Stop preaching about your vacation and move on from ‘selfie sermons’

 (iStock/diego_cervo)

Have more sermons become selfies? Are you hearing more homilies composed of anecdotes about the preacher himself and an increasingly familiar cast of his friends and family?

This is unfortunate. Predictable vignettes from the preacher’s childhood or extraneous accounts of his vacations reveal unnecessary details about the speaker rather than clues concerning Scripture.

Advertisement

This method of preaching seems so habitual that many homilists appear to be on autopilot. Perhaps the presumption is that chronicling his life is the only way to relate personally to the congregation. However, personal stories are not always necessary, and when they are presented as mere reflex, they can be quite uninteresting.

Personal stories in homilies are not always necessary, and they can be quite uninteresting.

The alternative to a selfie sermon is not a dry or impersonal address. The liturgy itself requires self-disclosure. The weight given to the saint of the day, references to the sacramentary and the metaphorical use of liturgical symbols all offer options that reveal the personality, theology and pastoral priorities of the preacher, who chooses among them with balance and proportion.

A conscious and consistent style reveals a great deal about the homilist without the need to refer to personal details. Jesus used examples familiar to his listeners, such as lost sheep and seed sown, though he was neither shepherd nor farmer. Like parables, this approach may demand more thoughtfulness from the preacher, and more attentiveness from the assembly, than the linear approach of automatically preaching every homily through a three-step default—homilist’s story, then God’s story, then assembly’s story.

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ “Preaching the Mystery of the Faith” reminds us that “Jesus was not an abstract preacher.” However, Jesus was concrete and personal without becoming obvious, overstated or self-absorbed. When Jesus did speak of himself, it was usually in reference to the Father. Hence, the bishops twice warn against “useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.”

Avoid “useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.”

A homilist reveals himself to the assembly through the Scripture, as well by combining the right word with the best gesture, apt tone and careful cadence. Thus a homilist develops a distinctive, personal style rather than any unnecessary slavishness to personal anecdote.

Autobiographical preaching applied predictably is uninteresting. Personal testimony and self-disclosure become unhelpful when exercised artlessly by default rather than carefully by design. No homilist’s life is interesting enough to provide a centerpiece for the Eucharistic banquet every day.

Overreliance on autobiography can also appear narcissistic—more full of self than of Spirit. It can also connote laziness, which is not a personal attribute that endears a preacher to his assembly.

A distinguishing characteristic between Catholic and Protestant preachers in the United States is that many of the former speak in a language other than their native tongue or to cultures distinct from their own. In those cases, autobiographical references by the preacher can be especially problematic. A sermon in perfect Spanish with autobiographical references to the preacher’s experiences in Mayberry still won’t be understood if most of his assembly is from Mexico.

With so many other problems in the world, perhaps only a grump laments the autobiographical sermon. But even a selfie photo requires an extended arm or stick—that is, some means of acquiring the distance required for perspective. While a homilist must always remain connected to contemporary culture, without the perspective of distance he remains captured and controlled by that culture. Just as a homilist can be self-aware but not self-absorbed, so too a homily can be self-revelatory without always being self-referential.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
KEVIN IRWIN
6 months 1 week ago

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Never underestimate how much the clergy reflect the culture...selfies...all about "me"....despite the gospel of self transcendence. Thank you.

kdavis@sjasc.edu
6 months 1 week ago

I appreciate your comments.

Henry Smith
6 months 1 week ago

I know the name of my Pastor's latest car, all his family members, what High School, College and Seminary were like for him, his favourite foods/films/vacation spots, even his favourite colours but I do not know
why he loves Jesus or why he thinks we should.

kdavis@sjasc.edu
6 months 1 week ago

Thank you for joining the discussion.

Armando Contreras
6 months 1 week ago

A guiding message for humanity to exemplify- Humility. Armando A. Contreras

kdavis@sjasc.edu
6 months ago

Kind of you. Thanks!

Alice Pat
6 months 1 week ago

I guess I am in the minority. Both of my priests are from other countries and I find their personal references interesting and helpful to understanding the scriptures.

kdavis@sjasc.edu
6 months 1 week ago

Please note I am not saying all personal references by any preacher is always unhelpful. However, constant and predictable self-reference may appear to stress the preacher himself more than Scripture, which would be unhelpful.

Robert Killoren
6 months 1 week ago

I simply cannot relate to many of the complaints I see written about in America magazine, especially about liturgy and preaching. I agree with what the author says but I guess I’ve always been lucky I haven’t had to experience such misguided priests. Are these examples being spoken of really a common occurrence? Who is teaching in your seminaries?

Joseph Peters
6 months 1 week ago

As a deacon, I find that from time to time I have true life experiences that mirror the parable. Sometimes they add some humor or a more modern take on the lesson. Over the past o years the parish has heard about my kids or ways in which my life has been enriched by lessons I have learned. Now I wonder am I giving “selfies” and not homilies? The parish seems to enjoy but I really get no serious evaluations from anyone. Any ideas?

kdavis@sjasc.edu
6 months 1 week ago

Thank you so much for sharing. I think it is great you strive to preach well. Congratulations! I sometimes take examples from my life, but use them as if they were stories of others, in other words, not speaking in the first person but third person. I still get to use stories from real life that connect with the parable, but without the possible perception of "selfies." However, other readers may have better ideas....?

Dionys Murphy
6 months 1 week ago

The most sure way to tell you are doing something you are worried about doing is when you have stopped worrying about doing it. Self-awareness and self-supervision is a good first serious evaluation.

kdavis@sjasc.edu
6 months 1 week ago

Appreciate your joining the dialogue. This is exactly the kind of conversation I had hoped would happen. Good preachers need good feedback.

Anthony Ireland
6 months 1 week ago

I liked the article. I mainly liked the fact it goes
underneath the surface and is asking for more to be
revealed through scripture. There is a lot more richness and mystery that our
Catholic faith has yet to explore and teach.
Anthony

kdavis@sjasc.edu
6 months 1 week ago

How kind of you. Thanks for sharing!

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The news from Ireland and the United States reminds us of Herod, of Pharaoh. What culture betrays its children?
The EditorsMay 26, 2018
A woman religious casts her ballot May 25 in Dublin as Ireland holds a referendum on its law on abortion. Voters went to the polls May 25 to decide whether to liberalize the country's abortion laws. (CNS photo/Alex Fraser, Reuters)
The repeal of Ireland's Eighth Amendment, which guarantees the right to life of the unborn, has passed with a nearly 2-1 margin.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018