Is dialogue preaching useful—or possible?

iStock_000032293688MediumMy previous post, questioning whether monologue preaching was really effective and sustainable, provoked and interesting range of responses and discussion—which both highlights the wide range of views, and demonstrates that dialogue on important issues can be rather helpful!

Some agreed enthusiastically: monologues are used by ministers as an exercise in power and control.

Monologue sermons can actually capture people in unhealthy frameworks as the minister is able to steer the conversation and direction over time, over months or years. People can become like a frog in warm water not realising that they are being cooked. (David Morgan)

For others, the educational issue is key:

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. (Andrew Little)

It is worth reiterating here: churches should be learning environments. All too often we think ‘church’ is about things we do, or things we are, when the root of the word ‘disciple’ is ‘learner’, so ‘church’ should be about things we learn, and a process of growth and development.

On the other side, many came out in staunch defence of the tradition of monologue preaching.

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…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. (Simon Ponsonby)

And the question about use of power has a complementary aspect in the question of authority and authorisation.

The Church of England ordinal says that those ordained have authority to ‘preach the word of God’. If we believe that word to be definitive, and the authority to preach it is not lightly granted, then isn’t there a risk in more ‘interactive’ forms of preaching that heresy becomes more likely? (Jeremy Moodey)

Several commentators pushed back quite hard on the traditional line that the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, does indeed portray preaching as monologue in format. I think this is implausible, primarily because of the evidence I quoted from Jeremy Thomson. In a previous discussion, regular contributor David Shepherd drew attention to Carl Mosser’s study: Torah Instruction, Discussion, and Prophecy in First-Century Synagogues. David cites a key observation from Mosser:

In addition to resting and gathering together, three distinct elements of the Sabbath service are attested in this passage [from Philo]: reading of Scripture, explanation of the text, and discussion. The focus of explanation is on anything in the reading that is unclear or obscure. This is followed by a lengthy period of discussion focused on the customs of the Jewish people (“national philosophy”)… It could refer to a single discourse, but the focus on the entire community gives the impression that this discussion is conducted among the members of the congregation. Others have made the same observation: “The Jews unfold the obscure passages or phrases ofwhat has been read through various discussions …. The passage may refer to a type of question and answer session held in the synagogues.” Elsewhere Philo includes additional details in his own descriptions of non-sectarian Sabbath meetings that support this interpretation.

The social reality is that the life of the first-century synagogue, and by extension the life of the early Christian communities, were much more interactive and communal in their teaching, and much less directive and authoritarian than either Christian history has practiced or that we would like.

And this is indeed confirmed when we look at the language used in the New Testament, particularly the frequent use of dialegomai (to debate, to discuss) all the way through Acts to describe Paul’s preaching ministry.

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned [dialegomai] with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17.2).

Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing [dialegomai] persuasively about the kingdom of God (Acts 19.8).

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke [dialegomai] to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight (Acts 20.7)

Our English translations can easily disguise the nature of the dialogue which is clearly happening here. And, interestingly, Paul urging of Timothy to devote himself to the threefold ‘reading [of Scripture], exhortation and teaching’ (1 Tim 4.13) matches the threefold dynamic that Mosser points out in Philo.

This gives us a problem: for reasons to do with both church and culture, we find it hard to imagine our teaching being so dialogical. My favourite example of this is the writing of John Stott, in I Believe in Preaching, where he addresses this question explicitly. Preaching must involve dialogue, he says—but it is an inner dialogue, where the preacher imagines and anticipates what his or her listeners might be thinking or wanting to say. The difficulty here is that this is not in fact a dialogue! And it does not avoid the problems of monologue, not least the fact that this supposed ‘dialogue’ continues to depend entirely on the one person preaching.

222So let’s all abandon the monologue, and start preaching only in a dialogue format! This is where the second kind of push back comes into play. There are a whole host of reasons why an actual dialogue is very hard to do well—starting with the basic layout of most of our buildings. Whereas our chairs or pews usually face the front, I have been struck by the layout of most early synoaguges where people sat in bench seats around the sides—facing each other. It is possible in some situations, and can work well; Greg Smith shares his experience from inner-urban ministry:

Dialogue and conversational preaching is great. We do it in our very working class cafe church with a number of babes in Christ present. The skills needed which we are trying to develop are different to pulpit preaching, and include both Biblical literacy, the gift of teaching, and the techniques of adult education and group work facilitation.

But it is worth noting that this is in a context of quite a small congregation, and it demands higher levels of skills from the ‘preacher’. There are other reasons, too, clustering around issues of leadership and management and practical issues of expectations.

The first issue around leadership and management is that you cannot cast a vision by having a discussion. When Paul had the vision in Acts 16 of the man of Macedonia calling him and his team across to Europe, he didn’t invite discussion—he told them what God had told him! This isn’t perhaps the usual context of preaching, and there is an exercise of authority that we might not want to model the whole time. But those in ministry are called to be shepherds, and part of that task is to direct the sheep, not least to the places where they will find food, water, security and refreshment. I cannot quite picture a shepherd having a dialogue with his sheep!

So there are good reasons why the preacher might have something useful, even unique, to contribute—and in most congregations, people want to hear that, not the most vocal member of the congregation in a dialogue. Mads Davies comments on Twitter of her experience of ‘dialogue’:

My issue was that the philosophy seemed to be “there are no wrong answers to interpreting Scripture” and I’m not sure I’m on board with that!

Besides, not everyone wants to be part of a discussion, or finds that helpful. Graham Gould comments:

One problem with interactive preaching or learning is that it puts people on the spot. I find this very difficult (for example when asked to discuss something the preacher has said in pairs or threes) because I am a person who likes to think things through carefully before I speak and do not quickly come to definitive conclusions about any question. Being asked to spend two minutes discussing ‘what this passage says to you about God’ with a partner, for me, means two minutes of excruciating fumbling for words, painful for myself and boring for the person I am assigned to. It also lead me into the sin of envy as I listen to the fluent streams of consciousness which pour from the mouths of everyone else. If I found myself in a church where interactive forms were the only preaching style I would certainly leave.

Alongside this distaste, many people have a more visceral reaction!

I wanted to bolt for the door the time I was visiting a church that got us to chat to our neighbours during the sermon. This was after there’d been enforced chatting at the start of the service.

It is true that monologue preaching is very demanding—but you should try the alternative! Bernadette Burbridge expresses it with great clarity:

Most of us are just not good enough to do monologue well – we just don’t really want to admit it. Preaching often contains a lot of teaching and we know people learn in very different ways. Monologue connects with fewer and fewer in a prevailing short form culture. It is both the easiest and hardest way to preach though it can be done brilliantly by a few. Most of us would do well to mix it up for the sake of the listener (who is nearly always also the watcher, and has other senses that come into play…) A multi sensory approach takes a lot more preparation and commitment in order to deliver consistent quality. Dialogue is for the brave and the very smart. Done well, it is inspiring and engaging.

The second set of reasons clusters around congregational expectations. For clergy and others in ministry, Sunday is the focus and climax of our week, so we understandably have high expectations. But many of our congregations have come for a breather; Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest. It is bad enough when a half-baked theology of ‘every member ministry’ has given everyone a job to do—but then the congregation have to produce the sermon as well?! The tired sheep have come into the fold in order to be given food and water, and although that might sound more passive than we would like, that is what tired sheep need. The sheep might also ask a question: we pay the shepherd and provide a house to allow the shepherd to get the food ready; if there is nothing to eat we want our money back!

We might immediately spot an issue here: the sharp divide between one shepherd and many sheep, something quite alien to every New Testament example, where leadership is always plural, and there might even be a plurality of paid leaders—Paul’s injunction that elders who preach and teach are worthy of ‘double honour’ (1 Tim 5.17) is quite likely to be a reference to financial provision (the word time refers to money in every occurrence in Acts). Perhaps there is something more fundamental we need to rethink—but it is certainly the case that where you have one, or very few, paid leaders, people expect the leaders to lead, and preaching is an important part of that!

There is quite a different dynamic in relation to occasional visitors. If some people, new to church, find is hard enough to shake hands and talk to their neighbour at the peace, how will they feel about participating in discussion about theology and the Bible? In general, discussion can easily exposes differences of views and different levels of understanding—and that can make many people feel very exposed.

A final point worth noting: despite the issues, criticisms of monologue are often overplayed. People will pay large sums of money to sit and listen to a monologue—not just of 20 minutes, but possibly of up to two hours! The monologues are, of course, offered by professional comedians, and the material is repeated from one venue to the next, so there is the chance to invest hugely in it. But the monologue format is not, in itself, fatal to the engagement. And the rise of educational YouTube material,including TED talks, vloggers, and educational channels demonstrates that certain kinds of monologue can indeed provide real learning for the viewer.

So the previous post demonstrated why, for reasons of biblical theology and pedagogy, monologue is no good. This post has explained why, for reasons of leadership and management and congregational expectation, dialogue is also not the way to go. Are there ways of combining the best of both worlds and avoiding the dangers of each? That will be the subject of my third and final post on this issue.

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16 thoughts on “Is dialogue preaching useful—or possible?”

  1. A few (somewhat random) things in response to both your articles:

    1. If memory serves, John Stott’s “I Believe in Preaching” was also released under the title “Between Two Worlds” (just to prevent anyone getting both by mistake….). It is also worth reading his book “The Preachers Portrait” which looks at the various roles of the preacher throughout the New Testament.

    2. I have often been encouraged (and inspired and challenged) by this quote from Jonathan Edwards: “The main benefit obtained by preaching is by an impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after-remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart at the time; and the memory profits, as it renews and increases that impression.” That is, in my attempt at a modern phrase, preaching is primarily about inspiration rather than information. The evangelical mantra of preaching on Sunday morning something that the congregation will remember on Monday morning is actually unhelpful.

    3. I have often wondered whether with preaching, as with prayer, discipleship and pastoral care, we run into difficulties where people expect things from an hour on Sunday which should really be being addressed across the whole of the week in a variety of settings.

    4. The danger of dialogical preaching, particularly in our post-modern world that, as you rightly point out, struggles with authority, is that we present Scripture as having no authority, where every interpretation has equal validity.

    5. Whilst there are definitely issues with our entertainment society, I think we also need to recognise that there is a spiritual hunger in society that is often untapped. As I understand it, hundreds of people actually paid to hear Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on Genesis, so I’m not convinced that ultra-short, dialogical preaching is necessarily the only way forward.

    Thanks for the throught-provoking articles – hope these comments are useful in the ongoing dialogue 😉

  2. Ian, thanks for this post. A couple of comments:

    1. If I’m reading the BDAG entry on dialegomai correctly, the word also conveys a sense of authoritative instruction. So it’s not just about dialogue for dialogue’s sake, as your use of dialegomai in this post could imply. There seems to be a sense that the dialogue is being guided by someone both authoritative and knowledgeable: in Acts, by Paul; in our churches, by the preacher(s) or even a chair. Granted, I think you do at least imply this throughout your post—but were a congregation to ignore this element, the sermon slot could end up being the sort of open-ended natter that your quotation from Mads Davies warns against.

    2. Another issue I see with congregational response is that each member seems to desire something different. Taking your sheep and food analogy, we could say that some sheep want a balance of food and water; others are just thirsty; others still are only hungry; some want more water than food; etc., etc. When I preach, I try, for the most part, to inspire: to remind me and my fellow believers that Christ is Lord, that God’s Spirit is at work, and all that jazz. But if someone wants an in-depth exegetical analysis of a passage, or if someone is wanting little more than ‘practical application’, they’re unlikely to get fed with what they want. Isn’t it the congregation’s responsibility—and I speak as a lay person who most Sundays sits with and as part of the congregation—isn’t it the congregation’s responsibility to listen to what God might be saying regardless of how much food or water is in the homiletical field?

    Not sure if all this makes sense!

  3. Neat. You’re adapting the blog format here to dialoguing not just delivering a monologue.

    Your audience is the erudite and informed who respond well to it.

    Inevitably, in order to create a dialogue you’ve had to polemicise the argument into an oversimplified manichean dichotomy – monologue or dialogue. But in our discussion we’ve branched into any number of side alleys that have been raised by the seemingly simple question. I suppose it’s all the obvious questions that need to be asked when anything is being explained to anyone –

    *What/who are we modelling it all on in the first place, (with or without WWJD bracelets)? Is the monochrome monolithic monomaniac monologue present in the bible, and if it is, does it function adequately in splendid isolation or is it one wonderful tool which functions most efficiently in close conjunction with a range of other tools? To what degree has our understanding of all this been ‘rammed into the world’s mould’? Are our traditions hampering or helping us here?

    *Who’s giving this monologue or dialogue anyway? Are they qualified on the level of understanding the content plus skilled in the area of delivery ? Is the Theological or Bible college content and teaching style an adequate preparation for this task? Were they prepared for the management, economist, accountancy, pastoral, emotional wellbeing, political etc roles required by the socially imposed monarchical presidency of our religious institutions and thus appropriate sole deliverers of the weekly “6 foot above contradiction” homily? There is obviously a vital role for “the expert” but does it have to be this person or can they be honest enough to say let’s read this book, follow this video and discussion question course ?

    *Who are the recipients, what do they actually need to hear in the short and the long term, what are their best learning styles? Is the monarchical monologist the best teacher for the for their needs ? In what setting do we learn what best, where should ‘church’ happen anyway ? How to adapt to different levels of understanding – lowest common denominator? And to different social needs – for 19 or 99 who benefit from talking to their neighbour what about the 1 who will be in anguish the whole time and the next time doubt if even attending is desirable?

    In short, I think your question is ingenuous and should provoke more questions than answer as it in itself is unanswerable, like the infamous string length dilemma.

  4. Tomorrow evening I’m helping deliver training to a group of emerging leaders in the church. They’ll hear several short talks, each followed by discussion around tables to help them ground what they have heard in the local context of their leadership. This works because this generation (20’s and 40’s) are used to learning in this way.

    In the church I attend, we are blessed to have a pastor who can preach a 30 minute sermon which holds people’s attention and contains memorable content – but having a teaching background he knows this is not enough and so the home groups re-visit the sermon with prepared questions on the Bible passage.

    Both these examples show that it doesn’t take a huge amount of thought and deliberation to teach more effectively in ways which do not merely rely on a monologue. The point was made in one of the comments that if preaching is bad, we need to train better preachers. To my mind, the priority should be to train pastors to be better all round teachers with delivering biblical content effectively in a monologue being only one aspect of that role. This sort of training for pastors seems to be lacking and yet if Jesus is our example there is no shortage of material in the gospels to show how it can be done. If anyone who comments here teaches in a theological college please do prove me wrong and tell me how you provide such training.

  5. To be blunt, if a preacher cant say something vaguely interesting and possibly important in 20 minutes, they shouldnt be in that job. I wouldnt attend a church where every sermon was at least 30 mins. Sorry I just cant stick it. I think it’s a shame the sermon has become the focal point of every service, and there’s no doubt the clergy just encourage that mindset.

    Most of the time Id rather read a book.

    Just being honest!


  6. Ian, to what degree are you in agreement with Frank Viola’s works from about a decade ago about these topics, particularly Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church? He sets forth a lot of the same history and argues that the modern sermon, modern worship service, etc. are foreign to the New Testament and envisions an open and spontaneous participation.

    I think certain elements of how we should properly exegete the text could go neglected with that approach, but I’m curious of your thoughts.

    • I think it is a mixed picture: it is clear that the early Christians gathered regularly; they sang; they ate meals together; as part of that they remembered Jesus and anticipated the eschatological meal; they read Scripture; certain elders taught the apostolic faith; there was discussion.

      I would like us to do all these things in a way which engaged with our culture.

  7. Repeating myself – the right place for dialogue is on the internet, where the strongest arguments from all sides can be set out, analysed, challenged, corrected, and minds and hearts can be changed as we are all ( I do mean all – the academy, the ordained and the pew fillers) forced to confront those arguments which challenge our most deeply held convictions – how traumatic that is!). Call me paranoid if you like, but I detect an unwillingness, in general, from the academy and the ordained to have that kind of dialogue. For example, the ball is in Ian’s court in our disagreement about the Atonement and the Ordination of women.

    Alongside such a dialogue there is definitely a valued place for monologue sermons to challenge, remind and rebuke us all.

    Phil Almond

  8. I’m not sure you’re right about Paul’s response to the vision of the man of Macedonia in Acts 16. Notice that after Paul had the vision, ‘we concluded’ that we should go to Macedonia (16:10). That implies a process of reflection and discernment by Paul and his companions—even if brief. For fuller discussion, see the excellent treatment in John B. F. Miller, Convinced That God Had Called Us: Dreams, Visions, and the Perception of God’s Will in Luke-Acts. BibInt 85. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Miller argues convincingly that God’s will is known by interaction between vision-dreams (his phrase) and discernment by believers, and that this is true throughout Luke-Acts (against Haenchen’s view that humans are mere ‘twitching puppets’ in God’s hands because of God’s sovereign purpose being carried out).

  9. Two brief comments on what is as ever a stimulating and interesting blog. Thanks Ian!

    Firstly I’d be interested in your comments on Acts 16 as exemplar – not being a Greek scholar I wondered whether Symbibazo and the use of “we” might embrace the idea that it was not Paul saying “Right let’s go” but in fact he and his companions “putting it together” – together? The word seems more collegial than authoritative?

    And a further question about dialogue format. I have noted how well I learn and engage with Podcasts in both my Christian and professional life. I find the best example – and one I would encourage readers of your blog to dip into – is the Bible Project Podcast:
    It’s a conversation – and as such very easy to listen to. The dialogue allows for exploration of unclear points, humour, interactivity, and different voices. The content is also good but in the context of this discussion it’s the way they interact that I would highlight as a teaching method.
    Obviously listening remains a passive experience in some ways, but it’s very much more engaging than some monologue podcasts one might mention.

    Of course, the popularity of podcasts should perhaps make us ask whether monologue is really dead in our culture…

    I wondered whether anyone had tried or was up for trying up more “conversational” preaching where dialogue was between two or more teachers?

  10. Really appreciated this post Ian as well as your previous one on monologue preaching. Just wondering if you’re still planning on writing that third and final installment? (Correct me if I’m wrong but I can’t seem to find it on your site)


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