Should preaching be in dialogue format?

iStock_000032293688MediumMy previous post, on whether preaching should be monologue, provoked a fascinating debate (somewhat ironically!) both on Facebook and on the blog post itself in the comments.

The first wave of comments was mostly happy agreement—how can you possibly continue with monologue in this day and age? As I mentioned at the end of the post, if this is a universal feeling, how come most of us still (in format at least) deploy monologue? Then there were two kinds of push back. A minority argued the fairly common 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. But in the blog comments, 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.

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. But there are other reasons, too, clustering around issues of leadership and management and practical issues of expectations.

222The 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.

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!

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.

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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21 thoughts on “Should preaching be in dialogue format?”

  1. Being on holiday (well, speaking on a Christian holiday) in the Black Forest with poor Internet and little spare time I have not managed to read all the contributions to the previous post, but hope I have caught the gist. A couple of observations.

    We have recently conducted an experiment in our church offering a choice of monologue or dialogue. I don’t have the survey results to hand, but some were not even prepared, despite encouragement to try the dialogue format. Those who did clearly found it helpful. When I’m back I may post a fuller report.

    Here on holiday the expectation is 20 minute monologue, but I do try to make it interactive and use a fair bit of humour and refer back to group activities. The dialogue tends to happen the next day walking, sometimes but not always involving me. I wonder if this is not a reflection to some degree of the way of the rabbi with his disciples.

  2. Ian thanks for this and for picking up on the dialogue you last post sparked. Out of interest, are there any examples of this you’ve come across we can access. I think, in part my own theological training didn’t allow for anything other than the ‘standard approach’ we all take. However with so many sermons on audio or video, I just wondered if there were good examples (or perhaps even bad ones) or indeed other resources, experiences and observations from those slightly further down this particular track.

    Funnily enough you make the comment of how can we get the best of both. Recently we’ve been asking our congregation to submit questions, which I’ll group together, thematically and sharing on but also allow the questioner a chance to express their views and then open it up to others. We hope this might be a way of both sharing some teaching, and some dialogue.

  3. ‘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!’

    Acts 16:10, After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

    Who did the concluding?

    • Hi Mandy,

      Although your question is rhetorical, your point is underscored by the collegial approach expressed by the Council of Jerusalem in its letter to Gentile Christians: It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15:28)

  4. I lean towards an interactive style of preaching and perhaps this is easier in smaller congregations where people know
    another well.
    But I do wonder about what we mean when we talk about feeding the sheep. The shepherd leads the sheep to the pastures but the sheep have to do the grazing! Do we sometimes mistake leading sheep to pasture with spoonfeeding babies?

  5. A number of thoughts on this…

    Sometimes our bible study group does the same topic as the upcoming sermon, so the monologue sermon has been informed by dialogue beforehand.

    In some churches, a short sermon followed by discussion and prayer works well. There are usually a few people who have something to say. If not, then you just move along.

    1 Corinthians 14 is the most indication from the NT about how a church service can look, and it doesn’t look like most churches I know.

    Think about how education takes place in schools or higher education – some subjects have a lot of monologue teaching, but there’s discussion and practical work.

    Maybe more significant is how children learn from their parents, in the action of everyday life. I don’t know how that should work for the Christian leader, but it is something to think about.

  6. There is a Baptist church where they divide the ‘service’ into two halves (each about an hour). The first half is a fairly standard (but short) non-conformist service, including songs, reading and sermon. However, they then split into different groups (you choose which group). One of those groups is a discussion with the preacher.

    As a visiting preacher, I found this helpful. Congregation members could follow up interesting areas, clarify points I had made, ask about areas of the passage or approaches I hadn’t taken etc. It also gave me far more feedback than I normally get as a visiting preacher, where it can feel a bit ‘hit and run’.

    This isn’t the only model. But it does manage to combine some of the best of both monologue and dialogue approaches to sermons.

  7. Here’s my preferred approach… During sermon preparation, don’t keep it a secret – talk to some people about the subject of the sermon and get their insights. Encourage people after the service that you are open to talk to them about anything the sermon spoke to in their lives. So often preachers almost hide away from people rather than be available after the service – and so often the bland response by the people is ‘thank you that was a lovely sermon’ – there needs to be a cultural shift that the sermon is something to be talked about afterwards in a constructive way either with the preacher directly or with each other. Connect the sermon series with what is happening in small group Bible study during the week because small groups are the most practical place for dialogue. .

    I tried a dialogue sermon when I was in Bible college and, even with fellow students who are theologically educated the major downside was that I had put in hours of preparation and they had put in none – except for one who I had primed in advance to bring a useful insight into the Greek text (because his language skills were far superior to mine). This highlights the major downside of dialogue preaching unless you can get everyone to do some preparation.

    I’ve used a three way conversation (which is another half way house to a full dialogue) in a video resource I was involved in producing to accompany Bible study material as a way to make it more engaging (a bit like the three way conversations on the Gospel Coalition) and it worked well but it takes a lot more work than one monologue and wouldn’t be practical for every Sunday. You can see the videos here:

  8. Oh dear – ‘The first issue around leadership and management is that you cannot cast a vision by having a discussion’. I had really hoped that we might have got away from a model of ordained ministry where the minister is the only person who has vision and everyone else just follows them. It is much easier to get people to follow a vision where they have a hand in shaping it – see Richard Impey’s book ‘How to develop your local church’ (SPCK 2010) on working with the wisdom of the congregation.
    On sermon forms – which is where we started! – isn’t this a case for knowing your context and your congregation and planning accordingly? I don’t think the monologue is dead, lots of people are willing to pay to see comedians like Michael Macintyre, or ‘an evening with’ famous people – but at less formal services or with the right congregation it might also be possible to ask people to respond to questions, or invite them to ask questions, or even discuss things between themselves (John Bell does this brilliantly). I suspect that younger congregations may respond better to this, although that’s a generalisation. There’s one Anglican church in Blackburn Diocese where the ‘sermon slot’ has 3 different things going on in different places (including one that involves making things) and people choose which one to go to – not divided along age lines.

  9. Ian as ever this has been a very provocative and thoughtful challenge to much of what we do in our preaching. Can I join in slightly to the push-back in terms of a plea for at least some thoughtful, prayerful monologue within gathered worship? I say this I think from both a systematic-theological and liturgical viewpoint. If – and I accept it’s an ‘if’ for some – worship is centred around the word of God, how is this best embodied in the Christian gathering? The wisdom of the church down the centuries has been by the centrality of word and sacrament: the reading & exposition of Scripture alongside the celebration of baptism and the Eucharist. I wonder if the prayerful exposition of Scripture is not itself a sacramental act? In other words, it embodies the address of God to his people? And though there quite a few places where God enjoys dialogue with human beings in Scripture, primarily he speaks, we listen. Is that not best symbolised by at least some monologue in our gathering, where we humbly shut up for a while, even if before a further discussion? And arguably our world is over-full of voices – however well-informed or otherwise (witness the EU Referendum debate). Might we not model something different in the church, namely: the benefit of being still and listening to something outside our own thoughts a little more?

    • Rick,

      And though there quite a few places where God enjoys dialogue with human beings in Scripture, primarily he speaks, we listen. Is that not best symbolised by at least some monologue in our gathering, where we humbly shut up for a while, even if before a further discussion?

      While I’d agree to ‘humbly shut up and listen for a while’ to scripture, the vicar’s exposition, however prayerful, is not scripture.

      While we’re encouraged to be ‘quick to listen, slow to answer and slow to speak’, that should never be based on equating the preacher’s exposition on scripture with the scripture itself.

      The fact that some vicars don’t ‘humbly shut up and listen for a while’ probably explains the abject numerical decline that besets CofE churches!

      • David, of course you are right that the sermon isn’t on a par with scripture, I couldn’t agree more. However I’d hope that a prayerful, Spirit-dependent preacher – and congregation! – had some sense that a biblical sermon is God’s word to them… along the lines of 1 Peter 3:11 (‘if anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God’).
        I’m not at all suggesting we don’t need more dialogue and interaction, indeed that happened just last Sunday as part of one of my own sermons! I guess this is more a suggestion that there is still a place for the gift of teaching/preaching in the Christian gathering, which in the nature of things will include an element of input from someone trained, gifted and ordained to that task. Part of that at least I would hope would include a monologue of some kind. After all, much as Jesus used plenty of interaction in his teaching (at least in the Synoptics), there’s also plenty of extended discourses by him.
        And I’d hope that no preacher would dare to stand up and preach without having done plenty of humble sitting and listening, both to scripture and to their fellow Christians.
        I’m not sure monologues can bear the full weight of numerical decline in (some) CofE churches. I have a feeling that somewhere else on this blog Ian has referred to research that suggests many churchgoers want more meaty, thoughtful sermons – not less! Perhaps the answer to bad monologues is not none, just better.

        • Hi Rick,

          To clarify, I don’t support a false dichotomy which favours dialogue to the extent of a wholesale exclusion of sermon monologues. However, it’s equally fallacious for others to reject dialogue as completely unworkable.

          For instance, on the previous thread, Bernard Randall pointed out that, during a sermon, the inclusion of dialogue would not appeal to those ’50-somethings’ who comprise the majority of CofE churchgoers.

          My response is that the Church’s priority of ‘growing the church younger’ makes an even stronger case for interactive preaching, in that it caters to the kind of inquiry which characterises younger generations.

          It’s not the role of those whom you describe as ‘trained, gifted and ordained to that task’ of teaching the faith which is being called into question, but it is the default and often thoughtless recourse to deliver monologues.

          You’ve highlighted Jesus’ example. However, we should also consider the context of Jesus’ monologues. In the gospels, when describing the vast following which Jesus attracted, the word, multitudes, is used 80 times. By contrast, the capacity of first-century synagogues has been estimated at around 400.

          Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that He employed extended discourse to broadcast His message to the crowds (in a society in which memorised the spoken word as a principal technique of learning and dissemination).

          So, I believe that the most significant factor in deciding on how far one can introduce dialogue is the size of the audience, and several here have provided approaches for dealing with that.

          Certainly, beyond employing them rhetorically, Christ (who is indeed the model for all preachers) was completely comfortable in responding to questions from all quarters, in a public forum and regardless of the motivation of those who posed them.

          We need to challenge ourselves to develop that level of reliance upon the Holy Spirit to encourage and respond to all kinds of questions.
          This is the kind of exemplary faith that, even under hostile inquiry, believes in the Holy Spirit.

          As Christ put it: When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:12)

          • Thanks David I think I’m pretty much in full agreement (even if that shortens our dialogue!). Thanks for your further thoughts! Maybe my emphasis is a little more on the powerful symbolic/sacramental role for some monologue.

          • I’d just like to clarify my comments on the other thread; I wasn’t saying that dialogue would put off those aged 50+. Dialogue is good, discussion is essential, but it’s important to find the right context and format for people to engage properly.That age comment was specifically about the idea of having the comments of the congregation tweeted in and projected on a big screen in church, live, as the sermon is taking place. Younger people might cope with the multitasking implied in listen-tweet-read-tweet again, older ones not so much, I think. And notice I didn’t put “think” in that sequence – how much online/instant chat actually shows evidence of thinking and engaging with a topic? Apart from on Psephizo, of course.

  10. At my parish church in rural Gloucestershire we are currently without an incumbent and rely on the usual mix of retired clergy and keen lay folk to lead our services. Every Friday morning we have a BCP Holy Communion and the congregation is rarely in double figures. Gradually over the past twelve months, under the guidance of one of the retired clergy, the sermon element of this service has morphed in to what could be more accurately described as a Bible Study session. We concentrate on the Gospel reading for the forthcoming Sunday main service. It has been wonderful to see the change this has made to everyone’s commitment to this service. People come having read the passage beforehand, some even with notes they have made. If this is dialogue rather than monologue it is certainly working for us.

  11. David of course I take your point about the sermon not being scripture – though I am probably not alone in praying and hoping that when a sermon faithfully unfolds Scripture it is, albeit in a less strong sense, the Lord speaking to his people, along the lines of 2 Peter 4:11 (“if anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God”). There’s also the question about the office/charisma of the teacher and the need to give rein to that. I also take your point about vicars who don’t listen – though again a prayerful and thoughtful preacher would hopefully have done plenty of that before standing up and opening her mouth! I guess I’m not suggesting we don’t need more dialogue and space for interaction (as it happens we were doing that just this last Sunday at our church), rather suggesting there is still a central place for, and symbolic role for, a more authoritative monologue at some point. Much as Jesus himself used plenty of interaction (at least in some parts of the Synoptics compared with John), there are also plenty of extended monologues in his own teaching style…

  12. Apologies for almost duplicate replies – blame trying to do this at the end of a long day and an unresponsive computer!

  13. A very quick line – so much more that could be said…

    We have a different style of service on each Sunday of the month. (This seems to works well for us in a basically village setting with a moderate sized congregation c.80-90). This means that we employ a wide range of different sermon styles. Sometimes sermons are relatively traditional and expository with no visual aids; on other occasions sermons are backed up with images on a big screen and elements of dialogue.

    At various points in a such an “elements of dialogue” sermon I often set the scene in some way but then ask a series of simple questions (sometimes apparently slightly tangential) and walk amongst the congregation with a microphone and get the answers/contributions. I have to think on my feet but usually I am able to draw something out from the responses that lead me to the areas that I wanted to go to. When there is something that is more jarring it can be handled in different ways but even with such jarring contributions, the dynamic from the individual is usually appreciative that there has been a very direct connection with listening as well as speaking from the preacher.

    I am a rather risk averse person and don’t do this for my own enjoyment [!]; however, I often feel that these sermons are genuinely exciting and interesting for the congregation. At best they could be like the (apparently) burning bush or a parable of Jesus. Questions arise in people’s minds. What is going on? What does it mean? The congregation (or at least some of them, for it may well be that different sermon styles appeal to particular personality types/learning styles) are drawn in to the Biblical text/focus in a more profound way than is always the case in a more traditional presentation.


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