There 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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