My 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.
So 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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