouns (peace, love, mercy) and jargon (redemption, grace, kingdom) leaves a congregation unmoved. They lack power unless connected to more concrete images and ideas.

But, of course, in such a visual age you have to ask how effective a homily, or sermon, actually is. This format of communicating to a congregation hasn’t changed since the beginning of Christianity. Yet the ways we communicate with each other have changed dramatically, especially since the birth of the internet.

I believe a time will come when all churches will be fitted with drop-down screens on the sanctuary and the priest will use film or other visual images to get his message across, and not just rely on words. Schools, conference centres, and many other places involved in communication and education already do this. But, as C.S.Lewis said, the Church always arrives late and a little breathless.

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