Can preaching remain a monologue?

Some time ago, early on a Sunday morning, I had a phone call. The person preaching at the service in two hours’ time was unwell, and would not be able to preach. I was leading the service; what should I do about the sermon? My first thought was: what a great opportunity to do some spontaneous reflection together as a congregation on the Bible readings. How empowering that will be! But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that that would not work well in the context of the service. The subject was one I had been thinking about, and the readings were texts I knew well, so in the end I did some preparation, wrote my notes in the car on the way to church, and gave a monologue sermon.

But it raised for me again: should sermons continue to be monologue in our postmodern age? There are, I think, some compelling reasons why we can no longer get away with monologue preaching.

The first set of reasons relate to biblical theology. We know that, in the first century, schools of philosophical teaching and Jewish rabbinical practice involved not simply a monologue on the part of a teacher, but a question-and-answer form of learning. Think of Plato’s Dialogues; the clue is in the name! Into that social context, we see Jesus’ actual practice as recorded in the gospels. Some years ago, Jeremy Thomson wrote a provocative Grove Pastoral booklet Preaching as Dialogue: is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? He highlights what Jesus’ preaching looked like as a social phenomenon:

 Much of Jesus’ teaching was given ‘on the way’ and involved a high degree of interaction with the audience (Mark 8.27–10.52).  There were many occasions when it arose out of the question or an incident (Mark 2.18–28, 7.1–23, 9.33–37 and even 13.3ff), and it frequently included interaction with his hearers (Mark 8.14–21, 10.23–31, 35–45).  The culmination of Jesus preaching in a synoptic gospel took place in the temple, where he was constantly responding to aggressive questions (Mark 11.27–12.44) (p 5).

Thomson notes:

We may conclude the following about preaching or teaching as a social phenomenon in the New Testament:

  1. It was not confined to a formal religious setting, but often took place in homes, outdoors and on the road.
  2. As much as a planned for regular activity, preaching arose spontaneously as Jesus and the  early Christians involved themselves with the lives of others. It entailed recognising and challenging assumptions, and dealing with questions raised by others.
  3. Preaching was not confined to any particular size of group, but was addressed to individuals, families and small groups as much as to large gatherings.
  4. Only sometimes did preaching take the format of a monologue. There were speeches, but these were frequently given in the context of discussion, and often included interaction with the audience.  Argument and discussion were important as a means of persuasive preaching.

This suggests that NT ‘preaching’ referred to a lot more than the particular event in a formal service on a Sunday—but the event we call the sermon cannot be immune from these observations. I think Jesus would be amazed at the idea that we deliver our main teaching or exposition of what God has done through this one event, delivered in this one way.

Thomson’s observations are supported by two other things we find in the text of Scripture. First, it is worth noting that what is presented as monologue by the gospel writers often is no such thing, and fairly clearly so. For example, Matthew constructs what we now call ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ in Matt 5–7, which looks like a monologue—but even a brief comparison with the other gospels shows that this is Matthew’s creation, rather than a transcription of a long monologue by Jesus. It is part of his agenda to portray Jesus as a teacher after the pattern of Moses by grouping his teaching into five blocks through his gospel (each ending with a phrase ‘When he had finished saying these things…’ or something similar, Matt 7.28, 11.1, 13.53, 19.1, 26.1). The variations in his sayings in other gospels (compare Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer) also suggests Jesus taught similar things on more than one occasion. (If not, then his ministry would have been very short!).

Secondly, we can see this kind of artificial construction going on at different moments. In Acts 2, Luke has the crowd of onlookers at Pentecost deliver a monologue speech as if they were a Greek chorus. But we can easily see that this is Luke’s way of capturing the content of their dialogue and discussion. Added to that, we have numerous examples in Scripture of apparently authoritative teaching being given in the context of actual conversations. So, the on road to Emmaus in Luke 24, we find the risen Jesus teaching the disciples ‘what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ in the context of an actual conversation. The vicar of a church I attended many years ago when working in business insisted on the authority of (monologue) preaching on the basis that ‘When God asks you to jump, the only question you ask is ‘How high?’!’. Unfortunately, many of the biblical heroes didn’t follow this! Gideon isn’t sure God really is asking him, so he sets up several tests just to make sure. Elijah finds jumping exhausting, and goes and hides in a cave. And Moses tells God that he isn’t very good at jumping, that he tried it before and got into trouble, and that anyway his brother Aaron was much better at jumping than him, and why didn’t God ask him?

If God needed dialogue to answer questions and overcome objections, surely we do too!

So preaching in a monologue format does not have very much support from Scripture. But neither does it have much support from our own experience.

When we reflect on our own experience of listening to sermons, I suspect we would be hard-pressed to identify the things we had learned from most of the sermons we have heard. Of course, we don’t remember every meal we have eaten, and yet they have fed and sustained our bodies. But the analogy is not perfect; I would hope that, when I preach, people are not just sustained in the short term, but they learn something that will help them change and grow and become more faithful disciples.

One response to this might be to draw on the notion of ‘learning styles’—that different people learn in different ways, and only some will learn by listening to a monologue, whilst others will find that ineffective as a way of learning. Unfortunately, the idea of learning styles has been seriously undermined, and it is not now the basis for thinking about teaching and learning in many contexts. But that doesn’t mean ignoring the realities of engagement and learning. I spent yesterday teaching for a day on the Book of Revelation—and I would not have dreamt of spending the whole day giving a monologue. I know that people will only sustain their concentration if there is a change of subject, format and delivery every few minutes, and I know that there needs to be a mixture of information, humour, challenge and reassurance if learning is going to be effective. My listeners are much more likely to remember things and change the way they think if they have discovered something for themselves, rather than if I give them some information—there is a powerful emotional ‘aha!’ experience when they spot it in their own reading. Why should sermons be any different? The idea that ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’ are different, separate, theological categories finds no support whatever from Scripture, since the language of ‘preaching’ (kerusso) and ‘teaching’ (didasko) are often used together and interchangeably.

I notice this on Sundays most clearly when leading and speaking at all-age services. Teaching in that context has to be dynamic, interactive and kinaesthetic—there is lots going on, with different people taking part. My consistent experience has been that it was usually older men who come and tell me how much they have enjoyed it—because this was a group who found it particularly difficult to learn from sitting still in the pew listening to a monologue, and prefer to be active and engaged in their learning. It might be worth reflecting on the fact that most of our preaching demands that our listeners sit still and learn passively—and most of our churches are missing that group, men and in particular working men, who least like sitting and learning passively!

In another Grove booklet, Transforming Preaching: Communicating God’s Word in a Postmodern World, Jonny Baker points out that we no longer live in a culture which will accept authoritative pronouncements from on high. If we are going to communicate effectively beyond the boundaries of traditional church, we need to rethink our preaching. I think this is worth exploring further, since our culture is complex, and the recent election appears to suggest that we do actually like people who are authoritative and ‘get things done’ without too much discussion and not much accountability.

But there is another factor in culture that is even more important—entertainment. This was confirmed to me a couple of weeks ago, when for the first time for years I heard a sermon that was read from a script. However good the content, the delivery was really dull! We are so immersed in an entertainment culture that our boredom threshold is much higher than it has been in the past, and we simply cannot get away with dull delivery, however worthy the content. The one way to guarantee dullness is to preach a monologue, as offering an entertaining monologue is so hard.

And if traditional preaching is so effective—how come we are doing a better job of making mature disciples within our current congregations? Research on ‘ordinary theology‘, that is, what members of the average congregation actually believe, shows that faith in the pews is a very long way from anything resembling Christian orthodoxy. Many churchgoers don’t believe that Jesus really was the second person of the Trinity, and they don’t believe that his death really had atoning effectiveness.

The interview work presented here indicates that atonement theology in particular is often a stumbling block for many. Indeed, the majority (those with soteriological difficulties, the exemplarists plus some of the traditionalists) have bypassed the traditional theology of the cross, judging it irrelevant to their religious needs. Their dominant theological position may be said to be ‘Christianity without atonement.’ (Taking Ordinary Theology Seriously, p 26)

It seems to m that we urgently need to discover a better, more effective way, to preach and teach.

So the reasons for abandoning the monologue form of preaching appear to be compelling. And yet most of us still do it! Why? Could there be equally compelling reasons for retaining the monologue format and undermining the possibility of dialogue format? That will be the subject of my next post on this question—but you might like to propose your own in the comments.

(This discussion first took place in 2016, and derives from my teaching on preaching over ten years up to 2013.)

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41 thoughts on “Can preaching remain a monologue?”

    • Yes, that is clearly a possibility! But that raises three questions:

      a. can all be trained to preach well?

      b. does even good monologue preaching answer all the questions?

      c. how do we make sense of the data of the NT?

  1. Quote […’So preaching in a monologue format does not have very much support from Scripture. But neither does it have much support from our own experience…’]

    Sorry Ian – uncharacteristically, I dont think you make your point here – and your claim does not align with my experience nor that of the long protestant evangelical tradition I come from where sustained Bible based monologues were essential to renewal, conversion and growth.

    In my own experience, I can still recall many occasions where I was fed, met, encountered, transformed through the preaching of the word – and interestingly I have tried and cannot think of one similar occasion of revelation in a shared interactive Bible study.

    The usual terms for preach kerrusso & katangello suggests public decreeing, declaration, proclamation, heralding, announcing which is surely a monologue & not a dialogue – although its reasonable to assume dialogue occurred afterwards as response & engagement. This is the pattern I see in Paul : Acts19v8 ‘ preaching persuasively’ -v8 and then v9 having ‘daily discussions’. Surely in Acts20v9 suggests a monologue, so long, people fell asleep.

    There is of course place for interactive engagement, comment, critique, dialogue etc and this goes hand in hand with Preaching, but must never supplant it.

    • Thanks Simon! Yes, I too have been nurtured by good, transformative preaching. But I am not convinced it is all that common in churches up and down the land.

      I think Acts 19.8 rather supports my point, and not yours!

      ‘And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. ‘

      Reasoning and persuading are not monologue activities—and the Greek term here is dialegomai!

      The same is true in Acts 20. It seems implausible that Paul continued a long monologue—and again the Greek makes it clear that he didn’t. Once again (Acts 20.7) he ‘discussed with them’ dialegomai. Our English translations often mislead us here.

  2. I don’t think you prove your point anywhere near strongly enough here. For example, your “Thompson’s observations are supported” paragraph manages to contradict itself. If Jesus repeated his teaching (obviously he did), then you can’t legitimately conclude that the Sermon on the Mount was Matthew’s creation just because much of the same material occurs broken up elsewhere.

    As noted by others, you also ignore the Greek verbs used for preaching in Acts and the Pastorals.

    I think a major point here is also that I’ve never seen dialogue-type preaching done consistently well and in a way that builds disciples anywhere near as effectively as monologue-type preaching. Could you give me some examples of churches that do it this way effectively?

    • Thanks John–but what are you thinking of in the Pastorals? Paul urges Timothy not to neglect the ‘reading of Scripture, exhortation and teaching’. There is nothing inherently monological about that—unless we import our own assumptions into it.

  3. I don’t think that the ministry of Jesus, out and about, putting it (himself) about, is the correct model for a gathering of believers for worship. Maybe this article is a call for a church without wall, ie a return to Primitive Methodist, meeting outside.

    A description of monologue, discredits, good preaching, and separates preaching from true worship. I’d go along with John Piper – preaching is an Act of worship, drawing people in.

    Poor preaching is not an argument for no preaching, but for good preaching.

    Tim Keller, has advocated for “revivalist” preaching, where people are changed on the spot.

    At the same time, he engages hearers, with “I know what you are thinking” and supplies an answer. In addition, there was a period when he’d invite those who had questions arising from the sermon, to a session at the end of the service, where he’s answer the questions.

    As far as congregants not knowing the Trinity, atonement, that is a telling indictment on the selection, beliefs, training, and leadership in the church.

  4. Some people say that even if preaching is good it is still not worth doing because it actually doesn’t do any good. Researchers in the field of communication say that mono-directional communication [preaching] can reinforce attitudes and beliefs already held but rarely effects real change in people’s opinions. It’s basic psychology. So if you want to change or convert anybody then you have to use one to one dialogue or small group techniques. 
If that is true then Jesus and the Apostles showed a dreadful lack of awareness of this proposition when they choose the word preaching [proclamation] to convey their understanding of evangelism. A preacher, kerux in Greek, is a herald and a herald announces a message he has been given. But if the experts are correct then that doesn’t change anybody. I think their research is correct but the fault lies in the theology! 

    When you argue like this with the gospel you are treating it like a product to be sold. The product is the gospel, the consumers are the congregation and the salesman is the preacher whose job it is to overcome consumer resistance and persuade people to buy. The preacher cannot overcome consumer resistance; it is too big an obstacle for him to overcome. The preacher’s job is to expose the resistance and to faithfully proclaim what the truth is.

    • Thanks Paul. I agree there are potential dangers in a model which assumes the gospel is a product. But we are still real human beings, and the human dynamics of learning and understanding carry over.

      If this monologue preaching was so good, how come so many Christians still have so many questions?

  5. I remain unconvinced, largely for reasons already stated by others. Two observations on details in your argument:
    1. Learning styles as a concept is anything but established truth, and there is increasing evidence that the whole set of theories have been seriously overstated:
    2. In suggesting that people will forget what they heard if preaching is a monologue, you use the analogy of eating. I would suggest that a better comparison should be made with other forms of teaching and learning: we can all remember the occasional brilliant lesson, the moment when we learned x. However, most learning — whether at home in childhood, at school, in music lessons, or almost anywhere else — takes place not by holding on to individual moments of insight but by gradual formation and drip-feeding. Monologue or not, a preacher cannot make every sermon memorable, and the hearer cannot remember every sermon. But if you hear the full counsel of God faithfully preached week-in, week-out, year after year, and you meditate on and practise what has been preached to you, you will be formed and shaped by the Word faithfully delivered and applied. To use another, less appropriate analogy, it’s more like slowly boiling a frog than frying a steak.

    • Thanks Tapani. As I comment, I agree with you in relation to learning styles—but none of that undermines the issues around how people actually learn and understand!

      But as I have responded above, the NT examples of ‘preaching’ are peppered with words like ‘discussed’, ‘debated’, ‘reasoned with’. These are not monological words!

  6. I can’t think of any other “learning environment”, where we seek to move the learner to action, as a result of the communicators words, where a monologue is an appropriate way to transmit the message.
    A passive listening congregation, may also simply be a passive congregation.
    We are all learning from scripture, current learning methods are a million miles away from monologues. If we want to make church relevant to those who we’d love to see through our doors, then this is a change we could make immediately.
    A question how many monologue preachers are true teachers…? That may be a different issue.

  7. Have to agree with David Ould – that the vast majority of preachers are dull. Monologue or dialogue if you are dull it is going to be dull. A lot of this comes from many clergy who stopped learning as soon as they were ‘collared”. At the same time within evangelicalism we have a theology of leadership that holds preaching as its cornerstone. Which is fine but what comes with that is the ‘assumption of being right’ which leads us down a path of not questioning or learning new things.

    Reflecting on sermons and critiquing content and approach is not something that is largely done and therefore we don’t improve or learn from our mistakes, if of course you are willing to accept you made one. I once did a reflection for a staff team i was part of looking around the theology of darkness and the presence of God; my training incumbents response? “That can’t be right, Ive not read that”

  8. Good stuff, Ian. Really thought-provoking. Just a few observations from my own experience:

    1. Giving time for questions is so important! It may not be a dialogue sermon, but the opportunity for questioning and feedback is important. Often listeners who have questions don’t feel they can ask them. In extreme cases, they may even give up because they don’t feel they are being listened to.

    2. However anything other than ‘broadcast’ communication is difficult in larger gatherings (more than, what, 30, 50?). So in anything other than quite small churches dialogue or question and answer in preaching is just impractical due to the numbers.

    3. So we can create other contexts where this happens. Our home groups follow up the Sunday teaching. We regularly have q&a at our evening service, where numbers are smaller. Sometimes we might just do an AMA (Ask Me Anything) at an evening service instead of a talk. It gives permission to doubt, question and wonder and helps create an environment in which we are learners together, not passive recipients of pre-prepared monologues.

    • I agree. Further reasons why it is good to allow listeners to ask questions is that the speaker himself thereby (1) finds out how much what he intended to communicate actually got through/was misheard, and (2) learns a lot more about his own congregation and what they really think (their ‘ordinary theology’). Results from both (1) and (2) should inform future style and content.

      In my experience, interactive small-group teaching is much more effective than the sermon, provided it is led by someone who knows the Bible well.

      While ‘kerusso’ and ‘kataggello’ suggest public decreeing, declaration, proclamation, heralding, announcing (as Simon said), the church is not entirely a public setting (in principle at least we are brothers, not strangers). The sort of proclamation one sees exemplified in the gospels does take place in public settings, e.g. before a large gathered crowd. There was a prophetic message to proclaim – as there is still is, though one rarely hears the prophetic note (Rev 19:10). I may be wrong, but when Jesus taught his disciples alone, I don’t recall him ‘proclaiming’.

    • Taking questions method – you can have hymns/prayers/the-Peace between a/b/c/d/e, it doesn’t have to be an uninterrupted sequence:
      a) explain the sequence
      b) give out post-it notes for people to write their questions on
      c) preach sermon
      d) collate the post-it questions into groups of essentially-the-same or closely-related questions
      e) answer the questions group-by-group

      With any luck you can respond to 20 or 30 questions with just 6 or 7 answers, so helping 20 or 30 people feel engaged-with in a reasonable timescale.

      [Did I learn this from LICC or at the Festival of Theology?]

  9. Ian,

    As ever I found this blog stimulating and thoughtful.

    Just two observations.

    1. Churches which major on expository sermons tend also to be those where other types of engagement with the Bible flourish in study groups. one to ones, youth education and the like. A full study day on Revelation or some other book would typically be part direct input, part discussion and part informal chats over coffee and meals.
    2. The sermon is fundamentally a sacramental act. Just as when an imperfect human breaks the bread and offers the wine at the Lord’s table, so when an imperfect human breaks the bread of the Word, the living Christ himself is present.

    Thanks again for this blog.

    • Thanks Bob–great to hear from you! I hope you are well.

      Could you offer any theological support for the idea of preaching as a ‘sacramental act’? My worry is that, when people believe that, real communication becomes something rarified and removed, just as formal liturgical Communion is a long way from a memorial meal, which it was originally intended to be.

      • Thanks, Paul. If either the communion or sermon is rarified and ritualised than that is a valid point. But I’m thinking of those communions, where the presence of the Risen Lord by the Spirit is palpable and of those sermons where the hush of true listening is a reality.

        Theologically we could cite “Faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17) and the numerous references to sowing the seed of the word from Isaiah 55 onwards. See Calvin’s discussion in “Institutes” (4:1. 5)

        Further to my point in my previous comment. All the varied kinds of biblical communication are weakened, in my view. if the central act of preaching is diminished.

  10. I can honestly see both sides of the discussion. I have to admit that I can only remember a handful of 47 years of sermon listening. Mostly from New Wine (and interesting including both Ian and Simon P in recent years.) One has to trust that some truth goes in subjectively through the Holy Spirit, and changes me or regurgitates at the right moment. And that the Holy Spirit will use the words however presented.

    But I do have problems with the, “It’s always worked” approach. Surely Jesus’ and Peter’s and Wesley’s audiences were far better trained as listeners than people today? So how much do we concede to TV and social media attention spans to preach the Gospel? Maybe we need a “both-and” approach using different styles, even to the same congregation. A different delivery from last week, be it interactive or lecture, may capture the listener’s attention. (And perhaps here’s a very good argument for a number of different preachers in a church.)

  11. Are “half-decent” sermons actually monologues in any strict sense?

    Isn’t the best (visiting speakers notwithstanding ) congregational context one where the preacher is pastor/teacher? Dialogue is not only in the service.

    What part does the preacher’s and the congregation’s openness to God speaking and ministering play in making this not merely a lecture but an encounter?

  12. What is very clear is that this is massively a debate worth having.

    Casting my vote extremely strongly for extended expository preaching, and also extremely strongly for storytelling and parables. And indeed for both interactive and non-interactive models. The better prepared the better.

  13. I’m always intrigued as to how comedians are able to speak for 90 minutes or more without any interruption and people will not only listen avidly, but pay through the nose for the privilege. I’m not sure the monologue is the problem.

  14. Grateful for considered contributions above from all perspectives

    I believe Preaching at its best goes beyond a good ‘learning environment’ or mere monologue – it is a four-way dynamic conversation between the preacher, the listener, the text and the Spirit.

    I am sometimes amused when a grateful listener thanks me having heard me say something I know I didn’t preach. It has happened too often to be coincidence. As they listen in the kerygmatic event, the Spirit speaks to them, off of what I say, through the text read, or directly by the Spirit to their soul. They hear and indeed feel something beyond my propositions and illustrations. True preaching is didactic but also dynamic and charismatic. An event, an encounter, a grace not just an education. I have always believed preaching can be a sort of sacrament, a means of grace. And it is prayer in preparation and for delivery and by the listener and community that aids this dynamic encounter. Was it John Stott who would mount the pulpit praying “I believe in the Holy Spirit” – I think when all is prepped and said, its the Spirit we need more of.

  15. Good wooden spoon technique, got us stirred up and thinking lol

    Speaking as a non-theologian of course, I did a word study on teaching and preaching and came to the conclusion that they wouldn’t be mentioned together if they weren’t different things as the words are used in practical contexts where their use would be tautologous, unlike more poetic or expository contexts where they could have been the “rhyming” double use. I also came to the conclusion that they served different purposes even if some of the content will overlap. It ‘felt’ (subjective observation coming up) that the Roman tradition of preaching say is more akin to a television newsreader saying “In a statement from the palace The Queen announced today that …” except that then I suppose it was more likely to be a town crier proclaiming the royal birth or an advance messenger from the Roman armies saying they’d crushed yet more dirty foreigners aren’t we clever, (stop worrying about your sons on endless foreign missions mothers, the honour of The Empire is worth it).”

    The way the word teaching is used on the other hand makes me think more of say, TED talks, podcasts or books and that’s for for starters only. So as ever following the model of Jesus also including Q and A, practical example setting (mimetism is the most elementary and effective learning tool and starts at the youngest age – (eg taking the 12 everywhere with him, sending out the 72) plus big big doses of storytelling – the humerus (logs in eyes, swallowing camels etc – with the follow up question … was Jesus a Scouser?) Fantastical (must be the most expensive seed ever to have a yield like that), socially shocking (the father running), the logical (I would spring clean too if I’d lost something that valuable) the illogical (I have bought me a wife I have married a cow …) the priority economics (saving up for pearls or treasure fields) the nonsense economics (just how many times did the landowner go back, in person, in the heat of the day to the marketplace for more hands, and then he gave the whole jolly lot a living days wage each) and so on and so on.

    A lot of the content of the gospels and Acts is also another gripping form of storytelling, the eyewitness testimony that is still just as effective now (for example think of a living room or staffroom full of women and you announce you’re pregnant – every woman in the room needs to share her experience, or saying to men you’re choosing your first car) that’s how we learn most effectively by repeated social transactions like these.

    I think that “church” in whatever form it takes for us needs to encompass all the teaching methods possible, the monologue talk being just one of them. I happen to think that storytelling is terribly undervalued, being relegated mainly to teaching children these days yet various forms of of it are a national pastime and we have brilliant skills in that area from the murder mystery to the soap … why is Christian story telling so limited to the insipidly sentimental or the Peplum? A story that can be either interesting or well told or preferably both, lodges in the mind for life (especially if backed up by months of careful faithful general teaching in that area) I was involved in SU beach missions for many years and the rule of thumb for the beach talk was about 4 minutes before you start to lose them. I still vividly remember, over 30 years ago when Eric Delve was a guest speaker he kept well over a hundred kids plus parents plus passers by, riveted for over 15 minutes as he told about Peter getting out of the boat – (he was the one who dared give it a try so don’t knock him, in fact why don’t you give following Jesus a try…) and I also remember even more years ago when the late David Watson and the newly formed Riding Lights Theatre Company together transformed Bible story telling combined with teaching. All backed up by the testimony of what they were doing in their parish plus the weekend hosting of other churches by the families to encourage them by caring and sharing, plus home based Bible studies prayer etc

    Don’t get me started on the so called christian teaching aids that are the average “Bible notes” based on the half baked interpretation of the inspirational verse of the day or the evangelically “sound” but dry as dust theological sea biscuits others offer up as sustenance. I nearly cried for joy when I first found the wonderful Jeff Lucas on Life for example.

    And then there’s the hymns. Many many times a person telling how they survived a trauma will quote either a hymn or a sunday school teacher. A bit of emotional fluff is not a problem, candy floss has its place in life as do cushions, but what are we getting people memorising week in week out, making a huge emotional investment in singing … is it a balanced part of the church’s teaching and worship programme or does it lead to spiritual indigestion, constipation, malnutrition – rickets and the scurvy from lack of vitamins?

    Rant over. Of course I’m not saying all sermons bad or inadequate, dry or unbalanced. I’m too out of touch to be able to give them all a fair hearing. I think the name sermon should be scrapped for being misleading as it’s come to mean the full sum of the church’s teaching schedule despite the fact that in isolation, inadequately backed up in all the other Biblical means of teaching, it’s about as useful as a two legged stool .

        • Yeah. Being more of a teacher than a preacher I would always preface with the words ‘I really mean it when I say, interrupt me for clarification or engagement any time.’ The advantage of that method (one among many) was that people knew that the main guy was committed to advancing the discussion, and that the discussion really could be advanced, and in ways which were relevant to the people’s own questions.

  16. >The idea that ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’ are different, separate, theological categories finds no support whatever from Scripture, since the language of ‘preaching’ (kerusso) and ‘teaching’ (didasko) are often used together and interchangeably.<

    I would like to see this developed, as the point is not obvious to me, either in relation to specific texts (it would be good to have a couple of examples) or in relation to what the words mean (semantically, 'teach' is of course not the same as 'proclaim').

    For purely cultural reasons, the idea of what is appropriate matter for a sermon is very restricted. It would be good if preachers did not feel obliged every week to give a 'spiritual message' and could see the sermon as also a fitting vehicle for imparting knowledge in a truly educational sense. As Richard Baxter observed in 1657, 'you account seven years little enough to learn your trade, and will not bestow one day in seven in diligent learning the matters of your salvation.' A person may have gone to church for fifty years and heard 2500 sermons, yet know almost nothing. We think nothing these days of studying a secular subject intensively for 3 years at university. Yet the idea of being equally focused in relation to discipleship and learning about God is completely foreign. Consequently, as you note, 'what members of the average congregation actually believe [and I would add, 'factually know'] shows that faith in the pews is a very long way from anything resembling Christian orthodoxy' [and what it would be useful for them to know].

    So as not to speak in purely abstract terms, I suspect most preachers would consider a talk on archaeological support for the historicity of the Book of Acts, for example, not to be appropriate matter for a sermon. The concept of 'the sermon' is a concept of genre – a certain idea of what qualifies as spiritually edifying – and what it excludes is enormous.

    • Thanks Steven. This comment is interesting:

      ‘I suspect most preachers would consider a talk on archaeological support for the historicity of the Book of Acts, for example, not to be appropriate matter for a sermon. The concept of ‘the sermon’ is a concept of genre.’

      So the question is, where did it come from? Some new, strange ‘holy’ way of speaking? That seems quite alien to the NT, where all sorts of existing forms of speech are made use of in the explanation and proclamation of the gospel.

  17. I find your posts so stimulating, and this one is totally where my thinking is at…

    I have been hugely shaped by the monologue preaching experience and continue to be… but my experience as a vicar of 20+ years is that dialogue/debate is a far more powerful instrument for change and discipleship than the monologue.

    A few years ago we began experimenting with a different evening service where we started with a simple scripture reading, then sang and praised for half an hour and then allowed an open ‘mic’ dialogue of sharing encouragements/experiences and ‘scriptures revealed’ during the praise to unfold. As the minister I pass the mic to someone who shares and then reflect back as scripturally as I can (in a positive way) what they are sharing about, the mic is then passed to others who share etc. This often builds to a theme throughout the service and proves a hugely powerful tool for encouragement and growth. We sing some more and then I will (or someone with a good knowledge of scripture) pick up the themes and speak/a sermon for a few minutes on the theme that has emerged and take discussion at the end of their talk.

    I think this is so worth exploring more, theologically. I look forward to your next post

    We based this theologically on 1Cor 12 – everyone has something to share… for the building up of the congregation… It has proved very helpful and beneficial… I think this style of ‘preaching’ is biblically accurate and more in line with the way Jesus taught and answered questions.

  18. Thought provoking as always, thank you.

    I’m still not persuaded to stop monologuing – Moses in Deuteronomy, the author of Hebrews’ “short exhortation” , the examples of church history, the current popularity of TED talks – the monologue has enduring power and I’ve been repeatedly blessed by the monologues of others.

    But you’ve reminded me that the example of Jesus means that if I aspire to proclaim God’s word then I can’t restrict myself to popping up in a pulpit. I need to share my life, open my home and talk about these things as I walk along the road and sit down at my table. It’s why I love teaching in residential settings like church weekends away and Oak Hall Expeditions – conversations over Weetabix are deeply valuable. It’s why I should be grateful that God has put me in a church and a village small enough that I can build significant friendships with a good percentage of people. It’s why I need to be ready to answer questions from my kids about dinosaurs and Genesis while we’re cleaning our teeth. I must prepare carefully for the pulpit, but many of my best teaching opportunities will be out of the pulpit.

  19. Hi Paul.

    A conversation always worth having.

    Isn’t the problem here that you are looking for one medium of communication to do everything? For example I’m not sure if we can draw too many conclusions from Jesus’ interactions with the disciples – he was, after all, travelling with them pretty much every day. However, when he spoke to the ‘crowds’ it does look much more like what we call sermons.

    Surely the take home from this is that Word ministry needs to take on lots of different forms. In order to learn things and apply them we need lots of discussion (1-2-1 and small group) as well as up front preaching. To me the thing about monological preaching is that : 1. It can educate through reasoned argument (in a way that discussion tends to fragment). 2. It is an appeal to the heart through the will (in a way that discussion almost always removes.)

    Therefore I’d argue that preaching needs to be complemented, not replaced.

  20. Preaching is about helping people make connections between the Gospel and their everyday lives. It is not about teaching. A sermon should not be much longer than 8 minutes and should raise as many questions as it gives answers. However, AFTER the service there should be an opportunity for discussion, questions and answers, and putting the preacher on the spot. Learning will happen in that context.

    • Interesting comments…but I have no idea why you would say any of these things other than from personal preference.

      They don’t appear to bear any relation to the New Testament, to theological thinking about preaching, or to the history of its practice.

      • Not from personal preference. From well over 30 years experience of preaching In many different situations and pastoral engagement following. That bears every relation to the NT, the theology of preaching and the history of its practice.
        And note I’m agreeing that preaching can’t be a monologue. It has to be a dialogue. But there are different ways of conducting that dialogue.

          • You are seriously suggesting that the NT passes any judgement on the quality of a sermon by its length? But even if sermons in NT times were long it was quite a different culture and arrangement to that of now. What happened then would not necessarily be appropriate to what happens now.

  21. I don’t get anything out of sermons. My learning style is self-directed, and EW Bullinger is my official teacher. If I were illiterate and did not own a Bible, like many Christians during the early church, I would pay more attention to a sermon.


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