A couple of weeks 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. 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.
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. At the root of the problem is the issue of learning styles; for most of us (and our congregations) sitting passively and listening is not an effective way to learn.
I noticed this most clearly when leading and speaking at all-age services. Teaching in that context had to be dynamic, interactive and kinaesthetic—there was lots going on, with different people taking part. My consistent experience was that it was usually older men who came and told me how much they had enjoyed it—because this was a group who found it particularly difficult to learn from sitting still in the pew listening to a monologue.
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.
And if traditional preaching is so effective—how come we are doing a better job of making mature disciples within our current congregations?
So the reasons for preaching in dialogue format are compelling. And yet most of us don’t do it. Why not? Could there be equally compelling reasons for retaining the monologue format? That is the subject of tomorrow’s post—but you might like to propose your own in the comments.
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