The Tightrope of Preaching

His best scene everI’ve been working my through St John Chrysostom’s treatises on the priesthood, not having read them in some time. See the end of the article for details about the translation. (Some words are amended for precision.)

One of the greatest challenges the priest faces is that of preaching, and it’s not a new problem. Even Christ’s words, which were life from Life himself, were not always received (cf. the rich young ruler, Matt 19:16ff). Thus John Chrysostom gives his own perspective on the delicate balance that must be achieved by the faithful preacher.

Chrysostom’s first caution to the preacher is the description of the state of his “audience”:

For most people usually listen to a preacher for pleasure, not profit, like [critics] of a play or concert. The power of eloquence, which we rejected just now, is more requisite in a church than when professors of rhetoric are made to contend against each other. (On the Priesthood, V.1)

I would add that the contemporary listener is heavily conditioned to be this way. The majority of pastimes – whether sports, or television, or books and magazines, or games – are aimed at pleasing us. That is to say they are not in the least intended for us to elevate our souls or minds, or to have them grasp at something better. Thus, many listeners have an unspoken, and perhaps even unknown, desire to be entertained by the preacher. There is no greater evidence of this than the difficulty with which even pious believers have in listening to a homily that exceeds 15 (or 10!) minutes, even as they can watch hours of television without moving from a recliner.

The explosion in performance television (American IdolThe Voice, Dancing with the Stars, <Your Country>’s Got TalentX Factor, etc.) has combined entertainment with criticism, encouraging viewers not only to vote with their viewing choices, but with text messages and phone calls as well. It produces exactly what Chrysostom describes, and it’s no longer confined to the professional critics.

From there, he goes on to describe the preacher’s response (italics mine):

Here, too, a [preacher] needs a loftiness of mind far beyond my own littleness of spirit, if he is to correct this disorderly and unprofitable delight of ordinary people, and to divert their attention to something more useful, so that church people will follow and defer to him and not that he will be governed by their desires. It is impossible to acquire this power except by these two qualities: contempt of praise and the force of eloquence. If either is lacking, the one left is made useless through divorce from the other. If a preacher despises praise, yet does not produce the kind of teaching which is “with grace, seasoned with salt” [1 Col 4:6], he is despised by the people and gets no advantage from his sublimity. And if he manages this side of things perfectly well, but is a slave to the sound of applause, again an equal damage threatens both him and the people, because through his passion for praise he aims to speak more for the pleasure than the profit of his hearers. The man who is unaffected by acclamation, yet unskilled in preaching, does not truckle to the people’s pleasure; but no more can he confer any real benefit upon them, because he has nothing to say. And equally, the man who is carried away with the desire for eulogies [praise; i.e., good words] pay have the ability to improve the people, but chooses instead to provide nothing but entertainment. That is the price he pays for thunders of applause. (V.1-2)

But, of course, the good preacher requires particular care from his people, to allow for an “off day” in the pulpit:

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