Preaching Conversations that Connect Pulpit and Pew
Whether churches call it a message, teaching, homily, or sermon, there’s often a big gap between what preachers think they are saying and what listeners hear. Preaching can become more effective when ministers, priests, deacons, and laypeople learn how to talk together. This two-way preaching conversation requires a cultural shift.
Every week, countless preachers dig deep into the Bible. They seek divine inspiration, study, and write and deliver messages that they hope will bring listeners into an encounter with God. Sometimes they wonder whether their preaching matters because they get so few substantive comments about their sermons or homilies. No one shares whether or how these messages make a difference in their faith lives.
Every week, laypeople come to church hungry to hear good news to guide their walk with God. They come to worship with joys and struggles particular to their identities, relationships, work, and cultural contexts. Sometimes they wonder whether the preacher has any idea what their real lives are like.
Even though preaching has been a feature of Christian worship and experience since the faith began, few congregations know how to create effective partnerships between pulpit and pew. Karla J. Bellinger calls this conversation gap “the Loud Silence.” In her research, books, and coaching, she reminds clergy and laity that preaching still matters. Bellinger is a systematic theologian with a doctoral degree in preaching who describes herself as “a homiletically educated laywoman who works with those who preach.”
Your worshiping community can work toward more effective preaching when you address the Loud Silence, help preachers and hearers connect the gospel to life, and set up structures for preaching conversations.
In the epilogue of her book Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching, Bellinger shares a picture of the hoped-for result of the work she feels called to: “Those who listen will love those who preach. Those who preach will love those who listen. The homily will be an act of caring within the solidarity of saints. The parish will be the locus of human connection in an ever higher-tech world, and the people will burst forth from Mass, happy to share the preached Word of God with their family and friends and neighbors. The church will overflow with people who seek for prayer and reverence and an encounter with God, and their hearts will be filled.”
Bellinger uses Catholic words—Mass, homily, evangelization—for concepts many Protestants might call a worship service, a sermon, and evangelism. Catholic preachers, whether abbots, bishops, priests, or deacons, are always men. Yet her work and research are used in Catholic and Protestant settings.
Bellinger is uniquely qualified to research, write, teach, and coach on more effective preaching. “Being listened to matters now more than ever in both directions,” she says. “I was raised Presbyterian, got married in an Assembly of God church, and my husband and I became Catholic in our early twenties.”
For her doctoral thesis, Are You Talking to Me? A Study of Young Listeners’ Connection with Catholic Sunday Preaching, Bellinger surveyed 561 Catholic high schoolers about their preaching needs. A high proportion viewed the homily as the most important element of Mass. At least half described how preaching had helped them. As Bellinger wrote in Connecting Pulpit and Pew, “In the words of young people themselves, that seven-to-ten-minute string of words within the Sunday liturgy makes a significant impact on whether they stay or they go.
Bellinger has continued her research as president of the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics (CATH), former associate director of Notre Dame University’s Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics, and as the current founding executive director of Institute for Homiletics in Dallas, Texas. Her research shows that teens, their parents, and other adults yearn for preachers to go deeper. Her blog series, "The Power of Preaching," states that listeners thirst to experience the preaching as “‘our’ homily—the Word of God, living and active, for ‘our people.’” She writes, “Good preaching is the witness of a preacher who is in love: in love with his people and in love with his God."
Preaching also matters because it’s often the most significant opportunity to connect with regular attenders who aren’t otherwise active in church life or those who come only for Christmas, Easter, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, or funerals. “Incremental growth in preaching can yield exponential growth in church renewal,” Bellinger often says.
The Loud Silence
Ironically, because Catholic and Protestant preachers receive so little feedback on their messages, they often think of preaching as less important than their congregants do. Bellinger’s research confirms what communications expert Lori J. Carrell reported earlier in The Great American Sermon Survey: that only 9 percent of both Protestant and Catholic clergy got constructive feedback about their preaching beyond the random comment during a handshake at the doors.
Bellinger uses a simple exercise to help seminarians understand what happens in a vacuum of sermon feedback. She asks a working preacher in ongoing formation to tap out the rhythm of a melody in his head. But classmates rarely guess the song. “The preacher assumes the listener understands. The listener tunes out. Nobody says anything in the Loud Silence,” she explains in Connecting.
At Notre Dame, she did one-on-one coaching for a hundred preachers in the one-year Lilly Endowment Notre Dame Preaching Academy program sponsored by the Marten Program. Out of that experience, she and Marten Program director Michael E. Connors, CSC, wrote Remembering Why We Preach: A Retreat to Renew Your Spirit and Skill. The book leads preachers in personal or peer-group contexts through a process of spiritual renewal and skills development.
In 2022, the Institute of Homiletics did an in-depth study of two hundred preachers in one diocese. It asked listeners about sixty-five possible factors of effective preaching. In her forthcoming book Encountering the Living God, Together: A Resource for Listeners, Bellinger describes five factors that most clearly correlate to effectiveness. The first two, she says, are most important:
- “The homily spoke to me and my life.”
- The homilist’s words and embodiment showed he was speaking to a particular congregation.
- “The homily was creative and gave a fresh take on scripture.”
- Memorable and “sticky” content stayed with listeners.
- The homily picked up liturgical themes and prayers.
Besides helping preachers improve, Bellinger emphatically reminds laity of their responsibility in the preaching conversation. “The responsibility for an encounter with the God of love through the medium of preaching is not just borne by the one who delivers the message. Those who listen are also accountable,” she writes in Connecting.
Connecting the gospel to life
Bellinger explains that the test of effective preaching is the fruit that it bears in its listeners, who then live out and invite others to experience “the love, forgiveness, and healing that the Holy Spirit brings.”
In Encountering, Bellinger writes: “To speak of the Paschal Mystery at the heart of preaching, we must go ‘smaller.’ The grand movement/action/agency of God can be expressed in little and ordinary ways. That is your role in helping the preacher. He knows the theological ideas. You know the particulars of grace. Help him to put the two together. Help him to translate. Help him to name the wonder that the grace of God evokes in ordinary life in your local world . . . and let him stretch you with the Good News.”
She says that the preacher’s spiritual renewal is key to renewing homilies. This happens in part when laity share their struggles and joys, and the preacher can help them see where God is already at work in their lives. Just as Jesus used ordinary examples from housework, construction work, fishing, and agriculture, so too preachers can tie in real-life situations to relate the gospel in words people understand.
In a blog series on effective preaching from a listener's perspective, Bellinger compares effective preaching to good butter on warm toast. The homily is the butter. The Holy Spirit helps it sink in. But this works best when toast is warm. People who walk in with sensitive hearts and responsive minds are warm toast. Bellinger explains that receptivity (the warmth) may come from preparing for worship through prayer and Scripture reading, loving God, having kindhearted experiences with the preacher or faith community, past enriching experiences of the preaching, or desperately wondering where God is in personal, community, or worldwide struggles.
What matters most of all in connecting the gospel to life, she writes in Encountering, is for preachers to make God “the hero of the homily. That Divine Doer rescues us, lifts us from the pit, sets us on the right path, and changes our lives.” She advises listeners to be attentive to the naming of grace and the action of God. Unless God is preached as “alive and active,” listeners are “left as orphans” to lift themselves up.
Preachers need to connect the gospel with people’s lives to help them encounter God. “People in the pew may not be trained in scriptural scholarship. They may not have a formal theological education. They do know life,” she writes in Connecting. That’s why preachers and people need to talk together about how to “concretize and localize our preaching.”
Structuring preaching conversations
Bellinger recalls a priest in Notre Dame’s Marten Program who said he benefited from a year of peer groups, retreats, and one-on-one coaching. He was “invigorated to learn the technical aspects of homiletics: make one point, have a focus and a function, structure carefully, preach for the mind, heart, will, and imagination. Six months into the program, he became interested in getting congregational feedback. But he said he needed help in how to structure conversations to gather feedback. That’s why I wrote Encountering.”
Through the Institute of Homiletics, she’s created a two-year program with parallel tracks for laity and preachers. Like Connecting and Remembering, Bellinger’s Encountering includes discussion questions and recommends helpful books. Encountering also includes exercises to help lay groups deepen their prayer lives, support and pray for preachers, learn about effective preaching and communication, become better listeners to sermons and each other, and more. The goal is to help listeners help preachers help their peers grow closer to God.
While lay groups go through Encountering in their first year, their preachers go through Remembering. Both have units on prayer during the same month. The first laity-to-preacher feedback doesn’t begin until the sixth of eight lessons in Encountering. Bellinger is writing a book to help clergy and laity meet for structured feedback conversations at least six times a year in the second year of the Institute of Homiletics program.
In summer 2023, a former military officer in a Wisconsin lay group told Bellinger, “I always take notes on the homily. I’m very analytical, but this program helped me become more spiritual and receptive. As a head person, I’ve learned to listen through my heart. My wife likes me better since I’ve learned more about listening. I now understand more about the weight of sermon, how much time it takes to craft, tune, and prep. Rather than simply analyze the preacher, I’ve learned to listen to what God is saying through the homily.”
Everyone in the group was surprised to hear how differently they evaluated the same sermons, teaching them to extend mercy to other people’s experiences. One career church woman who works for the diocese committed herself to get active in her parish rather than simply attend Sunday Mass.
They all learned how important it is to build trust and go slowly till preachers are receptive to feedback. Bellinger advises, “Affirm something, anything done well: ‘I like the point that you made about ___,’ or ‘I appreciate the sincerity of your preaching,’ or ‘The way you said ____ moved me.’ Then, observe how that affirmation is received. If the preacher bristles, back off and try again later.”
Read two books authored or coauthored by Karla Bellinger: Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching and Remembering Why We Preach: A Retreat to Renew Your Spirit and Skill. Anticipate her field-tested forthcoming book Encountering the Living God, Together: A Resource for Listeners.
In the fourth chapter of Connecting Pulpit and Pew and in this blog post on the power of preaching, Bellinger explains why it’s mainly since Vatican II that popes and bishops have started to view preaching as integral to the liturgy, not separate from it. Rather than merely teach doctrine and moral exhortation, Catholic preachers were encouraged “to interpret everyday life through a scriptural lens.” Pope Francis in 2013 and 2014 said, “The preacher has the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people,” which is why the homily should be a “moment of encounter with Jesus Christ.”
Bellinger’s DMin research focused on how Catholic teens experience homilies. She also recommends earlier books that survey Christian teens, such as Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean, and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton. Together, these books show that many teens mistake “moral therapeutic deism” for traditional Christianity. Dean says it’s because churches have lost the sense of mission, message, and model that call Christians to share God’s love with others in word and in deed. To become ardent Christians, young (and older) people need to be able to see their personal stories as taking place within God’s big story. They also need to belong to a significant faith community and live with a palpable sense of mission and hope.
Bellinger is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Homiletics in Dallas, Texas. Its grant to renew liturgical preaching for Catholic youth and young adults is funded through Lilly Endowment’s Compelling Preaching Initiative. Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, fosters mutual learning among grantees through the Compelling Preaching Coordination Program.
Protestant and Catholic preachers have learned from these two books by communications expert Lori J. Carrell: The Great American Sermon Survey and Preaching that Matters: Reflective Practices for Transforming Sermons. Here’s a handout on listening to listeners from a workshop Lori J. Carrell offered at the 2015 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
Also check out preaching books by Scott Hoezee, the founder and director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His slim volume Why We Listen to Sermons suggests that listeners evaluate whether sermons are biblical, authentic, contextual, and life-changing.