Should preaching be a monologue?

42-15655080A 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).

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. 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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54 thoughts on “Should preaching be a monologue?”

  1. True dialogue (mutual two way communication) is very difficult, if not impossible, in a sermon setting. That’s my gut feeling anyway, I’m far less experienced than you. However true monologue (that is independent of interaction from those listening) is not ideal either. In my opinion it ends up being a bit like radio, where the actual presence of people becomes somewhat irrelevant, why not just record it in advance and play it out to people?

    My comment would be that (in the context of sermons) you want is a compromise of the two, without being drawn too far one way or the other. The best sermons involve two-way communication, both preacher and the preached-to have a responsibility to engage with the other for the mutual benefit of each.

    There seems to be a scale; that greater numbers head you towards the monologue, and more intimate settings head you towards the dialogue. I think good preachers come to recognize this from experience, and while the verbal content of a sermon might be the same for two different services, the visual and vocal way it gets communicated will change depending on the size/shape/demographic of the group being addressed.

    Great article.

    As an aside, my job role is (among other things) to run our family services and all-age events. One of the key concepts I’m trying to get across and that you’ve touched on here is that worship and learning are multi-sensory experiences and we see this in the biblical examples, especially with the tabernacle. Worship at the tent of meeting was as much as about what you could smell and taste and touch as it was about what you could see and hear. My observation is the same as yours, that when all age services are approached with this in mind, the most receptive to it are not the young (who somewhat accept it) but the old.

  2. I’m a bit torn over this one. Dialogue (in our society) would probably lead to a mish-mash of opinions and going off on tangents, which wouldn’t be the best use of a Sunday worship/preaching time. That could, might, profitably follow the Sunday sermon midweek.

    Do we not just need to be better at preaching and better at listening? I’m not sure that the main purpose of preaching (monologue) is to have so much of it remembered because it ought to be more than just the transmission of information. There’s far more profit in moving people to feel or think differently so that their attitudes and commitments and aspirations change.

    Being a preacher I don’t often get to hear other preachers so I have made a habit of reading sermons (I thoroughly recommend AJ Gossip – probably long out of print but wonderful. If you see The Scholar As Preacher series secondhand look for him). Gossip’s sermons always leave me FEELING moved and motivated yet I can’t remember every word.

    However, I take your point (as always) and do agree that we need to be better at communicating the Bible. I’m just not convinced that the monologue sermon has yet had its day. God could still use Paul whose sermons could send people to sleep and whose letters must have been read as a monologue. I’ve often joked that the preacher’s prayer is “Oh God, make me interesting!” And God can make that happen by working in the listener as much as the preacher.

  3. Last night I had the brief of covering the Old Testament in 75 minutes! I decided to keep information pumping to only half of that and in the other 40 minutes we did three OT Bible studies (Genesis 1:1-3; Isaiah 6:1-7; and Job 2:1-8) where this group, who had done little practical Bible study before, threw themselves into it and came up with some great observations on the texts. I then filled in some of the gaps.

    It did strike me we learned far more in three short spaces of time than if I had simply fed them the information.

    Now today your post comes onto my FB page. Is God trying to tell me something here? Could the Sunday congregation cover a series of passages over a month now and again by using this method as a variant on the traditional monologue style? Would people find it easier to invite others along to something less formal, but still as informative? If the congregation had the text to study before the service, then a fifteen minute sermon slot could be taken up with discussion on it. Its an idea!

  4. I’d suggest that there is more biblical basis for the monologue than you’ve allowed here. Yes, the Sermons on the Mount and the Plain look to have been brought together by the Gospel writers, but surely the point is that they are trying to give a flavour of the kind of thing Jesus did when he preached. Or consider Jesus sitting a boat to teach the crowds – I can’t see how that can be conducive to dialogue; surely it is set up precisely to allow a monologue.

    I’d also observe that whereas the ad hoc teaching dialogues often take place as Jesus is walking along, there are plenty of times when he sits down to teach – the characteristic action of a lecturer in the ancient schools of philosophy. The Church preserved this tradition with the bishop’s throne (cathedra) as the place from which he would teach, sitting down. The cathedra is the locus and symbol of the bishop’s teaching ministry.

    In practical terms, there’s going to be a difference between teaching a small group, where questions can be asked and answered, and dealing with a large congregation or crowd, when surely only a single voice sermon really works.

    But that doesn’t mean that a sermon is a monologue as such. Firstly because it is within the context of liturgy, where there will be a wide range of interactions and voices; the whole service is a dialogue involving the people and God. In a sense, at an Anglican Communion service, the sermon is part of a smaller dialogue; God speaks through his Word (the readings); the preacher responds to this (the sermon); the people respond by declaring the shared faith which has been explored (the creed).

    Nor does a sermon, even taken out of context, need to be a monologue, even though only one person speaks it. The preacher can (and should?) say “we think/believe.feel …”; there can be an invitation to explore the topic with “I wonder what we might say/think/do about …” type questions and brief pauses; there can be an internal dialogue: “You may now be wanting to say to me … ” or ” I can imagine you’re thinking …”.

    Add to that the possibility of heckling (if only people cared that much these days) or declarations of “preach it” and the like (oh, how I wish; but this England), and I wonder how many sermons are actually monologues.

  5. Great message. It’s easy to turn our traditions into ‘sacred cows’, which can often put us in a position where we don’t even think about challenging such concepts, as they are so familiar (which you effectively point out in this article).

    Jesus operated in spontaneity, embracing all of what makes us human (rather than robotic – i.e. sit in the same place each week, read these words rather than express your own, sing this 400 year-old song, now pass round the offering bag, etc. etc.).

    So no! Preaching should not be monologue! Thank IP! 🙂

    • I agree that we shouldn’t set up “sacred cows,” or become robotic, and we need to be open to variation and flexibility, but …

      When Jesus went to synagogues on the Sabbath and taught (Mark 1.21; Luke 4.16), wasn’t this same place each week, very likely using fairly standard liturgies, and certainly singing 400+ year-old songs (we call them the Book of Psalms)? This shouldn’t be all we do, but the corporate side of our faith journey is nourished by this. How are we to feel ourselves to be one body sharing our beliefs if we don’t share words and practices in this way?

      • Yes that is true…though I expect that his teaching was interactive rather than monologue…

        In fact (and here’s an interesting thought) I wonder if the security of the familiar forms of liturgy might create the confidence to debate and question in the teaching?

        • Why do you expect that his teaching was interactive? I’m struggling to think of any examples of it.

          Yes, there is much that arises out of circumstance, while Jesus is walking about. But that isn’t very much comparable to the sedentary (i.e. seated) teaching of a sermon (on the Mount or in a church nowadays). There are questions asked, and mostly short answers given either to individuals or the disciples, but I can’t really think of extended group teaching dialogues. The nearest we get would be Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel, but these are one-to-one interactions, quite unlike sermons. The discourses of John 6 and 8 are punctuated by the murmurings of listeners, to which Jesus responds, but that feels to me nearer to putting down hecklers than having a dialogue.

          Your interesting thought has something to it, I think, but probably works best in small congregations. I have held PCC meetings where the business was the “sermon” of a Communion service, which is a comparable idea. It certainly gave the whole thing a more prayerful context. Perhaps a blog on the spirituality of church meetings is due.

          • Why do I think he teaching was interactive? Because…

            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).

      • My previous question wasn’t very clear, I think. I meant “Why do you think his synagogue teaching was interactive?” That was the point of the previous comment: isn’t his synagogue teaching probably the thing most readily comparable to our modern sermons? What evidence is there that it was interactive, given that there is evidence for monologue teaching by Jesus when sitting down, as would be most likely in the synagogue? Isn’t this the Biblical model for what we do in community, rather than the peripatetic teaching of the “wandering rabbi”?

        My wider thought is that there seem to me to be two very different modes of teaching/preaching going on in the Biblical witness to Jesus – peripatetic and sedentary. The former is like the chat in the pub, the street mission, the small study group etc.; the latter is like the sermon. Both have their place.

        • Hi Bernard,

          It’s worth reading Carl Mosser’s insightful study: Torah Instruction, Discussion, and Prophecy in First-Century Synagogues

          In particular, Mosser scrutinises the impromptu request of the synagogue leaders at Pisidian Antioch for the missionary group to share a ‘word of exhortation’.

          Lawrence Wills begins his study of Hellenistic Jewish and Christian sermons by identifying Paul’s speech in Acts 1313-41 as a missionary sermon. He says
          that it is presented in the narrative “as a typical synagogue homily.” But how could Wills possibly know this? As we have seen, there is scant first- century evidence favoring the existence of synagogue homilies of the sort envisioned, much less enough to make judgments about what was typical or atypical. At no point does Wills produce evidence in support of this assertion. Yet numerous scholars confidently follow his lead and classify Paul’s discourse as a typical synagogue homily as if this was determined through comparative analysis with other synagogue homilies from the era. But even if there were known Second Temple synagogue sermons of the type these scholars envision, a close reading of Acts gives us good reason to believe that the message Luke depicts Paul delivering in Psidian Antioch was not any kind of sermon or homily, but prophecy.

          Paul stood to speak in response to an inquiry from the synagogue leaders about whether anyone in his group had a “word of exhortation” for the people (1315). Ifwe accept the consensus view, then we must understand this query as asking if any of the visitors would like to deliver the morning’s sermon impromptu. It would be odd and inhospitable, to say the least, to ask a total stranger to deliver a sermon without any advanced warning. On the face ofit this is an implausible interpretation. This understanding ofthe query is made only slightly m.ore believable if we imagine that Paul wore distinctive clothing that identified him as a Pharisee. But the query was not addressed to Paul in particular. The text is very clear-it was an invitation to anyone in the group who might have a word of exhortation. Paul just happens to be the one who responded. So, the narrative itselfshould lead us to question whether “word of exhortation” really is a fixed expression that refers to a synagogue homily.

          Luke specifies that the reading from the Law and Prophets had already finished when the synagogue leaders sent their message. In light of our find- ings thus far, this is best understood as indicating that the time of Scripture reading and any accompanying instruction had concluded. If formal syna- gogue instruction constitutes a sermon, then the sermon was over before the message was sent. The synagogue service had now entered the period of open discussion and the visitors were invited to participate. It is true that the phrase “word of exhortation” appears to refer to a specific type of speech, but the order ofservice rules out the formal homily. We should look for a type of speech appropriate to the spontaneous nature of the query that would be suitable for a time of open discussion. The key to identifying what Luke has in mind lies in attending to his use of “exhortation” elsewhere.

          Mosser goes on to demonstrate that the word of exhortation is actually prophecy. There are several reasons that most modern churches would balk at this pattern:

          1. In the first century, synagogue leadership and preaching were separate roles, At that time, any male over the age of 13 could be called upon to preach (which, of course, provides increased opportunity to discern calling to public ministry, since the ability to reason, encourage and warn persuasively undergirds evangelism, preaching and teaching gifts)

          2. Open discussion encourages questioning and reflection, but can result in open agreement, it open contradiction. Even if couched respectfully, many preachers would view any sustained debate on a particular point as ‘unhelpful’ and a direct attack on their credentials for ministry and leadership.

          So, to forestall this, clergy implement discussion half-heartedly. Interaction is mediated through prayer and comment forms and the thoroughly innovative encouragement for the congregation to ‘break into small groups of five with five minute discussion of the three topic on screen. Then appoint a spokesman to explain your general agreement with what I’ve preached’

          I know it’s a bit cynical, but I’d love for clergy that, despite lacking their years of formal training for ministry, I would still like to engage my own intellect and scriptural insight with theirs. Open discussion would allow for that.

          Instead, the incumbent of my parish told me of a different denomination which is far more accommodating of such radical change than the Anglican tradition. The result was another Anglican lost through the ‘back door’!

          • David,

            really interesting thoughts. I’ve always understood the message sent to Paul et al. to be because they were known to be on a missionary journey – i.e. they’ve come as peripatetic preachers. Which means that asking them to preach at the drop of a hat is a courtesy rather than an imposition. The sending of a message suggests to me this was not “let’s all have a discussion now,” but rather a discreet “let’s pretend this was part of the formal plan all along,” (so this wasn’t after the formal part of the service but part of it). But that may say more about my own experiences of liturgy than anything else.

            Does Mosser adduce any evidence that there might be a time for words of prophecy in a first century synagogue other than this? That feels to me like a rather Christian (indeed Pentecostal) idea.

            In any case, Paul’s words have a rather “sermon” feel. So if we allow Mosser is correct, might this not not point to the fact that the formal sermon can (should) be a prophetic act? I always like to start sermons with a invocation of the Holy Spirit for this very reason.

            I’m sorry that the incumbent in question wasn’t more positive about discussion. I think many Anglican clergy regard preaching as a time of “feeding the sheep,” (ie. a pastoral discipline) and that (overly) dissenting voices in a discussion can be harmful to the weaker brethren. That means that not every Sunday morning’s topic is suitable for dialogue. Sometimes the vicar wants to make a very clear point to the community.But if that is so then finding suitable times when there can be open discussion is important.

            (Doing my best to beat the Centurion’s servant!)

          • Bernard, there is good evidence that a good deal of first century Jewish practice ceased since it was practiced by (Jewish and Gentile) Christians, and for that reason was rejected in order to counter-define Judaism from the Christian movement.

            Women in synagogue leadership was one of these, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the exercise of prophecy was another.

          • Ian,

            I’d be interested in exploring how the need among Jews to maintain their distinctiveness from Christians may have led to synagogues to curtail the exercise of prophecy.

            Do you know of a book reviewing the exercise and impact of prophecy in the NT and during the first three centuries of church history?

        • Hi Bernard,

          You can click on the link and download Mosser’s study free of charge. His other sources include Philo of Alexandria, who wrote, in summarising an Egyptian official’s criticism of regular synagogue life:
          ‘And will you sit in your synagogues and assemble your regular company and read your holy books in security, explaining anything that is not clear, and passing your time in leisurely comfort by long discussion about your national philosophy? ( Somn. 2.127)

          Mosser continues: In addition to resting and gathering together, three distinct elements of the Sabbath service are attested in this passage: 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.

          This would explain how the synagogue liturgy initially accommodated the spread of the gospel by permitting Paul, Silas, Barnabus and those dispersed out of Jerusalem to capitalise upon the expected period of open synagogue discussion.

          Concerning the word of exhortation (logos parakleseos), Mosser also cites Acts 15:32 where Luke describes Judas and Silas as prophets, who, on return from Jerusalem, ‘encouraged (parekalesan) through many words’ the Christ-followers of Antioch.

          In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul instructs Timothy to “give attention to reading, to exhortation (paraklesei), to teaching”.

          There is no more explicit connection between prophecy and exhortation than the Aramaic nickname, Barnabus. The Aramaic for ‘son of prophecy’ is translated by Luke as ‘huos parakleseos’: son of encouragement.

          This challenges the narrow view of prophecy as the Pentecostal phenomenon of expressing revelation from God in direct speech.

          Instead, prophecy is the ‘word of exhortation’. It is ‘parakleseos’ and St. Paul takes pains to tell Corinth that due order should be observed in delivering it. ‘Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. (1 Cor. 14:32)

          You wondered: So if we allow Mosser is correct, might this not point to the fact that the formal sermon can (should) be a prophetic act?

          I would agree with this, but St. Paul broadened this prophetic act to include insights and exhortations from the wider congregation.

          While I acknowledge the need for pastoral discipline, current Anglican sermon format is characterised by priestly monologue. St. Paul had all the concerns that a vicar might have about protecting weaker brethren and making a very clear point to the community. Despite this, he insisted: ‘Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.’(1 Thess. 5:19 – 22)

          The apostle’s instruction is a far better approach than for the clergy to continue to monopolise Sunday moral discourse.

          • David,

            I’m afraid I’ve not found time yet to read Mosser’s article, but a few further thoughts from what you’ve said.

            Evidence from Alexandria would need to be handled with some care, given that it was self-consciously a city of philosophers (and later theologians). The average education level for having discussions would have been pretty high, especially in the circles Philo and his official were moving in. Does that translate to Palestine and elsewhere? Not sure.

            Could the explanation be a sermon/lecture style (to which Alexandrians would be quite accustomed) and the discussion be over coffee (!) after the service but going on for hours? Don’t know, just thinking through possibilities.

            On the name of Barnabas, even if the Aramaic links to prophecy (and as far as a quick bit of research indicates that’s very likely but not quite certain), that doesn’t mean that Luke makes any connection – he’s working in Greek. Surely we have to assume that the translation of the name he gives (son of consolation/encouragement/exhortation) is the only meaning known to him. It’s notable that the name is apparently given in the context of donating wealth to the Christian community – hard to see a prophetic element to that, but encouragement is certainly there.

            Of course if we link the name to Paraklete, then we restore something of a link to prophecy, but in a rather more complex way. maybe that’s worth exploring.

            “Do not quench the Spirit.” Absolutely! Yet I wonder if what worked in the small-scale of a Pauline house-church can be transferred so readily to a larger congregation. Again, it’s “horses for courses” – what works in one context doesn’t necessarily do so in another. the most natural place for discussion and varied words of prophecy (both important ways of building up the brethren) seems to be in smaller groups. After all, if some one stands up during the sermon in the midst of a congregation of 100+ claiming to have a word of prophecy, how do we test that?

          • Bernard,

            I’m not sure whether treating Alexandria with such care as the philosophical exception actually holds. The Book of Acts contains many examples of the synagogue being the locus of philosophical intense discussion. In dismissing the Jews’ charge against Paul, Gallio took much the same view as Phiko expressed.

            On conversion, St. Paul reasoned in the synagogues of Damascus. Stephen reasoned over Moses’ Law and the Temple with the Jerusalem synagogue of the Freedmen. Chapters 17 – 20 describe St. Paul as reasoning with Jews and Greeks on Sabbaths in the synagogues of Thessalonike, Berea, Corinth and Ephesus.

            Considering the fact that, in Pisidian Antioxh, the whole city turned out to hear Paul’s gospel, I’m amazed that you could compare this to ‘discussion…over coffee, after the service’.

            You also dismiss the significance of Luke’s transliteration of Barnabus’ name has any weight. However, to be consistent, you might as well say the same of Cephas and Peter, although we make the connection, don’t we? And one might suggest that, in denying Christ, he showed far less consonance with his nickname than Barnabus. who, after all, was noted among the prophets and teachers in Acts 13:1. Certainly, his ministry and good works together demonstrated prophetic ministry.

            Your question: ‘if someone stands up during a sermon in the midst of a congregation of 100+ claiming to have a word of prophecy, how do we test that?’ betrays, perhaps, a dubiety commensurate with your clerical status.

            Despite, if we follow Scripture, being required to judge all things, not just the non-normative charismatic lot. I might well ask how we might test someone who delivers a sermon to a congregation of 100+ claiming the privilege of exercising pastoral discipline? The truth is that most congregations don’t, for fear of offending the preacher.

            The fact is that what works on a small-scale can and has worked on a larger scale without descent into mayhem. It’s just irrational fear of usurpation which prevents it.

            It’s really not that difficult or naive to follow St. Paul’s clear guidance to the Corinthian church on the exercise of spiritual gifts.

            so, what’s declared to be unworkable in a CofE benefice is what’s really not wanted by the incumbent of that benefice.

            Fair enough. However, in terms of maintaining those normative ‘time-honoured’ patterns of churchmanship, which have led to CofE decline, what comes to mind is the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.

  6. I call these types of sermon ‘Radio 4’ sermons…. I.e. you write something reasonably well, and read it out in a clear, sensible pace, and it’s all very ‘nice’. I’ve experienced many (this also seems to be the standard for cathedral sermons…), and I think many of my (older) colleagues seem to have been taught that this is how you ‘prepare a sermon’! But as I’ve learnt from lectures and practitioners at my theological training college, that’s really only the ‘preparation’ section – then communication skills, audio/visual prompts, and other creative things should be considered.

    So even if the sermon is ‘from-preacher-to-congregation’, it should still feel interactive and like a conversation. Getting people to converse in the service, I have found, is difficult if you only have a short time, or if people aren’t used to it – In my context, I’d prefer a well preached and accessible sermon, with opportunity in the week for small groups to discuss the sermon and think about application together.

    But anyway, now I need to finish my sermon!

  7. Thanks for this – we need to recognise that what we’re doing is cultural rather than Biblical – and it’s C19 culture rather than C21 culture. To relate properly to people today we need to radically re-think the sermon

    • Bill you’re right. A sermon can be inspiring, or warning, etc etc, but as a way of educating and informing it’s at best stultifying and deeply annoying.

  8. I think dialogue is potentially much healthier. Teaching in schools and colleges, I believe, is much more effective when it is interactive. It does however require different abilities and gifts to traditional teaching. Leading a discussion, involving others and appropriately filtering and developing responses are very different people skills to lecturing

  9. I do think there is a place for a ‘monologue’ sermon, but I agree with some of the other commenters that a monologue doesn’t mean it has to be all one-way.

    One thing you didn’t mention – Hebrews may be the only full example we have in the New Testament of an actual first century sermon. It’s interesting to study for its technique as well as its theological content. I wouldn’t say it uses a dialogue format but I think it’s helpful as a kind of model.

    I think the emphasis on the pastoral epistles is the teaching element, and I wonder what the kerygma would have looked like that Paul had in mind. Maybe it’s good just to have different styles of teaching and preaching, e.g. Encourage people into midweek small groups etc.

  10. Read Luke 4:16-30
    Probably the closest thing to a record in the bible of someone preaching in Church. How interactive is this? I think Jesus preached in a way we don’t. He was not afraid of provoking a response.
    And the people certainly responded. I have become somewhat disillusioned with the monologue style as it seems to elicit a response of appreciation or criticism of the sermon, but little change in the behaviour of the hearer. It seems to create passivity in the audience (note use of that word).
    The parable I find most challenging is the wise and foolish builder, when I ask myself how much of what I have heard ( from Jesus) I have put into practice. Should we not judge our sermons by the fruit they produce? And if we are not seeing much fruit, then do we change, or do we keep doing the same thing while hoping for different results? ” If the sleeper doesn’t wake, prod harder.”

  11. The views on sermon / teaching styles compared to teaching and learning styles in schools and colleges, lectures and seminars as well as different areas of intelligence are well rehearsed.

    Even in most school situations, in a classroom of say 24 to 30, (similar to many congregation sizes?) with the learners seated – it would be almost unheard of for a teacher to speak without breaking. The learners are given opportunity to explore the subject area, in a variety of ways, both as individuals and small groups. It’s even more dynamic in practical subjects, necessarily so.

    Having said that, just once, a vicar became ill just before the evening service and rang and asked me to read his notes – which took fifteen minutes – from the pulpit. An engaging experience! I wonder if it was like reading one of the epistles in the original settings?

  12. On three occasions I have been involved in ‘dialogue’ sermons. To work with another person’s understanding of the scriptures is quite time-consuming but it did enable us to create a script, with some spontaneity built in and we were both happy with the responses.

    I have also experienced joining a group interested in debating the sermon with the preacher at the close of a service. I learnt a lot from that too and often wish there were more such opportunities for interaction.

  13. 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.

  14. I wrote about this a while back. As Jonney Baker observes, we ‘no longer live in a culture which will accept authoritative pronouncements from on high.’ But perhaps the monologue format of the sermon is one of the ways in which we are to learn how to do this.

    On the dialogue-monologue issue, it might also be important to reflect 1) on the way that the rest of the liturgy has an either monologic or dialogic character; 2) on the relative place of the voices within a dialogic liturgy and approach to the sermon.

  15. As Bernard responds regarding larger congregations, “…surely only a single voice sermon really works.” Yes. So, what about one voice but multiple external thoughts? Rather than insisting people discard their phones why not embrace technology? Interactive texting has been suggested for various audience venues, although I’ve never witnessed this in action. Surely some churches have experimented in this regard. Obviously, on the downside, there is distraction to factor (especially initially) for the preacher and audience. Although the preacher could continue preaching without even reading or responding. But, assuming our own drifting thoughts (sitting in the congregation) are distracting anyway, I could imagine being more engaged in a sermon if I saw on a large overhead screen or phone what others around me were thinking as the sermon progressed. Much of the younger crowd multi-tasks with technology naturally. It might even promote more conversation and reflection about the sermon afterwards.

    • Interesting idea, but I’m not sure it works with any but the young. A congregation with an average age above, say 50 (know any of those?), would find this very hard I think – not just the technology, but the distraction.

  16. Fascinating thread and thanks from me for those who have blogged/commented – lots to think about. A few random comments. Would it not be true to say that even if Jesus preached dialogically the last word was his? At root level this is surely the issue. We live in a society that increasingly not only ‘will accept authoritative pronouncements from on high’ but which won’t accept any sort of authority over personal choice unless, ultimately, it gives rise to a criminal sanction. However, if you are choosing to sit in church surely you are part way to that basic acceptance? Does that not at least give the preacher the ‘authority’ to try and persuade? The bigger problem it seems to me is the difficulty both moderns and postmoderns have with saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ and meaning/living it.

    Good preaching is surely primarily a matter of gifting. I have learned from some brilliant preachers and some preachers you would not queue to hear on the basis of their training, intellectual ability or polish but who are clearly in touch with God and have been given words by him. Contrary to some opinion above, I can still tell you of the four of five sermons I heard as a student that shaped who I am now. It helps that I am a verbal learner and as a lawyer used to conceptualising and handling words and ideas in negotiation, but nonetheless God uses many different people, and many different means, when it comes to communicating his word – look at the object lessons the prophets were told to use, for example.

    Preaching is about communication and for that reason different learning styles have to be accommodated and given a chance. I have tried dialogical preaching by speaking for a shorter time with the questions ‘Is there anything I have said that you don’t understand?’; ‘Is there anything in the passage that you think I’ve missed or not handled correctly?’; ‘Has God said something to you from the passage that you think he wants to say to us all?’ and ‘What are you going to do with what you have heard?’ up on the screen throughout, then leaving time at the end for people to respond via those questions. It does not work well (though to my surprise people are most willing to ask about something they haven’t understood even though it is the question that makes them most vulnerable). I suspect (apart from the obvious possibility that I have not done my part well) it is because you have to speak in front of the whole congregation to dialogue in this way. I may try a method I was taught when doing teaching training in my job – allow people a short time to ponder alone, then get them to share with someone nearby on a one to one and then get the pairs to share with another couple of pairs. Only at that point does a representative have to speak in front of all. The mechanics are challenging in the formal setting of church, and such an approach may be extremely unappealing to some, for differing reasons. Perhaps that is why most of Jesus’ dialogue took place ‘on the way’.

    Perhaps part of the answer lies in your other post, Ian, about the creative moment between preparation and delivery. The question ‘What is God wanting to say to this group of people at this time through this passage?’ can only be fully answered when the means as well as the content are viewed through the same lens?

  17. Ian, perhaps my own experience is lacking here, as I have yet to any examples of this done well, or done at all. I know no church that does employ this but would love to see it in action. Because on a practical/pastoral level I have several questions really…

    Firstly isn’t a dialogue going to rely on the person moderating the discussion? And their competence to steer things, without causing offence, cut people off if they’re going in the wrong direction and also allow others room to speak, whom might not normally do so? Without which I guess its very probably that such discussion might lead to tangents, or discussion that ends up being rather shallow or worse still bringing up either personal or emotive issues that actually hurt rather than help? That is a lot for one person to deal with, not knowing before hand what is going to come up?

    Secondly this gives rise to how we position such a discussion. What ground rules etc, but I also wonder how well a congregation can handle a dialogue, in that they are able to both think through, discuss and articulate what they want to say? Moreover how do we stop the ‘regular’ voices dominating especially over those who are shy, unsure, or simply new to the faith to know what is what. How do we foster exploration and discussion, without making people feel stupid because what they might be saying actually reveals how wonky their thinking/theology is? Whilst others clearly are more competent so we let them, answer for us?

    In addition when a preacher has spent years training, then hours studying aren’t we devaluing their role apart from discussion starter and moderator? After all we hope that when he or she is preaching its not just what they are saying, but through them what the God is saying by his word to and through them. I don’t mean that dialogue doesn’t do this, but I guess to what degree are we able to discern what God is saying, and make that clear in a responsible fashion to those with ears to hear,as it happens. This might be a tough call, don’t you think?

    Finally how easy is it to have a discussion, in a group beyond a certain size, within a specified time frame – especially if we’ve not reached a consensus or helpful point? I was in a homegroup and the discussion, within that context around a particular verse was helpful. But at one point it was also focused heavily on an individual testimony, as it related to the text. This worked well and brought out some good insights we were able to make clearer, but had this been a Sunday morning it would have easily added 40 mins to what would otherwise have been a 20-25 sermon. To have silenced that person, when it was evident they were really going into too much detail and were struggling to get to a single point, might have caused great offence, as what they were saying was relevant in the end. So again I am aware that what we are asking of a preacher/moderator is a lot more than normal. After all if Church is a bit like herding cats, then what must it be like in the cut and thrust of such a dialogue?

    I’d genuingly like to know, as I’d hate to think I was talking in anyones sleep. But am also genuingly unsure and unaware of examples of this and or training regarding implementing such a model to know how one might ‘steer’ such a discussion, or ask others to do so. What do others think?

    • Dave,

      All of the concerns which you’ve expressed are part and parcel of managing any gathering, including PCC meetings and Synod. In the latter case, considerable preparation is involved and, while speakers have 30-minute slots to explore complex subjects, they still make time to solicit dialogue.

      Admittedly, your preaching time is constrained, but announcing the intended sermon topic at the end of the service on the previous Sunday would give the congregation time to reflect on it and have something to say beforehand.

      If you ask them to e-mail a few thoughts/questions (in, day, three sentences) on the chosen topic or verse by mid-week (or after house-group), then, with their permission, you would have early notice on specific reflections. You could then select a few and give them three minutes each to expand on what they’ve written. On another occasion, others who consent can either articulate their meditations, or ask you to speak on their behalf. This is not theory (nor rocket science), as I encourage this in preparation for my own sermons, while keeping my preaching to the allotted time.

      The danger is that ministers can end up measuring sermon effectiveness by the vanity of generally positive remarks of a generally polite congregation. There’s also the tendency to deliver the sermon monologue like the perfect short story, knowing that, by the end of it, every strand of the plot will be neatly tied up and without a single ‘loose end’ in sight.

      In fact, one commenter here communicated the belief that dialogue undermines the preaching minister’s authority, describing them as having ‘something of the role of the OT prophet’.

      Well, the prophets experienced the ‘cut and thrust’ of uncomfortable dialogue. It was part of their calling. So, I’m hard-pressed to find a theological reason why any here should balk at it.

  18. Well worth reading Christopher Ash’s ‘The Priority of Preaching’ for a strong biblical-theological argument for the monologue. Essentially if the preacher inherits something of the role of the OT prophet then his message is authoritative (‘the Word of God preached is the Word of God’ etc) and the medium of monologue conveys that where dialogue would undermine it…

    • Tom,

      That would be valid in the OT. I wonder how Christopher Ash handles the counter-argument that in the NT, God has poured out His Spirit upon all flesh. Of course, everything should be done ‘decently and in order’.

      The Word of God is the Word of God because it accomplishes that for which it is intended (Is. 55:11) Was the authority of Christ’s word in John 3:16 undermined by His dialogue with Nicodemus?

      Any in a group setting, what do we make of Jesus asking: ‘Who do men say that I am?’ followed by, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And, in both cases, waiting for an answer.


  19. I am always encouraged by Eutychus who fell asleep (and fell out of a window) during one of Paul’s sermons.

    There is hope for us all..

  20. Ian

    Many thanks for your article: thought provoking and helpful as usual. I come from a different tradition (independent evangelical/brethren) but very much recognise the issues you outline. I am part of the leadership team at a church of c150 people and these issues feed in to a number of concerns I have:
    – how do we make space in Church life for people to talk through their questions? A number of pastoral conversations would lead me to believe that a number of folks in our Church struggle with some key doctrines (e.g. Heaven and hell). How do we identify and help with that?
    – the millennial generation are perhaps the most questioning ever; we ignore that at our peril.
    – how do we get people to engage with the bible daily?
    – if people perceive that what they hear on a Sunday doesn’t translate into real life then they will either give up on church or essentially compartmentalise their lives. The Bible IS relevant (we don’t have to make it so) but we do n ed to help people grapple with it.
    – we need to teach truth! Not every opinion is of equal validity.

    In short I support monologue sermons and dialogue!! One thinking we have tried is using small groups in the week following a message to discuss, reflect on and apply the Sunday teaching. A small start in this perhaps.

  21. I’ve found both the article and the discussions really though provoking ….the idea of a dialogue intead of a monologue sermon had never occurred to me before.
    I have a few comments and questions:

    I was really interested to read references to the way things would have been done in a synagogue and two things occurred to me which I’d love to know about:

    Firstly, I recently saw a video of a meeting in a syagogue (I think it was a synagogue – It was certainly a Jewish meeting). It was arranged with a central area, where the speaker was, and the other seating was on three sides around it. Were synagogues likely to have been arranged like this in Jesus’ time? If so, it would have facilitated a very different way of teaching. Maybe when pews are taken out of our churches, chairs could be arranged around three sides like the synagogue I saw? [I know chairs are already arranged in different ways, but maybe this could be more common]

    Secondly, I wondered if the backwards and forwards conversation that I think is a Jewish way of teaching and learning is something that has specific ground rules to prevent a few voices taking over. In that case, are these ground rules taught to youngsters as they grow up? Can our churches learn them?

    the other thing I thought about, was the fact that we are told that Jesus talked to most people in parables …. so when he got into a boat to teach, He was probably telling stories rather than giving a sermon……and then His disciples had a chance to ask Him questions afterwards. This fits well with a missionary method I came across a few years ago called “Bible Storying”. From what I understood of it (in the missionary magazine I read), Bible stories are told and then questions are used very specifically to bring out the meaning. It was initially used for people from oral cultures who, they said, had a different way of learning even if some individuals could read. They learnt from stories rather than listed information. Actually I can’t help feeling that we are all probably naturally hardwired for story learning, and have to work harder to take in information in other ways. I have just looked up “Bible Storying” on Google, and it seems that it is now possible to train to do this in the UK which is interesting. I suspect in any case that the best sermons have always had stories in them…..but specific questioning to bring out the meaning is something I would love to experience.

  22. Just to add: Bible storying was originally called “Chronological Bible Storying” and I have just found out that it was pioneered by someone called Lanette W Thompson, who has now co authored a book about it called “Bible storying for church planting” ( One of the other authors has also written a book called Basic Bible storying ……..How exciting!

  23. Sounds like there is something wrong with the frame of reference I was concerned that in the assembly the audience are the saints; they are not sheep but strong defenders of the faith. You can preach whatever you want to and there must be order in the kingdom but if something does not add up then the defenders of the faith must be given opportunity to ask for the scripture being used to make the point. So on a prime time tv show a guest declared that hades is in the bowels of the earth but is soon to be transported to the sun and there is passive accptance no challenge.
    I do not think it should be hard to have interactive ministry the minister must be held accountable

  24. I know this is an old thread, but I came across this as I was searching for an article.
    I am currently writing a project proposal (currently doing a lit review) of whether ‘dialogue preaching’ or having a dialogue while in the preaching segment of a worship service can be considered as preaching. Does the Bible prescribe a particular method of ‘preaching’?
    All the questions you asked here have been raised before, but, currently, in my research, no one has given it much thought from a biblical perspective. Most literature talks about the method because of the outcome, especially in our postmodern setting.

  25. Sorry to be so late. The article is well written. Yes, Jesus and Paul were preaching monologue style but both were introducing brand new gospels. Jesus preached to Israel the doctrine pertaining to his reign where he would have sat on David’s throne, and Paul preached to a mostly Gentile Body of Christ. Now that we all have Bibles, we see that the Body of Christ is set up to meet formally and informally. But God placed all members of the Body of Christ together in such a way so that all members would be needed, and no member would feel left out or considered useless. I don’t know of any church that remotely addresses and acts like this reality is true. The Body of Christ cannot grow otherwise, as the Scripture makes clear. The vast number of church members don’t exercise any gift (and talents are not gifts). We’re all lumped together under the “helps” category, but I believe that is done out of convenience.

    • I agree with you that people need to be able to use their gifts more. But I am not convinced that Jesus or Paul preached as a monologue. Look how many times they engage in conversation or answer questions.


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