Karla J. Bellinger Liturgical Press 2014-05-08

As part of her D.Min. studies at St. Mary Seminary (Cleveland, Ohio), Bellinger interviewed 561 students (both Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic) whose average age was 16.5 years, with varying personal and familial religious commitments, who were enrolled at seven Roman Catholic high schools in California, Maine, Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana situated in different contexts (three inner city, three suburban, one rural). Eighty-six survey questions were asked, and the responses were arranged in three groups: those from students attending Sunday Mass regularly (baptized Roman Catholics attending mass at least once per month and hearing a sermon within that formal weekly liturgical context); those from students attending Sunday Mass sporadically (hearing an occasional sermon within that formal liturgical context; and those from students attending only chapel services at their Catholic school (hearing a sermon in another context). The book summarizes the study findings, supplemented with clergy interviews and focus groups.

“The Search for Connection,” the first of the book’s three parts, explores the weaknesses of modern Roman Catholic preaching and the need for a renewed emphasis on improvement (three chapters). The second part, “Unpacking the Complexities of the Homiletic Encounter,” describes the history of Roman Catholic preaching and the need for a focus shift from the sermon’s content to the listeners’ needs (four chapters), and it analyzes attitudes of the survey takers toward preachers and preaching. The third section, “Sharing the Story of Stories,” restates the central themes of Christian preaching, rehearses the powerful role of memory in the formation of attitudes and behaviors, and sets out paths to improvement (three chapters). An epilogue concludes the work. Since the book is intended as a springboard for discussions about the nature and quality of preaching (p. 11), it ends with an extended series of discussion questions, notes, and bibliography.

The reader is carried along by anecdotal material and quotations from survey participants and other individuals. The numerical research data is presented concisely in several charts throughout chapter 7 (pp. 93, 97, 111–12). (More of this underlying data and its analysis, however, would have added significant value to the work.) Particular attention should be paid to several items in the data that demonstrate a high audience valuation across all audience variables. First, for all three groups the overwhelming high value is “trying to be a good person,” but “growing closer to God” is median and “making God first in my life” is second to the bottom (just above “praying”). Clearly for these young people ethics has little to do with God. Secondly, the high value placed upon a personal relationship between speaker and audience by these young people correlates with postmodern constructs of truth evaluations and affirms Aristotle’s ancient dictum concerning ethos as the most significant means for audience persuasion. Thirdly, a significant proportion of respondents asserted that for them the sermon represented the most significant element of the service—and they wish that the sermon provided greater challenge to their spiritual development. Acknowledging that the survey participants were responding within a highly formalized liturgical context, this assertion contrasts sharply to contemporary emphases that assume a higher valuation of other service elements, typically the music. A fourth point is the high valuation placed by the respondents upon a central idea to the sermon. Clearly Bellinger’s teenage audience is not satisfied with a series of “thoughts” or a running textual commentary. They value a clearly communicated main point around which the entire sermon has been organized, an affirmation of the importance of organizing practical homiletics training around basic communication principles.

This work challenges teachers and practitioners of preaching within highly formalized liturgical churches, offering basic tools to begin a journey toward the renewal of preaching. Those from other worship traditions will find this a thoughtful snapshot of the expectations of current youth in America toward their worship, challenging many assumptions concerning the nature of effective Christian preaching.

About the Contributors

Timothy J. Ralston

Dr. Ralston brings a rich pastoral background to his classroom, having served as an associate pastor and pastor in Ontario and as a director of adult education in the United States. Dr. Ralston is an active member in the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Evangelical Homiletics Society. His research in New Testament manuscripts and worship has taken him into a wide variety of settings and produced numerous scholarly articles. His teaching interests include preaching, worship, and spirituality. He is also an active Master Scuba Diving instructor and emergency first-response trainer. He and his wife, Carol, have two daughters and five grandchildren.