Adding dialogue to monologue preaching

5-SFTP-1971-edit-620x400There has been some fascinating discussion in response to my two previous posts on why monologue preaching doesn’t work and why dialogue preaching isn’t practical. Before looking at how we might take the best of both together, two observations about monologue.

First, those (usually clergy) who have theological training do have something valuable to bring to congregations. Christians who take their discipleship seriously want to know how to read the Bible well, they want to learn how to think through difficult issues, they want to grow in confidence in faith—and church leaders have theological resources which can address these questions. Preaching is key way in which such questions can be regularly addressed. I was in conversation yesterday with a well-known national Christian leader, and he commented to me how often Christians asked him their questions about the Bible—and where they can find answers. Knowledge is power, and although this power can be misused, it can be deployed to empower others.

Second, monologue is far from dead in our culture, despite what claims about postmodern culture might suggest. Radio listening continues to grow, and Radio 4 regularly features monologues—shorter in Thought for the Day and longer in A Point of View, a 15-minute monologue, often quite dense in ideas, repeated twice a week. And thousands of people regularly pay exorbitant sums to be subjected to extensive monologues lasting 2 hours or more—delivered by stand-up comics. Contemporary comics do make use of some interaction with the audience (for example, by picking on people in the first row) but this demands considerable skill, and the vast majority  of their sets are monologue. Everyone is engaged, and no-one gets bored, so it cannot be the monologue format that is the problem!

So how can I add elements of dialogue to my monologue delivery of preaching? These are the things I (and others) have tried.

First, and most easily, find a way of picking up questions arising from preaching, perhaps through small group leaders, or from conversation. A group from our 9 am service go to the local Costa for coffee, and if I am not contributing to the 10.30 service I join them and listen to their reactions to the sermon. Tom Finnegan comments on the previous post:

During sermon preparation, don’t keep it a secret – talk to some people about the subject of the sermon and get their insights. Encourage people after the service that you are open to talk to them about anything the sermon spoke to in their lives. So often preachers almost hide away from people rather than be available after the service – and so often the bland response by the people is ‘thank you that was a lovely sermon’ – there needs to be a cultural shift that the sermon is something to be talked about afterwards in a constructive way either with the preacher directly or with each other.

I have at times done this ‘advance signalling’ by posting my sermon on this blog ahead of the Sunday, so people have a change to read and think about the issue ahead of time. It doesn’t detract from the preaching, since reading something online is a very different experience from listening to it being spoken.

A more technologically ambitious way of inviting questions during the sermon is to post up your mobile phone number for people to send questions by text message; I have done this successfully in New Wine seminars and it has worked well because the speaker can manage the question and answer section. Twitter is a more demanding way of doing something similar. You can always provide some answers in another format, such as further notes or additional preaching, if you don’t answer questions at the time—so the dialogue is a week-by-week one, rather than a minute-by-minute one.

Secondly, link your small group material with Sunday sermons by providing questions, study guides, and an opportunity for thinking about application. We did this for about two years at one point in our church in Poole. It can be very effective—but, be warned, it can feel like quite hard work.

Thirdly, supplement your monologue with dialogue, for example after the close of the formal service as an ‘extra’ for those who are interested. This offers all the benefits of dialogue, but does it in a controlled and managed way, so (for example) only those who feel confident about posing questions need be involved. I have quite often, when asked to speak on something related to how we read the Bible, offered an additional session like this afterwards; it gives permission for the persistent but unanswered question to be aired. Jonathan Tallon comments:

There is a Baptist church where they divide the ‘service’ into two halves (each about an hour). The first half is a fairly standard (but short) non-conformist service, including songs, reading and sermon. However, they then split into different groups (you choose which group). One of those groups is a discussion with the preacher.

As a visiting preacher, I found this helpful. Congregation members could follow up interesting areas, clarify points I had made, ask about areas of the passage or approaches I hadn’t taken etc. It also gave me far more feedback than I normally get as a visiting preacher, where it can feel a bit ‘hit and run’.

Fourth, from time to time substitute a standard sermon with an ‘Any Questions’ session on a subject, perhaps in an evening service, to give permission to ask questions. Again, these need to be managed well, including offered a way of asking questions anonymously. Paper and pencil, and a box to post questions in just ahead of time, works well for this.

Finally, what about trying it? But announce first, plan the process, do your homework, and provide a structured method of participation (such as writing questions/comments on paper beforehand, and priming key people) to create positive space for dialogue. Make sure you manage the interaction well, and ensure that the conversation is not dominated by those with the biggest personalities. In my experience, this needs more preparation than a sermon in anticipating the range of possible questions, and confidence to engage them—but you save on the preparation involved in planning your delivery, such as writing notes.

If you have any other ideas or experience of incorporating the benefits of dialogue preaching within a monologue framework, post them below as a comment.

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12 thoughts on “Adding dialogue to monologue preaching”

  1. Hi Ian,

    I don’t support a false dichotomy which favours dialogue to the extent of a wholesale exclusion of sermon monologues. However, it’s equally fallacious for others to reject dialogue as completely unworkable.

    For instance, on the previous thread, Bernard Randall pointed out that, during a sermon, the inclusion of dialogue would not appeal to those ’50-somethings’ who comprise the majority of CofE churchgoers.

    My response is that the Church’s priority of ‘growing the church younger’ makes an even stronger case for interactive preaching, in that it caters to the kind of inquiry which characterises younger generations.

    It’s not the role of those whom you describe as ‘trained, gifted and ordained to that task’ of teaching the faith which is being called into question, but it is the default and often thoughtless recourse to deliver monologues.

    Another commenter highlighted Jesus’ example. However, we should also consider the context of Jesus’ monologues. In the gospels, when describing the vast following which Jesus attracted, the word, multitudes, is used 80 times. By contrast, the capacity of first-century synagogues has been estimated at around 400.

    Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that He employed extended discourse to broadcast His message to the crowds (in a society in which memorised the spoken word as a principal technique of learning and dissemination).

    So, I believe that the most significant factor in deciding on how far one can introduce dialogue is the size of the audience, and here you have mentioned several approaches for dealing with that.

    Certainly, beyond employing them rhetorically, Christ (who is indeed the model for all preachers) was completely comfortable in responding to questions from all quarters, in a public forum and regardless of the motivation of those who posed them.

    We need to challenge ourselves to develop that level of reliance upon the Holy Spirit to encourage and respond to all kinds of questions. This is the kind of exemplary faith that, even under hostile inquiry, believes in the Holy Spirit.

    As Christ put it: When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:12)

  2. I’m coming to this discussion a bit late, so it’s possible that I am about to repeat points that other people have made…

    If we say that “monologue preaching doesn’t work” (which I am aware is a gross summary of an extensive discussion), my question would be, “what are we expecting it to achieve?” Preaching is just one aspect of the weekly worship service, which in turn is but one aspect of the life of the church and the individual believer.

    Some people connect with monologue style, others (particularly the post-modern youth, we are told) mistrust it and want something more interactive. To my mind, the answer isn’t to say “sermons are broken, how do we fix them?”, but to look to all aspects of the church life to work together to produce mature disciples. So we do not do away with monologue preaching but instead seek to ensure that it is set within a context of dialogue, teaching, prayer, fellowship, praise, etc, which cater to other needs. This seems to be where you have ended up too, Ian, as we are now talking about “adding dialogue to monologue.”

    As for how to do it, all your suggestions look promising, but the biggest challenge I see in my context is the expectations of congregants: I don’t think the people in my church expect or want to ask questions within a service – they want a familiar structure delivered within a similar time-frame. The opportunities for dialogue come after and around this, as you suggest in your first 3 points above. In this way, hopefully, we can “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Colossians 3:16) all week, rather than just while we listen to or preach a sermon on Sunday.

    I must admit that there is another hindrance to “Any Questions” style sessions where I am leading: my skill set. I do not think clearly or perform well when put on the spot, but need peace and quiet to mull things over and prepare. Freestyle questioning with the wrong speaker (like me) will likely only prove to be stressful for the answerer and dissatisfying or confusing for the questioners. When dialogue occurs in a more relaxed environment separate to the service, it is easier for me to keep my cool and also easier for me to say, “let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

  3. a) I write my sermons on Sunday morning, or deliver them off the cuff at the service
    b) Your church has small groups?
    c)’…and if I’m not contributing to the 10:30 service … ‘. 1 vicar/4 churches …
    c) I like the texting in questions idea

    • For anyone who places any importance on preaching as a means of building faith, teaching, and enabling others to grow in their faith and their reading of scripture, I would never recommend leaving preparation to Sunday mornings.

      In my experience, if a church is taking seriously the task of growing disciples, they will make small groups a priority.

      • I think you’re being a bit hard on Chris, Ian. I suspect your experience is mostly in well resourced, larger churches (I could be entirely wrong though). Yes, of course this is the ideal, but for overworked clergy with several churches with small congregations, where most of the energy goes into keeping the show on the road in terms of finding the officers required (eg for Anglicans, churchwardens, treasurer etc) and maintaining buildings, this is often all that can be managed. I’d say this was a case for more lay involvement, but there may not be people willing to come forward. Is this a subject for a separate blog?

        • Thanks, I have posted on rural ministry, with material from someone in that situation before.

          It is difficult to know whether I am being hard on Chris since I don’t know anything of his situation. As it happens, in the C of E, rural ministry is generally better resourced per head of population than urban ministry—by some considerable margin. In urban ministry, it is fairly typical to have a vicar, possibly with a curate, in a parish of 10,000. I don’t know of any rural ministry with that kind of ratio.

          I am well aware that having multiple buildings and covering distances can make it feel very different. But whilst only one fifth of the population lives in rural areas, one third of C of E attendance happens there, so the resourcing is having *some* effect.

          • Rural ministry may well be better resourced per head of population, but I don’t think it’s better resourced per leaking roof. These things shouldn’t of course take up an inordinate amount of a vicar’s time, but in a smaller congregation,without others to meet architects, fill in forms to apply for faculties, etc, they inevitably do.

      • Fascinating that you made the assumption that I don’t prepare. You were being a bit hard. All I said was that I write them on Sunday morning. By ‘off the cuff’ I meant without a script – which I am finding is the best way to involve the congregation: by moving around amongst them.

        But I agree with your comment about growth and groups.

        1 Vicar/4churches?

        • Oh sorry, just following what normal English means! I have written a post on whether we need scripts, and explored what unscripted (rather than ‘off the cuff’) preaching gains and demands.

          If you have four congregations or church buildings, and if some of them have services at times that clash (if not, then we too have four churches which happen to meet in the same building) I don’t see how you can be effective in ministry without finding, training, investing in and delegating to lay leaders. Or is there another way I haven’t thought of?

  4. l recognise Jonathon’s experience of some congregations not wanting questions or interaction in the service.A fair number feel exposed and vulnerable while others don’t want to be seen as the ‘know it all!

    However, We’ve come to the both / and conclusion at our all age Breakfast @9 . After a short talk there is an opportunity for craft / and or discussion around suggested questions. It’s fairly light due to time constraints but we encourage people to take them away with them and ponder in the week ahead. We have just introduced a monthly discussion after Breakfast @9 for those who want a deeper discussion and continue exploring the questions

    The first two have gone well, but as pointed out does need good planning and prep, particularly in a team ministry with different speakers each week. But because it’s a smaller informal group the leader is more able to take a question away and come back later with a response which as Jonathon says does take the pressure off the leader.

    Of course it’s important to remember there is also wisdom in the room and a good discussion group leader can help to bring that out

    I’m intrigued bythe idea of posting a sermon beforehand. Have you found that people are more or less engaged as a result? Has it changed the conversation after the service?

    Stimulating couvevsation

    Thank you

  5. Thanks Ian. Now I’ve read part II I can see what you mean – some really helpful suggestions here. I’m not sure what you mean by the fourth suggestion though. If preaching involves getting people to listen to God speak to them through his Word then ‘any questions’ will massively reduce the ratio of God’s voice to our voices. However, I usually finish a sermon series with one Sunday that allows for any questions on the whole series and therefore the starting point of discussion is the text of the bible.


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