by Pierre Hegy
Preaching to the choir is preaching conversion to people already converted. This type of homily or sermon is common in uniform churches where everyone is supposed to be converted, born again, or devout.
This was the standard for Catholics before Vatican II when everybody was part of the metaphorical choir. There were no dissidents. Those who left the church were called apostates. Homosexuality was an unknown abomination. The violation of priestly celibacy was sacrilegious. There was little or no divorce (the divorced and remarried faced automatic excommunication until 1977). Church attendance was very high (about 75% nationwide), and highest among women and children. The catechism was memorized and accepted by all. The Mass and all church documents were in Latin, hence could be ignored in favor of personal devotions. Trust in the church was without limits. The sermons dealt mainly with the Ten Commandments, the Last Judgment, mortal sins, various points of morality, and these sermons applied to all as one choir.
Quite different is the situation today. According to Gallup research, 54 percent of Protestant and Catholic church attenders are not engaged, 17 percent are “actively disengaged,” and only 29 percent are engaged. In this view, the choir is down to 29 percent. In a survey of 1007 Protestant churches, about 25 percent of churchgoers are either dissatisfied or stalled. Moreover, only a minority of congregations in that study were either energized (12 %) or vibrant (8%). All others had problems. In this case, preaching to the choir is appropriate in only the energized and the vibrant congregations.
Catholics have their own problems. Each new research finds new decline. Here is a recent title of the Pew research: “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church” on the Eucharist. This problem has been known for decades. Between 65% and 85% believe that a good Catholic can disagree with the church on abortion, divorce, birth control, and mandatory Mass attendance. A majority of Catholics favor the ordination of women. Here preaching to the choir often involves spiritual generalities while avoiding burning issues.
Today there is pluralism in most churches, not just racial and ethnic diversity, but also pluralism of audiences, namely:
- The likely drop-out. Since the 1960s, at each generation about 20 to 30 percent of church attenders drop out. This will continue because of the very low level of attendance among the young; the majority drops out after confirmation.
- The dissatisfied. There are many reasons to be dissatisfied and there are many levels of dissatisfaction. Usually the dissatisfied keep silent, but at times they erupt in strong grievances. In most cases they are ignored.
- The unassimilated minorities: active feminists, the divorced, the LGBT, former prison inmates, the handicapped, the social outcasts. They are often ostracized.
- The regular attenders: they are satisfied with the status quo, want short homilies, and tend to oppose change and growth. They show little interest in dogmatic preaching, but they support their pastors.
- The core of dedicated volunteers who support the various ministries of the church.
- The outsiders. They learn about the church through gossip and the media. They come back occasionally as visitors.
Now we can ask the important a question: which audience will be satisfied with your sermon? The dissatisfied? The unassimilated minorities? The future drop-out? The outsiders? Are you mainly preaching to the regular attenders who favor the status quo?
How can a pastor find out about the various audiences of his or her church? The most obvious answer is to take a survey. One can hire an agency, but anybody can write a simple questionnaire. All parishes should have the e-address of their members (a necessity during the pandemic). Sending out regularly a few questions about the Sunday liturgy and the homily can reap much information. It can also become a means of communication between the pastor and the various audiences.
Another way is to post the sermons on the internet and advertise through a platform like Facebook. One can select an audience of 15 to 20 million American Facebook users interested in the Catholic Church. One then finds that 66% of them are women, older, and not interested in religion. One can select, instead, the 1.5 to 2 million Facebook users interested in Pope Francis; then 67% of them are also women, interested in conservative religion, particularly EWTN. The sample choices are nearly infinite. Anybod ycan check that on Facebook.
What I have learned from Facebook – from my own web pages – is that the more religious the posted topic, the more likely it is to attract viewers. Religious generalities are of little interest to people. Moreover, in the U.S. the few people interested in religion are old, mostly female, and conservative.
What about Canada, the UK, and Ireland? It’s about the same. What about including India, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Tanzania? Now everything changes. The response rates increase 10 or 20 times or more. Now about 60 or 70% of the readers are males, and 70 to 80% are under the age of 35. Moreover, 80% of viewers came from the Philippines, 16% from India, 2% from Nigeria, and 2% from all the other countries: the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and the UK. On a global scale, the West seems a religious desert.
On my three webpages, the responses are highest on the most religious topics: on the Transfiguration, 50.6K were reached/24.2K responded; Christ is risen: 54.1K were reached/30.7 responded. The numbers are even higher in the French version: on the Resurrection: 100.9K/8.9K. On the Eucharist: 78K/ 7K. On the liturgy, source and summit: 75.8K/4.9K. How these results were achieved is technical and of no importance here. What is important is that, when posting on the web, one has to define one’s audience, and avoid preaching to the choir.
Preaching to the choir was the norm in the 1950s. These sermons were the standard Sunday staple of the people, and nobody dared to criticize them. Today in declining churches they are counterproductive: they give the impression that by ignoring the problems, they will go away.
What can be done?
- Census. In the pre-Vatican II days, pastors were expected to visit all families once a year. Today in big parishes this is not possible. Instead, parishes are supposed to take a census. Some parishes have not taken one in 30 or 40 years; this reinforces the idea that the parish is one big choir of docile members. The census is the opportunity to gather much information, especially the e-addresses of parishioners. A parish can also collect e-addresses through its education program, devotional groups, and activities. An e-address bank is essential for communication. Why is this not generally done?
- Different homilies at different Masses. Most parishes have multiple worship services, e.g., a family Mass, a parish Mass a youth Mass, Latino or Filipino Mass. The same sermon is often given in all of them. The family Mass often becomes a children’s Mass instead of a parents’ Mass. Then the homilist speaks the children’s language instead dealing with the parents’ problems. At the Latino Mass, the Anglo priest may give his Anglo sermon.
- Sermon evaluation. The clerical profession is one of the few that is not accountable to the public through evaluations. Pastors seem to oppose it. If their mission is to preach the good news, they should welcome and even seek an evaluation of their preaching.
- Learning from growing churches even if disapproving of their theology. Growth in most churches comes through preaching, directly or indirectly. Growing churches attract members from among the unchurched and other churches. This turn to the outside is the opposite of preaching to the choir. Unless churches turn to the outside world, they decline.
- Growing churches tend to have an active presence in cyberspace. Anybody today can post a page, a reflection, or a sermon. For a church to have a web page is not enough. What is needed is a weekly posting on a platform that allows for interaction. This requires finding an audience and tailoring to its needs.
Finally, there should be discussion about the state of preaching, about sermon style and content, and about sermon evaluation. Are there any requirements, any standards for preaching? Billy Graham had no theological training, yet moved the crowds around the world. So does Joel Osteen. These are topics that deserve to be discussed at Pray Tell.
Pierre Hegy is a professor at Adelphi University, with a research focus in the sociology of Catholicism. His PhD is from the University of Paris.