I used to think I was indecisive. Now I’m not so sure. I can usually come down squarely on one side or the other about my opinions on books. Bumped? Loved it. Wild at Heart? Did not love it. Then I read Rebuilt, and I mostly liked it. I liked its foundational ideas, although I thought it had some flaws. And now I have read one of the follow-up volumes: Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching, again by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran. It is definitely practical, but I don’t know if I’m totally on board with these practices.
In general, I’m ambivalent about this book. Some of the advice is definitely needed. I agree with these authors (and others) that forming disciples is the true mission of the Church. That is where we need to direct our energy. I’m totally behind that. I agree less that focusing on attracting new disciples is the best action plan to fulfill that mission. Forming and strengthening existing disciples should inspire them to make new disciples. I’m all about reclaiming the lost sheep in the new evangelization, and that seems to be the fundamental difference that keeps me from loving books by Fr. White and Corcoran.
They mention that they describe their goal (explicitly, during the announcement portion of Mass) as being “a church for people who don’t like church.” That will definitely help get the unchurched in the door. But will it make the churched, so to speak, stay? Is it also a church for people who like church? Do disciples like church? Is liking church bad?
They come down against “yawning, cavernous silences in the liturgy.” The world is already full of noise. If it weren’t, minimalism wouldn’t be a thing. Those crazy acrobatic scenes from The Matrix would not have been nearly as popular. There can definitely be too much of a good thing, but removing intentional silence from the liturgy is a bad thing. Perhaps a happy medium would be to emphasize the “intentional” part of that silence. We’re not supposed to be waiting for Fr. What’s-His-Name to find the right page in the book after he says “let us pray,” we’re supposed to be using that time to pray silently. We’re not staring at the lector as she approaches the ambo, we’re settling our hearts and minds so we can hear the Word that God is speaking to us in that moment. (Regarding another specific slight to “churchpeople” in this book, I actually do listen to the readings. I like reading. That’s why I write book reviews.)
“Wow, lady,” you might be thinking, “what did you like?” A lot of it, actually. The authors devote roughly half the book to focusing on preaching as a God-focused application of basic public speaking. It’s easy for all of us—”churchpeople” and disciples, I guess—to forget that preaching is a skill. It’s an art. It’s a gift that not everyone has. It requires preparation, focus, and evaluation just as much as inspiration.
There’s so much good advice here for reflecting on your role as a speaker that I can only offer you bullet points because I don’t want to rewrite half the book:
- What’s your story? Where are you coming from, for better or for worse?
- What does your dress, energy, and posture say about you and your message? Do you behave as though this is the greatest story ever told, the Good News to counter every piece of bad news?
- Are you willing to be vulnerable?
- How do you communicate that you love the people who are listening to you?
- Are you afraid to use notes? (Don’t be. Notes make it obvious that you are prepared and human.)
- Are you guiding people through your thought process, through your topic structure, through the steps you want them to take after hearing your message?
- Do you think preaching and teaching is easy? (It’s not. It’s work. Treat it accordingly.)
My favorite positive takeaway was the commentary on the “curse of knowledge.” As an educator, I know that one very well. I hope there are no parishes without websites these days (which is probably the best, easiest advice Fr. White and Corcoran offer: get a website!), but I’d take it a step further. I’d ask every parish to remove “RCIA” from their site navigation and bulletin and replace it with “Becoming Catholic.” The only people who know that RCIA is (usually) how you become Catholic are people who already are Catholic. Use words like “converting” to Catholicism even though that’s not accurate for baptized Christians. Soaking the most straightforward path to making disciples in church vocab is shooting yourself in the foot.
In the end, I think Fr. White and Corcoran and I will have to agree to approach the same goal from different angles. I’m probably never going to like video screens in churches, but I am completely behind abolishing the attitude that preaching is easy and teaching is not work. I guess there’s something for everyone here, no matter where you are on the path to becoming a full-fledged disciple of Jesus Christ.
I received a free copy of Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching from Ave Maria Press in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!