Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Persuasive Sermon

My golf companion Ray mentioned last Sunday that the sermon at the early mass had been painful since not only were the 45 minutes too long but the priest had been too repetitive.  His comment brought to mind my experience in Vermont the week before. The priest writes up and reads a rather scholarly sermon behind the pulpit that is very hard to follow. On this occasion, about three quarters of the way he left the written sermon he was reading and told a very interesting story of a recent visit to a Catholic Church very near his brother’s home. His brother preferred to go to a church some 15 minutes away since he did not like the atmosphere at the nearby church. As described, the church is part of a large complex and its location upon entering the main doors is not initially identifiable. Upon entering the church, the tabernacle was hidden in a corner of the church. Finally, what most struck the priest was that there were no pews for kneeling. His brother indicated that the explanation given was that God did not need for people to kneel during the mass.

This lack of pews brought to mind my continued surprise with the beautiful Torrimar church of San Juan Evangelista that also does not have pews. To spend on marble and beautiful seats and yet not have pews has seemed to me a lack of priority.      

The Vermont priest went on to express that, although not required by God, kneeling was a sign of humility and respect. He suggested that he would have a movable pew before him so that those who wished could kneel upon receiving communion.

The story, the message, and the call to action were very effective and inspiring. Unfortunately, the sermon should have started with the story; the initial portion was on target with his principal message, but it was boringly read and too intellectual and long.   

Later that Sunday afternoon I went to mass. The priest followed his usual sermon strategy based on reviewing the various readings and commenting on them. His delivery is the opposite of the Vermont priest since he steps out in front of the pulpit and altar and does not read his sermon, so there is eye contact and rapport with the congregation since he uses everyday stories to bring home his messages. Unfortunately, the stories are buried in the sermon and the messages are often multiple and unfocused.

Obviously a good sermon is like a good speech – as Frances Rios’ new book titled The Glue Factor teaches, the goal is “to make your message stick to your audience.”  The sermon has to be addressed to what would be of interest at that particular moment to the congregation. The goal is to have one clear message conveyed in a concise and interesting way. As Frances Rios emphasizes, the speech/sermon should not be read behind the lectern/pulpit. The biggest challenge is to make the message interesting and impactful. A good story, a reference to something of general interest that is happening in the community or the world, an unexpected commencement, the use of a guest to give a change of pace are some of the ideas that have worked in good sermons I can remember.

The foregoing regarding what a good speech/sermon requires is not revolutionary, but implementation takes creativity and work. The priest’s sermon is his chance to change attitudes and lives as well as develop rapport with his congregation for one on one follow ups. This opportunity should not be wasted, especially in this day in age in which each parish has to “market” itself and “compete” with other Catholic churches, other religions, and so many other alternatives and distractions tempting his parishioners. An effective sermon not only effectively conveys religious teachings, but is one of the priest’s principal arsenal in effectively developing loyal parishioners. The Torrimar church without pews is highly successful in large part because it brings in priests from outside the parish to give the mass, and based on what I have witnessed over many years, very effective sermons.  The parish priests at San Juan Evangelista have recognized that effective sermons are a key ingredient to filling the church which is what a parish priest has to do.     

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