The variety and frequency of his preaching
Although his preaching did not please him, Augustine must be considered as one of the greatest preachers of the early Church. As leader of the church in Hippo, Augustine was required to exercise pastoral care for the people in his church who, although in admiration of him, nevertheless lacked some discipline.
Although personally courageous himself, Augustine did not have the temperament to win instant obedience from a volatile and potentially violent crowd. Augustine preached for almost forty years in his basilica (church) in Hippo. Usually a bishop preached, and not a priest. Augustine became an exception to this rule, however, in the year 393, by which time he was being asked to preach in place of his bishop, Valeruis, who was infirm from then until his death in the year 395 (when Augustine succeeded him). He regularly preached twice a week, often on several consecutive days, and sometimes twice in the one day.
He dialogued with the people listening to him. Sometimes he had to chide them, to calm them down because they reacted with moans and groans, and sometimes they laughed. He enjoyed having them as an audience and they enjoyed being with him. In line with the custom of the time, Augustine was seated when preaching, and his audience was standing. The people were as close as fifteen paces (five metres) to him. It is estimated that in his long life Augustine preached about 8,000 times. His powerful presence gave weight and vigour to his preaching. His mastery of rhetoric and his insight into human nature allowed him to move the people listening to him.
Whenever he travelled to Carthage and other places he was invariably asked to preach there. With characteristic kindness he always agreed to do so, although he complained that because of this he - the one who had been drawn to the Christian faith by hearing Ambrose preach in Milan - never had the opportunity to hear others preaching. Among the sermons he gave are his series on the Gospel of John, dogmatically among his most interesting works (preached in about the year 416), and his Commentary on the Psalms, partly being homilies that he preached between the years 410 and 420. Many of his homilies (sermons) have been preserved. He was often criticised by opponents - such as those in the Donatist controversy - for being too simplistic and pandering too much to his audience. Yet there were many variations in the styles of various bishops, and not only in preaching.
His preaching style
The style of Augustine was to preach from the heart. He did not memorise his sermons but, after saturating himself with his subject, he spoke from the inspiration of the moment. Some of his sermons he himself dictated for preservation after preaching them, while others were taken down by secretaries as he preached them. He had a quiet voice, to which he himself made many references. Even so, Paulinus of Nola, a correspondent with Augustine, said metaphorically that "the trumpet of the Lord blows through the mouth of Augustine." Augustine was widely regarded as a gifted orator. Not that he never faced opposition from his listeners, however!
He was a preacher who chose to preach in a popular style. This was not a practice followed by all Christian preachers in the time of Augustine. Many of them often preached for a long time. What they said was full of words and ideas that were too elaborate for the average person. In preaching to the people of Hippo, which were faithfully recorded by a long line of secretaries, he did not talk down to the people figuratively because he respected the fact that they had their own occupations, such as farming and trading. Nor did he talk down to them literally, because he was seated (or on some occasions standing) and the people listening were standing. His sermons were generally brief, although one of the "lost sermons" discovered recently would have taken him two and a half hours to preach. Augustine understood and conveyed to his people the principle that when he preached, two teachers were at work.
Augustine, the outer teacher, put the Word of God into the ears of people. But only Jesus Christ, the inner teacher, could put the Word into the hearts of people. One can certainly understand the popularity of Augustine when one reads phrases such as: "What parents would be so foolish as to send [their child] to school to learn what the teacher thinks?" He knew how to keep the focus on the topic rather than on the preacher. As bishop of Hippo Regius, Augustine also was responsible for the preaching of his brother priests. Evidently, the quality of their sermons was fairly low because Augustine felt compelled to raise their standards. His written work, De Doctrina Christiana, which dates to around the turn of the fifth century, was his effort to upgrade preaching and establish the Bible as the best source for preaching.
Priorities in preaching
While recognising the great variety of persons within almost any group of Christian listeners, Augustine held that how to deliver a homily to that variety of people was another issue. How he identified with and united the diversity of his hearers is illuminating, and is helpful to preachers of any era. Although Augustine was familiar with Classical rhetoric which sought to produce carefully constructed and polished speech, he placed all of this aside and saw effective and necessary communication as being a relationship between himself and the people in his church. The relationship with his listeners was founded on the concern that Augustine had for them. Because his main purpose was to communicate as clearly as possible to the understanding of his hearers, he would make every attempt to meet the audience at their level of understanding. For example, Augustine proposes that the "sensitivity of the speaker must come to the aid of the silent listener." (De Doctrina Christiana 4.10.25).
The listeners in the church of his day would let the speaker know if he were being understood, not by the asking of questions, but by the making of movements. The body language of the listeners, therefore, was what gave the preacher this information. (And Augustine at times faced a group in church who were quite vocal - even alienated and disruptive.) And important information it was. As Augustine noted, "A speaker who clarifies something that needs to be learned is the donor of a great gift, but a speaker who labours things already known is a bore." (De Doctrina Christiana 4.10.25) All of the sermons of Augustine were preached extempore (i.e., not from prepared notes) for this precise reason. The preacher who has memorised his sermon cannot adjust when "the topic must be rolled around in a variety of different ways." (De Doctrina Christiana 4.10.25).
Priority to the needs of the listeners
The composition of the specific group of listeners presently at hand, then, for Augustine determined not only what the preacher was to say and in what terms it was to be said, but also the very style of his delivery. The need to communicate made Augustine sceptical about the potential impact in the context of Christian preaching of a formally eloquent rhetoric. He certainly made selective use of various rhetorical devices - his own skills in that field were considerable - but he saw that they contributed little to the essential problem a preacher faced, that is, how to touch the hearts of people. In this context, for Augustine the most important principle of preaching was immediacy. He held that, if something was worth saying and the speaker identified himself with it, the way of saying it would come naturally.
The words of a preacher come alive through the very joy he takes in what his is speaking about. It is a waste of time for the preacher to expound to others about what they should admire or do if he does not sense it himself. Because of this immediacy which makes heart speak to heart, the sermons of Augustine sermons are still interesting to read. According to his biographer Possidius, those who gained most from him were those who had been able actually to see and hear him as he spoke in Church. In an age where most of the people were illiterate, Christian doctrine was communicated mainly through sermons and not through books. The close interaction between the preacher and his audience and the rhetorical quality of the sermon served the end of moving the listeners to a life pleasing to God. Augustine repeatedly reminded his listeners that simply to delight in the words and images offered by the preacher was not enough.