The Educational and Inspirational Preaching of Orville James

“Preaching the Sunday sermon is the most impactful thing any minister will do in a given week,” Rev. Dr. Orville James, the minister of Wellington Square United Church in Burlington, said. “If you can deliver the goods on Sunday morning, even if you’re a mediocre organizer, it can make a tremendous difference.”

James’ thesis for his D. Min. in Homiletics at Princeton focused on communicating effectively to people in different stages of faith, based on James Fowler’s 1981 book, Stages of Faith, which outlines six stages to spiritual maturity.

“Most people in the United Church are at stage four,” he said, “the Individuative-Reflective stage where they no longer blindly accept what those in authority tell them. They need to work things out in their own minds and examine how it applies to them. There are people with a high level of education in the United Church—with scientific and literary knowledge. They can interpret the Christian stories on a level of meaning that goes beyond the literal. It’s not cut and dried and simplistic.”

“The earlier stages of faith put more emphasis on a literal interpretation of scripture and in allowing those in authority to interpret things. Eighty years ago in Quebec the priests even told people how to vote and had control over women’s reproductive rights.”

“People can get beyond stage four,” he said, “if they can observe themselves and ask painful questions. The top levels are reserved for those who take a universal approach to faith and see that the great Creator God loves the whole universe. We’re all one in unity—Mother Teresa—Martin Luther King Jr.—those who have charity towards all—a spiritual maturity—who are spiritually open, sublime and humble.”

James said there are several keys in crafting a sermon that can effectively reach both those who have been in church all their lives and those who are starting out—the under 20’s and the over 85’s.

“Think first,” he said, “Put yourself in the listeners’ pew. What do they need to hear? What would they need to have explained to them about a particular passage? What’s going on in their lives? What are they working through? What are they celebrating?”

James said that he puts a lot of time into preparing his sermons—12 – 15 hours a week minimum. “I deliver a 2,000 word essay every Sunday and I do it with gusto. The last two hours are the most important—an hour Saturday night and an hour Sunday morning. I read it out loud, to make it more conversational—so it makes sense to people. I edit until it’s smooth and clear. I’m ruthless at editing for clarity. I ruthlessly discipline myself.”

He said that he reads, on average, an hour and a half every day, and does a lot of research. “I look up sermons on a similar topic—study the sermons of great preachers such as Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Tom Long (his thesis advisor at Princeton), Barbara Brown-Taylor, John Buchanen—editor of the Christian Century magazine, William Willimon of Duke University, John Ortberg—Presbyterian from the San Francisco area and Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist Minister from Kansas City.”

James said that he also regularly goes to preaching conferences such as the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio Texas or the Institute for Successful Church Leadership organized through the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles.

“I’m more relaxed and more confident when I’m preaching now,” he said. “I have fun. There’s a camaraderie with the congregation—a spiritual bond. I can anticipate the questions they might ask. I know what they might need me to address.”

“I really believe the best preaching is truth through personality. You have to really work at having a passion for preaching and encouraging and challenging your congregation. We need to educate and inspire.”

To find out more about Fowler’s work go to The Festival of Homiletics –