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).
We may conclude the following about preaching or teaching as a social phenomenon in the New Testament:
- It was not confined to a formal religious setting, but often took place in homes, outdoors and on the road.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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