As someone who feels called to the priesthood, who holds a B.S. in Bible and Preaching/Church Leadership, it should not come as a surprise that homiletics are an interest of mine. I spent 5 years learning the craft of expository preaching at Johnson University. Of course I have come to reject the definition of expository proposed by my professors due to its presuppositions regarding the Holy Text as well as Holy Tradition (however I think the Fathers did expository preaching in a way that did not divorce the two) but one thing that has stuck with me is the preparation of homiletics.
Johnson prepared me well to be a good preacher, however, I do not consider myself to be such a preacher. I am not flashy. I am not charismatic. I do not have a strong nor pleasant speaking voice or good accent. I am not very creative either. Despite all of those things I have come to see that prayer is the foundation of homiletics. I would not say my Alma Mater neglected this foundation, but it was for me often an after-thought in sermon preparation.
A sermon may be prepared beforehand, or it may not be. If it is to be stronger than a double-edged sword (carrying Truth on one edge, and cutting down falsehood on the other), it must first of all be prepared in prayer. If the Spirit of power is given from above, the sermon will be ‘a success’ (i.e. will convince, inspire, heal, liberate, help the building of the Kingdom of God). If the spirit is not given, the sermon will either distract or weary the listeners…
Sermons in church should not be unctuous, abounding in archaic words, and platitudes and no artificial rhetorical devices are necessary. The preacher’s words should be direct, simple, spiritually pure and have no ‘worldly’ taint about them…” -Archbishop John Shahovskoy in “The Orthodox Pastor: A Guide to Pastoral Theology”
Archbishop John is very accurate with his statement regarding prayer. It is very key that our sermons be bathed in prayer. Our homiletics must be pregnant with the Spirit of God brought about by the time we spend in prayer. We should not so much concern ourselves with the world’s rhetoric, although it is not something we should neglect either, but should focus upon our sermons being illumined by the Spirit via prayer.
Father John Peck’s website, The Preachers Institute, has an excellent article written by Father John himself called “The Preaching Pyramid” that outlines a great map of preparation for our homiletics that I want to summarize here as a guideline for fellow preachers. Father John proposes a guideline for preparation that is “an easy to use guideline for sermon prep which establishes what to do, when to do it, why it is important, and what it leads to.”
The Preaching Pyramid is divided into four parts:
Each divided part of the pyramid is constituted by a percentage making up how much of the pyramid building process (sermon writing) should be spent in each of the four areas. Prayer should be 50% of your time, preparation 30%, praxis 15%, and delivery 5%.
Prayer is the base of the pyramid. As with any architectural endeavor one must have a solid foundation. Our prayer should be wholesome, contemplative, and for purpose of edifying our own souls and that of our listeners. Father John writes:
In the Preaching Pyramid, the answer is simple. If the task of preparing and delivering a sermon is considered a whole work (100%), and, according to my reckoning, only 5% of that is actually delivering the sermon, then 50% of the preparatory time is devoted to prayer. That is, if you regularly deliver a 30 minute sermon, then your prayer time in preparation for the sermon should be about 300 minutes, or 5 hours of prayer. Five hours.
This five hours should be devoted to interior prayer, contemplation of the Divine Scriptures, and some significant intercession on behalf of one’s soul and the state of the lives and souls of your listeners.”
A sermon prepared in prayer will be filled with the power of God as Archbishop John so poignantly said. We should begin prayer for our sermon preparation the Monday after Sunday’s Divine Liturgy and remain in prayer throughout our week up until we invoked Christ’s name to preach the sermon.
If we are preaching for 30 minutes then we should spend about 3 hours preparing the sermon by study. We should be reading and studying the text primarily. Key questions to ask one’s self in this time of study are:
1) Who was the letter written to?
2) What was the context in which the letter was written?
3) When was it written? Who wrote it?
4) What are the underlying issues/concerns/problems it addresses?
5) Is there a vacuum in my preaching? Meaning is there a lack of reading the Scriptures with 1st century eyes and with 21st century questions? I do believe the Scriptures speak to us today and can guide us. Our preaching should not be in a vacuum, but speak truth to our 21st century context as Orthodox Christians in America.
These are just a few questions to ask oneself about the text. The largest question would be “Where is Christ in this text? Where is Christ in my sermon?” If our homiletics lack Christ in any stage then it is not worthy preaching. As much as I thoroughly disagree with Reformed/Calvinist teachings I do respect the Tradition’s strong emphasis on preaching Christ and Him crucified. Reformed theologian Charles Spurgeon once said:
The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ; and Him crucified.’ A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”
So in preparing for your sermon keep in mind Mr. Spurgeon’s words. All through the process keep Christ in your mind and heart. If you seek the Spirit in your sermon and pray then Christ will be seen in your sermon.
Father John writes:
This is the time to sit, to write, to read useful material. Intense study of the Scriptures, the fathers, commentaries, dictionaries; this is all standard fare. You may also select what secular material is useful for you. I’m not talking about sermonizing on the morality of Star Trek, or the symbolism of The Truman Show. I’m talking about books like the works of Milton, Dickens, contemporary books on marriage, etc. These have real value, and you do not need to reinvent the wheel. Prayer will help guide your preparation.
Preparation is also not the activity of committing a sermon or outline to memory. On our Pyramid, delivery preparation is praxis.”
In homiletics, Christ is our message, prayer is our foundation, and the Holy Spirit is our guide and source of life that gives the sermon breath. Any devices used to enhance the sermon rhetorically or theologically come after we seek the Trinity in prayer and allow the Spirit to lead and shape us as preachers.
This is the stage wherein we practice delivering what we have written. We may do run-throughs to make ourselves more familiar with the sermon. We decide to use a manuscript or to memorize the sermon. We may reduce the sermon manuscript to a mere outline to use. Father John writes:
Ancient classically trained orators and rhetoriticians taught themselves to speak from memory, by memorizing an outline of their speech, assigning one section of their topic to each part of their own home. As they mentally walked through their house in their mind’s eye during the speech, they recalled the topic associated, and all its ancillary points. As a result, with proper preparation, they were able to speak for great lengths of time, with precision and passion, without ever losing their place, or getting too sidetracked. They knew the path of their speech, and did not deviate very far from it.
Whatever the method used to prepare for the delivery of the message, it should not be haphazard. This is an important work. People may come out of curiosity, habit, default, obligation or even guilt, but they come back for good preaching. Visitors especially are affected by good preaching – it is what brings them back. Visitors don’t worship, if they pray, they don’t pray much, and mostly they are wondering if they are safe in your church. The right message will answer that question for them.”
Whatever we do to prepare ourselves for the actual delivering of the sermon must be done in a way that helps us in the area of diction and what Father John calls the 3 C’s:
1) Confidence- this to me is confidence not only in your ability to be a strong preacher, but confidence in what you are saying and believe. Christ Himself gained an audience because he preached and taught as one with authority (Matthew 7:29). Confidence in yourself should not be arrogance, but humble acceptance of your calling to preach and a reliance on Christ’s grace and the Spirit’s work to give your words life.
2) Clarity- this is simply speaking and delivering with clarity of thought and clarity of speech. We should not be murmuring and fumbling through our sermons as one unfamiliar with what is going on. This also means to me that we do not burden the sermon down with extra baggage. “Keep It Simple Stupid” is a good rule to follow here. Be clear. Be concise.
3) Conviction- here is where too many fall short. We act as if we truly do not believe in the words we are speaking. Our sermons should be grounded in conviction, firm conviction. We should preach with passion and conviction of heart. If we lack conviction in the homiletics department then we will not reach many with the Gospel. People are drawn to authentic conviction these days because so many lack conviction in this land of shallow wells and moral relativism. So long as our conviction is civil then we are doing right to preach with power and conviction. This goes back to preaching as Christ Himself preached.
We read earlier from Archbishop John, “Sermons in church should not be unctuous, abounding in archaic words, and platitudes and no artificial rhetorical devices are necessary. The preacher’s words should be direct, simple, spiritually pure and have no ‘worldly’ taint about them…”
When delivering we should step up to speak with grace, love, boldness, and conviction. We should speak words of healing, words of repentance, words of exhortation. We should avoid gimmicks, tricks, emotional manipulations, and platitudes. These are the artificial and meaningless tactics Archbishop John is condemning.
These are the marks with which we should layer our delivery. Now, note this is not a suggestion to refrain from “church jargon” or “theological lingo”, but it means we break those things down and explain them to our listeners. I am not a fan of dumbing down theology and preaching to make it acceptable for those who wish to remain on milk. Now, being compassionate to those truly still needing the milk is fine. Remembering that in the process is good. However, we should not refrain from big language of theology.
In “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them“, Thom Rainer found that strong, doctrinal preaching was the number one reason folks would attend a church again if they were unchurched. He exposes the lie that the unchurched, or even the churched, do not want deep, complex truths preached for what it is: a myth. People are hungry for deep, sound truth and doctrine. Our sermons should never ever dumb down those things. We should be “firm in belief, but gentle in spirit; uncompromising in [our] convictions, but Christ-like in [our] demeanor.”
Father John offers these amazing hints while delivering the sermon:
1) Mention Jesus Christ by name. You’d be surprised how often this gets left out of a sermon.
2) Preach the Gospel using the simple words of scripture. I’m an English major. I learned early as an undergraduate that if you can’t express a proposition in a simple declarative sentence, you probably don’t understand it. Here are the words St. Paul used to preach the Gospel: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He died and was buried, and that He rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; and that He appeared to (many)” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). That’s the Gospel. Preach it.
3) Repetition reinforces learning. Tell you audience what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you just told them.
4) Stop at the end of your sermon. Knowing when to end is even more important than knowing how to begin, so you should definitely know where you are going to end before you begin. Too often, too many preachers give two sermons when they should only give one and they lose their audience. The end of a sermon is not a new beginning. End it!”
Post Sermon Reflections
Father John writes:
Once the sermon is done, during the short walk back to the altar, a prayer of thanksgiving is in order.
Sometimes you know when you hit it out of the park. Sometimes, you know you struck out, and sometimes, you just don’t know anything. Recording your sermon, reviewing notes used, adding things you said which you did not plan; these should all be part of a quick Monday wrap up evaluation. Keep the outline or text of your sermon, listen to what you said. If it can be video recorded watch yourself preach. This is the first step of next week’s sermon: Review and evaluation.”
After preaching, we should pause and say a quick prayer of thanksgiving and pray for the seeds we planted.
Afterwards, we should stop, pause, reflect on how the entire process of that sermon went from the prayer we enveloped it in to the deliver we gave. Review notes, change things you would have said better, take out things, etc. I also highly recommend creating a filing cabinet to house your sermons or a file folder on your computer. Never throw them away nor forget about them.
Another great to do in your homiletics is to have a homiletics team. I would love to see every parish priest invest in the lives of the men in his parish who have the gifting to preach. I do not believe there is any reason to prevent laity with the gifts to preach from preaching. We should invest in these men and their lives. By having a team of trained preachers, you can get key insights and feedback from them on the sermon. This is a good thing for any preacher.
These are but a few helpful homiletical guidelines that can go a long way to benefit our preaching and our own souls. Our preaching should not be an after-thought nor should it be neglected or abused. We should take seriously the craft of preaching and the call to preach the Gospel. St. Paul said, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace” (Rom. 10:15). This is a serious calling worthy of serious devotion, thought, discipline, and love.
St. John Chrysostom (whose icon is above), one of the greatest, if not the greatest, preachers of history was well-known for his sermons. He was dubbed “Golden Tongue” or “Golden Mouth”. Often his sermons would go on for hours and were well-attended, but from time-to-time he would become discouraged, “My work is like that of a man who is trying to clean a piece of ground into which a muddy stream is constantly flowing.” This is what preaching may be like, especially in our society. However, the wisdom of St. John realized this, “Preaching improves me. When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears.”
No matter what do not become discouraged in your preaching. If it does not bring about the salvation of one soul (something you will never know anyways) know that preaching is a calling and that perhaps it can be for your own salvation that you were called to preach.
St. John Chrysostom pray for us sinful preachers.
Fr. John A. Peck is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America.
He is the director of the Preachers Institute, and the founder of Journey To Orthodoxy, as well as Good Guys Wear Black, a site for prospective priests and deacons. He has an intense interest in the study and application of Byzantine homiletics, in order to advance the practice of preaching the Gospel with excellence.