Alternatives to Monologue Preaching

Early Anabaptist congregations were distinguished from their Catholic or Reformed contemporaries by the much greater freedom their members had to participate actively in a learning community. There were monologue sermons, but often a number of people made contributions. Questions were invited and discussion took place. Gradually, as the tradition developed, a reversion to the dominance of monologue preaching can be observed, but echoes of a more communal approach remain, together with a conviction that God speaks through many people, sharing their gifts and perspectives in a multi-voiced community.

In this section we offer resources for reflection on alternatives to the monologue sermon.

A Theology of Interactive Preaching

by Paul Warby

The sermon had been boring. Ten points for effort though, well researched, nice thought structure, sprinkled with some humour and some helpful illustrations yet it lacked life. Perhaps I should have prayed harder? Perhaps I should speak with more passion, louder? Perhaps I should use a different preaching style?

It is questions like these that drove me on my search for a way to preach that reflected two of my core beliefs: 1) that the Scriptures are the source of all Christian practice and 2) that preaching should be relevant in our times.

So like a good little academic I rushed off to the University library and started reading what was being said about homiletics (the art and science of preaching). I picked up one of the most referenced books in the field; Fred Craddock's As One Without Authority (1971) and read from the first chapter:

"We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion, the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed. All this slim volume asks is a stay of execution until one other witness be heard."

It seems that I was not alone. In fact a whole new form of preaching has emerged in the last thirty years called the New Homiletic with the purpose of providing a homiletic to our post-modern culture. The New Homiletic has introduced ways of speaking that create a better sense of connection between the preacher and the congregation (Loscalzo 1992), appeals to both emotion and intellect (Breuggeman 1989; Lowry 1989) and how to pack sermons with more of a punch (Craddock 1971, Buttrick 1987). Some have focused on how to structure a sermon so that it mirrors the bibles structure (Long 1989; Hoggart 1995), others on thinking along more egalitarian modes where everyone gets a say in putting the sermon together (Rose, McLure 1995). All in all if you want to give a more effective speech then these guys have a lot of good and interesting things to say. The problem was that despite all these advances still not much has changed in the churches.

"We polled adult church-attenders to learn their perceptions of the sermon time. Here's some of what we discovered:

  • Just 12 percent say they usually remember the message

  • 87 percent say their mind wanders during the sermon

  • 35 percent say the sermons they hear are too long

  • 11 percent of women and 5 percent of men credit sermons as their primary source of knowledge about God" (Schultz J and Schultz T 1994: 189)

Now maybe we just need to give pastors some time to embrace the New Homiletic or maybe we need to just preach the traditional way a bit better (some academics still prefer the traditional logic based sermon over the New Homiletics imaginative orientation). I wasn't sure and the more I thought about it the more I felt the need to develop a stronger theology on homiletics, a theology that would satisfy my intellectual and practical needs. As you will see my exploration led me to a place of seeing preaching needing participation or ...interaction.

How theology is developed?

Christians throughout history have approached theology with different models of thinking. Protestant churches have always placed the Scriptures at the centre of theology but have differed on what other sources are to be used and exactly how those sources relate to the Scriptures and one another. The Anglicans have the Lambeth quadrilateral (Scripture; Tradition and Reason; Creeds, historical episcopate). The Methodists use the Wesleyan quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience) which has also been adapted by other conservative evangelical scholars (e.g. Pinnock 1990: 40-44). Perhaps the most recent approach and the most geared towards postmodernity was the theological method of Stanley Grenz and John Franke found in their 2001 book Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. As seen below there are three sources.

Three Sources Diagram: A Diagram by Paul Warby

This continues in the Protestant tradition of placing the Scriptures as authoritative over the other sources and gives it the title "norming norm". This is to emphasize that the other two sources are also norms (that which governs) within theological thought but that Scripture is the dominant norm bearing over and guiding the other two.

Tradition is taken to incorporate all of Christian history including Creeds, practices and ongoing theological discussions. This is in recognition of the Spirit's ongoing activity throughout the Churches history. As a trajectory it guides giving insight into how God has been speaking to his church in multiple contexts. Of the sources tradition is the one norm that has, in the Protestant tradition, been the quickest to "override".

Culture is brought in as a source but can be seen to synergize the previously separate sources of reason and experience of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. This is a necessary move to make as it has been established in other disciplines (sociology, philosophy, psychology etc.) that logic/ reason have particular cultural favours as well as the experience that emerges within certain cultural contexts.

So there I sat with three sources of theology. In the evangelical tradition (mine) there is also the knowledge that our very tradition states that we are to honour the Scriptures more than anything else in our search for theology (Sola Scriptura). So that is where I began.

What do the Scriptures say? (Scriptures)

1) Jesus in Mark's Gospel

As a follower of Jesus it just seems that the gospels are a good place to start in any theological inquiry (Ford 1997). If we just take the gospel of Mark and ask some simple questions of the text in front of us we get some interesting results. Did Jesus or those he taught initiate his teachings? Was there verbal interaction? Was there physical interaction when Jesus taught (tactile learning)? In short I asked the gospel of Mark, "How did Jesus teach with regard to interaction?"

I took Jesus' ministry prior to his arrest and crucifixion (Mark 1-Mark 14:42) and identified 63 teaching events.

  • 7 are unclear as to being either interactive or non-interactive (these are generally sweeping statements, e.g. "Jesus came to Galilee preaching the gospel of God" Mark 1:14)

  • 10 are non-interactive. Here we have taken the text as it stands although interaction is sometimes implied (e.g. the calling of disciples found in 1:17-20; 2:14). I also noticed that some non-interactive accounts like the telling of parables required interaction later in the story for the disciples to understand the message (e.g. Mark 4:26-33 of. vs34).

  • 37 teaching events were initiated by others.

  • 31 teaching events had verbal dialogue. These may be the same teaching events as those initiated by others (e.g. the story of the paralytic Mark 2:1-12) but in this category we are looking for recorded verbal dialogue in the text of Mark.

  • 25 teaching events were also action events. These are healings, miracles and the like where teaching is associated with physical experiences (e.g. Mark 1:39; 1:40-44; 3:1-5 etc.)

It seems fairly obvious that Jesus' way of teaching is normally an interactive way. It is not merely an interaction that occurs between the thinking minds of the hearers and the words of the believers as some would think (Sleeth 1986, Stott 1982) but live verbal or tactile interaction. This is not to say that the spiritual monologue, which is also recorded in Mark (Mark 6: 7-11), should not have a place but to say that it should make space for more interactive forms of teaching. Now that we have seen that Jesus had used interaction as a common method we ask whether the Apostles followed in his footsteps.

2) The Apostles in Acts

Acts has many teaching events defined here as where persons attempt to instruct/ educate others whether this is toward unbelievers or believers. I identified 68 teaching events. Of the 68 the majority (43) were aimed at unbelievers. This makes sense as Acts tells the story of the spread of Christianity in the early years. But here we're asking how should we be speaking at churches and so focus on the 25 events where the believers were the main group. Of those 25:

    • 13 are unclear as to their interaction (10 of these are unclear statements e.g. Acts 2:42"...they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching", others had interaction prior to the unclear statement but were not directly linked to the concept of teaching/preaching e.g. Acts 4:23-20 has worship preceding the unclear statement in Acts 4:31)

    • 10 have dialogue. Sometimes non-believers infiltrate the meeting and begin a debate (Acts 15:1-2) while in other instances the discussion is amongst believers (Acts 15:4-5)

    • 3 have action events

    • 1 has no recorded interaction (Acts 20:17-35)

This survey stuck as close to the Acts text as possible. In the one event categorized as a monologue it can easily be argued as having an implied interactive nature but because the text doesn't directly point to interaction I called it a non-interactive event. So even if we accept it as an actual monologue we still only have one example of a monologue to believers in Acts.

Is there any significant difference in interaction if we add in the events that focused on unbelievers? Not really, you get the following results of the entire 68 events:

  • 33 have dialogue

  • 28 are unclear as to interaction

  • 14 are initiated by persons other than the main speakers, e.g. an opening question.

  • 11 are action events

  • 5 have non-interactive monologues

(In case you're wondering about my math some events have multiple elements so they categorized more than once)

3) Behind the Scenes

Before we move on I would like to address two issues that have been raised in theological circles which have often influenced how the New Testament is read, so much so that the belief of preaching as a monologue has lasted this long. Firstly there is the view of the preacher as a continuation of the Old Testament prophet (Sleeth 1986:10) and secondly there is the relationship between the synagogue "sermon" and the New Testament practice of preaching.

The OT prophet as forerunner to the NT preacher.

The evidence for this view is very scarce and the belief is often founded on assumptions of the nature of the OT prophet as well as assumptions of the NT preacher neither of which stand up to scrutiny. I can't embrace the link for the following reasons:

  1. "...there is no evidence to suggest that speeches were ever a regular part of Israelite cultus at the Temple or at there other shrines" (Norrington 1996: 2) i.e. The OT prophetic speeches were not normal occurrences.

  2. The image of the OT prophet as a solo-speaker doesn't account for the often interactive nature of OT prophecy; between the prophet and God (Ezekiel 8) and the prophet and the people (e.g. Ezekiel 20:1)

  3. Paul's understanding of the NT prophet is interactive (1 Cor 14: 20-32)

  4. The link between the OT prophet and the NT preacher is ... tenuous.

  5. The practice of NT preachers was predominantly interactive (see above)

It seems natural rather to associate the OT prophet with the interactive NT prophet and to allow the NT texts about the NT preacher to speak about their form of speech.

The Synagogue sermon

The question of how much the synagogue practices affected the early church flows mainly from the works of Oesterly (The Jewish Background to the Christian Liturgy 1925) and Dugmore (The Influence of the Synagogue on the Divine 0ffice ­- 1944). From there homiletic works have often linked the synagogue sermon to Christian sermon (Swank 1981:15) and so the monologue was seen to receive support from the synagogue practices. But there are some serious problems with this approach, namely

  1. The link between synagogue and Christian practice is still contested (Rankin 1993: 173)

  2. Those who accept the link still contest the extent of the link (Rankin 1993:175)

  3. The Acts account indicates that the synagogue was primarily a place of evangelism and not Christian instruction. This brings into question the validity of the link as they are quiet different environments and agendas.

  4. The early church separated itself from the synagogue.

  5. Even if the link is embraced the evidence for synagogue practice is found predominantly in the gospels (McDonald 1980: 49) which support interaction (Luke 4:16-30 and John 6: 31-58).

4) Conclusion on Scripture

I believe we can say without fear of contradiction that live interaction was the norm of Jesus and the early disciples with the monologue being an exception.

So if the Scriptures favour interaction how did we get to the place where we have focused almost exclusively on how to give a good speech?

How did we get here? (Tradition)

De Wittte T Holland begins the first chapter of his book The Preaching Tradition with these words "Preaching has not always been practiced the way it is today." As we have just seen the preaching styles of the New Testament was more interactive, a conversational biblical study or a "progressional dialog" as Doug Pagitt would say (Pagitt 2005). So how did we get here from there?

1) The tradition after the New Testament times

The first centuries

Not much is known about the preaching that took place over this period. What we can say is that the church was skeptical of using Greek Rhetoric as Tertutillian (160-225AD) illustrates when he asked "What is the relationship between rhetoric and preaching? How the two could be reconciled with one another?" (Tertullian quoted in Shin 2004: 27) Even theologians who focus on Greek rhetoric today acknowledge that it was not fully embraced in the era of the early church (Shin 2004:27; Sleeth 1986: 20).

The established Church

Some trace the entrance of rhetoric speeches to Origen (185-254 AD) but most understand that the real development took place in the fourth and fifth centuries (Turnbull RG ed.1967: 51). From this point on the dominant tradition was one that focused on eloquent speeches rather than interaction. But even then interaction was not completely discarded as even that famed beacon of rhetoric speech Chrysostom "frequently interrupted his discourse to put questions in order to make sure that he was understood" (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Homiletics).

In the middle ages the church became more focused on the sacraments. The sermon was still taught and certain works were written [Isidore of Seville (d 636) wrote Etymologies, Rabanus Maurus (776-856) wrote Institution of the Clergy, Alan of Lille (d 1203) wrote Summary of the Art of Preaching etc] although no significant changes were made. And so preaching became known as a speech more than an interaction.

Then came the Reformation and although they did bring a greater focus on exposition of the Scriptures sermons still came in the packaging of a monologue (drawing from the Latin and Greek classics that re-emerged within the Reformation Culture). Not much has changed with regard to interaction since.

But the monologue was not the only tradition of preaching. As has been pointed out elsewhere on this website (http://anabaptistnetwork.com/node/322) there is an alternative tradition to preaching which is interactive rather than lecture orientated, throughout the middle ages (12th Century Waldensians; 14th Century Lollards and the 16th Century Anabaptists). It is true however, that this is not a dominant tradition but it is there none the less.

The Current setting

And now we sit in the current era where Christianity is still an established religion but is becoming less and less of a majority. In mainline Protestant homiletics there are four dominant views of preaching (Traditional, Kerygmatic, New Homiletic, Postliberal) each supports the format of an individual standing in front of a group giving a one way speech. Some may use different methods of rhetoric than the classic Greeks (e.g. Lowry's narrative form) but they are still teaching the art of giving a speech with the attentive but not actively participating audience.

So we have a dominant tradition of the monologue but there is also a lesser known tradition of interactive preaching. If we take our three theological sources of Scripture, Tradition and Culture we are reminded that Tradition should be the servant not the master of Scripture and again we remind ourselves that the Scriptures support interaction over monologue.

But what of our Culture, surely how we do things is more cultural. Maybe we should follow culture for practice and Scripture for content. Maybe... but let's first see what our culture is saying about teaching and interaction.

How do we learn today? (Culture)

Elsewhere on this website (http://anabaptistnetwork.com/node/322) Williams gives a great exposition of cultural shifts that are impacting on how we as a culture learn. Not wanting to bore you with repetition I have chosen to flesh out Williams' observations with a fairly random collection of thoughts on the learning process in postmodernity.

Let's start by taking a sampling of quotes from the various fields of learning

Quotes from Academia

Didactics: "The teacher must make it his objective to bring about active and spontaneous participation by pupils" (Piek 1984:71)

Pedagogy: "The traditional "teaching" practice of lecture to passive students has long been discredited as ineffective...Ideally interaction will be a collaborative relationship toward shared goals where students are engaged learners..." (Taylor 2005:4)

Andragogy: "Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction... Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities..." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andragogy)

A Study

A study on how we are able to remember things based on different learning methods is shown below (Schultz J and Schultz T 1994: 109)

Graph from "Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at the Church: And How to Fix It"

So if you're a preacher and you want people to remember what you have to say, i.e. that memory retention is one of your goals, what method should you choose? According to this study the more involved a person is the more they retain. Now obviously certain elements (particular dogmatic elements) do not relate directly to experience, for example, how can someone directly experience the Trinity?

But that doesn't mean we can't be creative in teaching through media and role-play (just think, you could role play that you are the Jehovah's witness at the door to teach the Trinity...or better yet you could knock on a Jehovah's witness door!). The possibilities are endless and at the end of the day the congregation will be better equipped and have a far greater retention of doctrine.

The Business World

Although the business world is somewhat removed from the church in agenda there is some possible crossover with regard to organizational theory. I mean we're still people right? Just think of it as the old theology of "general revelation" working, i.e. God also reveals knowledge through the natural world.

In the mid 1980's Dennis Kravetz set out to see how financially successful companies interacted with their employees. The end result was that the more participative the employees were the more successful the company.

  1. In 1988 David Lewin's study (reviewing 495 organizations) concluded, among other things, "Companies that combine group economic participation, intellectual participation, flexible job designs, and training and development get an added productivity boost- two thirds of the difference observed in bottom-line impact was due to the combined effect of these practices" (McLagan & Nel 1995: 32)

Now there were of course other factors and no doubt an argument could be mounted against the correlation between sermons and organizational business practices'. All I'm trying to do is to point out that in our Culture when adults get together they are used to participating and when they don't participate they don't function optimally. This means that when we have groups gathering (e.g. a church assembly) the people in our culture are used to and thrive under conditions that encourage interaction.

A Cultural Caution

I feel the need for a second to address an issue raised by Buttrick who asked "when Saint Paul states flat out that "faith comes from hearing" (Rom 10:17), should we correct him by suggesting that faith comes from visual aids, and visual aids from your nearest publishing house?" (Buttrick: 1987:5). Just as Tradition, as a theological source, was not allowed to overshadow Scripture so too must Culture act and develop under the authority of Scripture.

Let me be clear; Interactive Homiletics is not about avoiding the speaking and hearing of the Word it is about finding the most biblical and effective way to speak and hear. It's about realizing that speech isn't isolated from action. It's about following Jesus more and more as we grow in understanding.

Conclusions

So let's wrap it all up. When developing theology we operate with the three sources of Scripture, Tradition and Culture. In my own Protestant evangelical tradition Scripture is the dominant source with Culture and Tradition acting as subservient sources. We have seen that Scripture is strongly in favour of interaction with teaching events (sermons/preaching/teaching/homilies etc). We have seen that Culture is strongly in favour of interaction in teaching events. We have noted that the Christian tradition is predominantly in favour of the monologue but that there still is a lesser known tradition of interaction there. You might say that the older tradition is one of interaction while the newer favours the monologue.

Given all this I feel confident in asserting that a theology of participative interactive homiletics should be the dominant theological thought and practice in our culture. I remember a preacher once saying that if biological evolution were true the church would evolve congregations that would consist only of bums, ears and eyes. Let us not be the church that simply sits, sees and listens let us be the church that lives, loves and learns...together.

If you would like to contact Paul and discuss things further please feel free at paul@clyral.com

References

Brueggemann W 1989. Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Buttrick D 1987. Homiletic: Moves and Structures. London, England: SCM Press Ltd.

Camery-Hoggart J 1995. Speaking of God. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.

Craddock FB 1971. As One Without Authority. Available at http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=797

Ford DF1997 article "System, Story, Performance: A Proposal about the Role of Narrative in Christian Systematic Theology" in Why Narrative. Hauerwas S and Jones L (editors). Eugene, Origen: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Grenz SJ and Franke JR 2001. Beyond Foundationalism, Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context . Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press .

Holland DT 1980. The Preaching Tradition. Nashville: Abingdon.

Loscalzo 1992. Preaching Sermons that Connect. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Long TG 1989. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/ John Knox Press.

Norrington DC 1996. To Preach or Not to Preach. Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press.

McDonald JIH 1980. Kerygma and Didache. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLagan P and Nel C 1995. The Age of Participation. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers.

McLure JS 1995. The Roundtable Pulpit. Nashville, USA: Abingdon Press

Pagitt D 2005. Preaching Re-Imagined. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing.

Piek GC 1984. General Didactics. Pretoria, South Africa: de Jager- HAUM Publishers.

Pinnock CH and Brown D 1990. Theological Crossfire. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Rankin OS 1993. Article "The Extent of the Influence of the Synagogue Service upon Christian Worship" in Early Christianity and Judaism. Ferguson E (editor). New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Shin SW 2004. Paul's use of Ethos and Pathos in Galatians: Its Implications for Effective Preaching.

Schultz J and Schultz T 1994. Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at the Church: And How to Fix It. Loveland, Colorado: Group

Sleeth RE 1986. God's Word and Our Words: Basic Homiletics. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Swank 1981. Dialogic Style in Preaching. Valley Forge: Judson Press.

Stott J 1982. I Believe in Preaching. London, England: Hodder & Stoughton.

Taylor M 2005 article "Postmodern Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning with Generation NeXt" in MCLI Forum volume 9, Spring 2005.

Interactive Preaching

By Stuart Murray Williams

Klaus Runia, in his book The Sermon under Attack, quotes a rather unkind definition of preaching as ‘a monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes’. In this book, which is actually a defence of preaching and a plea for more effective communication, Professor Runia explores some of the reasons why monologue preaching has been subject to such criticism. He identifies some important shifts which have taken place in the social context within which preaching is now situated and which challenge the practice of preaching.

Shifts in the Context

The first is a cultural shift away from passive instruction to participatory learning, from paternalism to partnership, from monologue to dialogue, from instruction to interaction. Those who teach, especially those who teach adults, no longer assume they are the experts who know everything and that their task is to convey information to others who simply receive this information. The new paradigm is of partnership, where teachers and learners work together, conscious that all bring contributions to the learning process. For preachers, this would imply that the congregation is active in discerning God’s word rather than relying wholly upon the preacher to declare it.

The second is a societal shift away from an integrated world to a world where networks overlap, a shift away from simplicity to complexity. We live in a world which is not only complex and diverse but a world in which rapid changes are taking place. There are very few generalists; most of us are specialists in one area or another. The education system is geared towards this, despite occasional attempts to broaden the curriculum. For preachers, this raises the issue of how to address such a complex world: the biblical text may not change but if we are concerned with application as well as interpretation, how are we to make the connections? Many preachers seem unable to relate the Bible and theology to the world of work or to issues in public life – these are areas of profound weakness in most churches. Perhaps we need the help of those in the congregation who have expertise and experience in areas where we do not.

The third is a media shift away from linear to non-linear methods of conveying information, from logical argument to pic ‘n’ mix learning. Whether we like it or not, the television age has deeply affected the way in which communication takes place and how people learn. A careful argument that takes thirty minutes to develop does not make for good viewing in the age of sound bites. Watching someone lecturing for thirty minutes, however many camera angles are used, is not an effective use of the visual media. Communication now frequently involves the use of images as well as words, short contributions from diverse points of view, and open-ended presentation that allows freedom to choose your own conclusion. For preachers, this implies not only the use of visual communication as well as verbal communication but hard challenges about the style and purpose of preaching.

These shifts can all be understood as manifestations of a larger shift in worldview that many argue is taking place throughout the western world. The term postmodernity means different things to different people and is in danger of losing its impact through over-use, but it does at least imply that the ordered, rational, structured worldview that has been dominant since the Enlightenment is under threat and that new ways of thinking are emerging. These new ways are not fully established or even fully formed yet, and there may be significant changes ahead or even a return to older ways. We live in an uncomfortable and unsettling era of transition, when we must both be open to change and hesitant before jumping on bandwagons. But there is no doubt that many in a postmodern culture do not appreciate monologue presentations. Sermons may be very poorly suited to this environment.

It is tempting immediately to react to these challenges and to defend preaching. Some of the responses would include:

• ‘Preaching is a biblical mandate, not just a form of speech to be assessed like other forms of communication’;
• ‘Preaching is not just about conveying information, it is a sacrament, an encounter with God’;
• ‘Social and cultural shifts come and go, we should not be unduly influenced by such things’;
• ‘Preaching has served well countless generations of Christians’.

We can return to these and other responses later, but it is important that for the moment we resist the temptation to leap to the defence of preaching and continue to examine the case against monologue preaching and listen carefully to the concerns. Some of these are certainly rooted in the cultural and social context in which we live and preach. The gradual transition from modernity to postmodernity brings with it a rejection of authoritative pronouncements, a preference for dialogue, an interest in exploring diverse options and a move towards learner-centred education.

It is perhaps in the schools that this change can most clearly be seen, despite some recent attempts to revert to a more traditional form of teaching. When I studied the history of the First World War twenty-five years ago, I was lectured and encouraged to learn the facts. But my sons were presented with newspaper cuttings, extracts from speeches, contemporary political cartoons and other primary sources and encouraged to discover not so much the facts as the different perceptions of events.

There may be strengths and weaknesses in both approaches, but the point is that the approach to learning has changed and our congregations are increasingly composed of those who have learned to learn in different ways, and who do not find monologue preaching that accessible. Research into the effectiveness of sermons has uncovered worrying evidence that all preachers need to take seriously. North American and European studies have produced similar results: somewhere between 65% and 90% of those interviewed directly after the meeting ended could not say what the main point of the sermon was or what issue it was addressing. Again, it is possible to argue that sermons are about more than information, that they impact the heart as well as the mind – but is that an adequate response?

How much preaching is a sheer waste of time? We pray, we study, we reflect, we craft a sermon, we illustrate it with stories, we deliver it with passion and integrity – but it has very little impact on those who listen to it. They are too polite to say so usually, but it did not really engage their attention, address their concerns or affect their lives. Some give up after a few weeks or several years and leave our churches. How many of the thousand people a week who have left British churches in the 1980s and 1990s did so because they were bored by our sermons? Others remain and listen to perhaps 100 sermons a year, but with what result?

Jeremy Thomson, a lecturer in Religious Studies at Birkbeck College, has explored this topic in a Grove booklet entitled Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? He writes in the introduction: ‘For all the effort of preparing, delivering and listening to sermons, most church members are not as mature as we might expect as a result. Why is this? Of course, there are bad sermons, and there are preachers whose lives are inconsistent with their teaching. But people may listen week by week to the best prepared and presented sermons, given by thoroughly sincere preachers, and yet make little progress in Christian discipleship. Some preachers blame congregations for a lack of expectancy that God will speak, for an inability to listen to a “solid exposition”, or even for disobedience to what they hear. But I suspect that there is a more significant factor in the failure rate of the sermon than the quality of the preacher or the responsiveness of the hearers. I want to suggest that the problem lies in our concept of preaching itself.’

An Alternative History of Preaching

But it is not just cultural changes or evidence that sermons are ineffective that are causing some to question the adequacy of monologue sermons. Challenges to the sermon have come also from those who have researched its use in earlier periods of history when the cultural setting was quite different. Thomson has done some research into this and argues that what we understand as preaching may be rather different from references to preaching in the New Testament, where it was less formal and much more open to interaction. He traces the emergence of the modern sermon from the theology of the reformers (especially Martin Luther and John Calvin), which gave the sermon the central place in worship, through the writings of Karl Barth, where preaching in effect becomes the Word of God, to the more recent endorsements of monologue preaching by Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. Despite this impressive lineage, there are reasons for asking whether the form has been confused with the content and whether the way God communicates with humanity has been unduly restricted. There is an important theological issue here. Does God address us from a distance and not invite our response and interaction? Or are we invited to dialogue with him?

A more extensive critique of the sermon is offered by David Norrington, whose book To Preach or Not to Preach examines evidence from the New Testament and the early centuries of church history. He argues on the basis of careful and thorough investigation that monologue preaching was present in this period but was used only occasionally rather than regularly. Much more common were discussion, dialogue, interaction and multi-voiced participation. Drawing on both the New Testament and patristic texts, Norrington concludes that the normality and central role of monologue preaching in many churches today has no biblical precedent or support from the post-Apostolic period.

Where did this emphasis on monologue preaching come from? Norrington argues that it was the result of churches gradually adopting from the surrounding pagan culture assumptions about communication and, in particular, a rhetorical model that was more concerned about demonstrating the skill and knowledge of the speaker than about the impact on the listeners. The monologue sermon, he argues, achieved a central place in the church not because this place was biblical or even traditional within the early churches, but because the church was adopting somewhat uncritically the norms and values of contemporary cultural practices.

If Norrington is correct, this is very important. He argues further that the trend away from interaction and multiple participation towards monologue preaching was linked to a number of other developments in the 4th and 5th centuries. During this era the church was becoming respectable and increasingly conventional following the adoption of Christianity as the imperial religion. Huge numbers of half-converted pagans were flooding into the churches. Congregations were swelling in numbers and massive church buildings were being erected. Monologue preaching seemed the only realistic option in large basilicas with thousands in the congregation who had little understanding of even the basics of the faith.

It is certainly arguable that the size of congregations and the architecture of church buildings have had through the centuries at least as much influence on the way churches operate as biblical and theological principles. But two other changes in the church that had been coming for some time but which rapidly developed in this period also affected the style of preaching.

The first was the decline of charismatic gifts and ministries within the church. These had required opportunities for participation by those who were gifted in diverse ways. But church life became steadily more formal and institutional and gifts such as prophecy became inconvenient and unsettling. Sermons were much safer. The dominance of the preacher grew as these gifts were marginalised.

The second change was the gradual development of a clerical caste and the increasing dominance of the clergy over the laity. In a so-called Christian empire, the old distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’ was disappearing, to be replaced by a new division between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. And the clergy were demanding the same kind of authority as secular leaders and professionals. In this hierarchical environment, the clergy preached and the laity listened.

Is Norrington correct? Some have challenged his conclusions and it may be that he has over-stated his case in some places, but his research is careful and he has amassed a significant amount of evidence to support his claims. Other early church historians are broadly in agreement with him. They argue that the biblical and post-biblical evidence suggests that ‘sermons’ were frequently contributions to a dialogue rather than stand-alone monologues, that interaction and multi-voiced participation was normal.

One way of testing his conclusions is to examine later movements in church history which questioned or rejected some of the aspects of church life which Norrington claims were influential in the development of the monologue sermon. If we find groups which challenged clericalism, recovered charismatic gifts, operated through smaller and more intimate gatherings and had high expectations of the level of faith and understanding of church members, but who nevertheless continued to rely primarily on the monologue sermon, we may be less impressed by his arguments.

Three groups in European church history which fit the criteria are the 12th century Waldensians, the 14th century Lollards and the 16th century Anabaptists. Common to all these movements was an expectation that the Spirit would lead them into truth, that the Spirit worked through all, not just through preachers and leaders, and therefore that interaction and multi-voiced church life was crucial. We will concentrate here on the Anabaptists, who explored this issue in their writings and congregational practices.

Although the Anabaptists did not abandon sermons, they were wary of monologues and critical of the lack of participation in the Catholic and Protestant churches around them. They were outspoken about this issue and argued from Scripture that something was wrong. An early Anabaptist tract quoted Paul in I Corinthians 14 urging that all should contribute when the church met together and complained: ‘When some one comes to church and hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent...who can or will regard or confess the same to be a spiritual congregation?’ The reformers had proclaimed the priesthood of all believers but the Anabaptists, their contemporaries, were not impressed with what they found in the reformers’ churches. The monopoly of the Catholic priest seemed to have been replaced by the monopoly of the reformed preacher. Experts were still disempowering the congregation and hindering it from becoming mature.

Many Anabaptist congregations consciously moved away from the monologue tradition towards a more interactive style with multiple participation and dialogue. An Anabaptist under interrogation in 1527, Ambrosius Spitelmaier, explained how this worked: ‘When they have come together, they teach one another the divine Word and one asks the other: how do you understand this saying? Thus there is among them a diligent living according to the divine Word.’ Among Anabaptists there were three common convictions about how God spoke to his people: first, that listening to the Holy Spirit was more important in understanding Scripture than education or ordination; second, that the Holy Spirit might speak through any member of the church as they meditated on the Bible; and third, that hearing and discerning the Word of God was a community practice rather than an individual practice. Multiple participation, dialogue and interaction were vital.

So, challenges to monologue preaching come both from those who recognise that it is an inappropriate form of communication in contemporary culture and from those who argue that the predominance of this form of communication lacks biblical and historical support and is rooted in a hierarchical and clerical understanding of church life which disempowers most church members and limits the freedom of the Spirit to work through the whole body. In our postmodern and post-Christendom environment, perhaps we need to return to our biblical roots, learn from earlier pioneering movements and have the courage to do things differently.

Summary

The charges against the dominance of monologue preaching are as follows:

• This is not the way in which Jesus, the apostles or the New Testament churches operated;
• This is a practice which became dominant as the church moved away from its roots, adopted pagan cultural practices and became formal and institutional;
• The monologue sermon impoverishes, disempowers and de-skills congregations;
• This is not a form of communication that is appropriate in contemporary culture;
• There are alternatives practised by dissident movements throughout history and churches today.

How do you respond to these charges? How effective have monologue sermons been in shaping you as a Christian, or in forming your local church? What experience do you have of interactive preaching?

An Alternative Approach

It is all very well criticising monologue sermons. What are the alternatives? I want to suggest that interactive preaching is characterised by four features.

First, it is learner-focused, concerned more about what is learned than what is taught, more about the outcome than the methodology. If Norrington is correct, preaching went wrong when it became more concerned about crafting good sermons than ensuring that people were learning and growing. Interactive preaching is concerned about results, about growth in understanding and maturity, about connecting with the issues and life situations of congregations. This might require us to invite suggestions about subjects for sermons, to welcome the participation of those with experience in areas where the regular preacher does not, to gather honest feedback on the impact of the preaching on the congregation.

Second, it is multi-voiced, not dominated by one voice but open to participation by many people. It recognises that nobody has a monopoly on revelation or wisdom, that there are resources in the congregation that will enable the Word of God to be heard with much greater power and clarity if these are released. It picks up the cry of Moses: ‘Would that all God’s people were prophets!’ It believes Peter’s claim on the day of Pentecost that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, as Joel had prophesied, so that young and old, male and female can bring revelation to the people of God.

Third, it is open-ended, prepared to leave loose ends and to live with uncertainty, to run the risk of allowing people space to think, to reflect, to explore, to ask how biblical teaching might apply to their situation. Interactive preaching is never the final word but a process of learning together, reflecting both on experience and on the Scriptures. It offers resources rather than rules, sees discipleship as a journey rather than a fixed state, poses questions rather than dispensing answers, invites ownership rather than imposing conclusions. It endorses the conviction of the Pilgrim Fathers that ‘the Lord has yet more light to break forth out of his Word.’

Fourth, it is dialogue-based, making room for questions, comments, challenges, ideas and exploration. This might mean drawing the congregation into sermons by asking questions, inviting responses, welcoming insights. It might mean discussion groups during or after sermons. It might mean changing the way the chairs are arranged to make dialogue and discussion possible. It might mean having two speakers debating an issue together, with congregational participation. It might mean asking several people to reflect on a passage for a week and then construct a sermon together. It might mean inviting a congregation to do some preparatory reading during the week so that they can contribute thoughtfully to a teaching period. It might mean developing a culture where people know they are free to interrupt and interject comments.

Could this happen? Yes, it could. I have been experimenting with interactive preaching over the past few years and about 80% of the time now use some form of interactive approach. But I recognise that there are significant obstacles to overcome, even if you are convinced that this is worth pursuing. Among these are the following:

• Congregations are locked into monologue preaching and are threatened by anything different. However boring or unproductive monologue sermons may be, they are at least safe, familiar and undemanding. Interactive preaching is none of these things.
• The sermon is seen as sacrosanct, often based on misinterpreting certain texts such as I Corinthians 1:21. The historical and cultural aspects of the development of this style of communication are not recognised.
• Preachers are very wary of interactive methods. We may feel insecure, liable to be put on the spot, doing something we were not trained to do. We may not feel we have the skills to cope with this.
• Preachers prefer to preach monologue sermons. Not only is it safer, it feels more satisfying, more fulfilling, more ‘anointed’. Putting it bluntly, preacher satisfaction takes precedence over congregational growth. Our response to cultural shifts and evidence of low levels of understanding and interest may be to try harder, to use more stories or visual aids, and to do another preaching course. This may help, but it does not address the deeper issues.

If interactive preaching is to catch on, both preachers and congregations will need to be re-trained and re-orientated. This will take time. It will require persistence and courage. But it may be that nothing less is required for church life in the 21st century.

Questions

1. In what ways could your local church be described as multi-voiced? Are there ways in which this might be explored further?
2. What kind of community can exercise church discipline responsibly and lovingly? How might this practice be introduced into your church?
3. Which of the objections to interactive preaching do you find strongest? How would you respond to this?

Reading and Resources

David Norrington: To Preach or not to Preach (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996)
Klaus Runia: The Sermon under Attack (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1983)
Tim Stratford: Interactive Preaching: Opening the Word then Listening (Nottingham: Grove, 1998)
Jeremy Thomson: Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? (Nottingham: Grove, 1996)

(This text was originally presented to the London Baptist Association lay preachers' annual gathering)

Preaching as Dialogue

By Jeremy Thomson

Jeremy Thomson is the author of Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? (Cambridge: Grove, 1996, 2003). This book can be obtained from Grove Books at www.grovebooks.co.uk

This study guide is:

• A practical, 'how-to' guide that does not repeat much of my Grove Booklet
• Earthed in churches that want to explore this form of teaching/learning
• Anecdotes – my own experiences of doing it and imagined other scenarios
• What are the difficulties of introducing this form of preaching if it has not been done before? How can churches help their people to respond and interact?
• This will be an initial attempt to produce something. It is open to addition, modification, etc.

Introduction

Preaching has been a key component of church life from the very beginning, yet it often seems to fall on deaf ears. This may be due to poor preaching, or to hearers unused to listening to speakers for many minutes. But it may also be due to the rigid format of preaching that normally prevents explicit interaction between speaker and hearers.

I believe that the church needs to employ a variety of formats for preaching. Sometimes the conventional monologue is appropriate, but on other occasions a dialogical format is much more effective. I have argued the theological case for dialogical preaching in Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow? (Cambridge: Grove, 1996, 2003), and I followed this up with an article on ‘Interactive Preaching’ in Anabaptism Today 20 (Spring 1999), 14-21. This article can be accessed in the Anabaptism Today archives.

The purpose of this study guide is to promote thought and discussion as to the practicalities of how interactive preaching might be introduced into church life. In writing it I have drawn upon personal experiences of using interactive preaching, and upon some experiences of others.

1. Interactive Preaching

I begin by discussing two types of fully interactive preaching, drawn from my own experience. Later I will suggest that, even if such interactive practice seems out of reach, some of its benefits can be incorporated into more conventional preaching.

(a) In the conventional sermon slot

Once I was invited to lead a Sunday afternoon session for Methodist preachers on dialogical preaching. This was followed by a conventional evening service, to which some of the afternoon participants came, together with some others – perhaps 20 altogether. The evening service was led by a colleague, and the sermon ‘slot’ was followed by a time of prayer.

The subject of the sermon was ‘Salvation and Healing the Past’. I began by telling a story about someone I knew, who as a child had been emotionally abused by her mother, and the way this had affected her life as an adult. Her mother had become a Christian in recent years, yet the daughter could not talk to her about their past because the mother’s understanding of forgiveness was that the past had been wiped clean. Eventually in the course of her work, the mother received professional training in child abuse issues and began to realise the seriousness of what she had done all those years ago. She apologised to her daughter and their relationship improved significantly.

I then asked the congregation to reflect on what assumptions seem to have been at work in the mother’s initial understanding of salvation. Participants made several suggestions, most on target, but a few somewhat peripheral. I had to negotiate these – acknowledging possible answers and maintaining the focus.

I then resumed talking, making the point that when we discover God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ our social relationships begin to be transformed, referring to Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) as well as the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). This led to the key point that forgiveness does not mean making bad things as if they had never happened: redemption means dealing with their consequences (Matt 5:23).

Here I stopped again, and asked what people thought of this theological point (I believe many Christians are confused about this). There was some further discussion, including some proposals about how new Christians might be helped to understand it. The conversation passed between several participants without my intervention, until the time came for me to close it.

Reflections and Questions

My strategy was to begin by telling a real story that raised questions about a very practical, but also theological issue. Involving participants in exploring those questions formed an initial interactive phase. Some reference to biblical passages enabled me to clarify the issue, and this led into a second phase of discussion concerned with application.

As the preacher, I played a pivotal role in selecting the topic, thinking out the theological and practical aspects, designing some questions to initiate discussion, chairing the discussions and keeping everything within time limits. This required more preparation and a wider range of skills than would have a conventional sermon.

• What problems would this format encounter with a larger congregation, and how possible might it be to surmount these?
• What types of subject matter might be most suitable in such a format?

(b) In a dedicated format

I have preached interactively at several churches that have decided to run special events. On one occasion there was a short time of singing and prayers preceding my presentation, allowing extended time for the ‘sermon.’ This enabled me to present some teaching material (illustrated by several film clips). I stopped for questions and interaction with my hearers, in the middle and towards the end. The congregation was quite large (about 100), and the interaction with me was necessarily fairly limited, though several people of different ages spoke up. This took place post 9/11, and the subject matter was controversial since I was addressing the subject of violence from an Anabaptist perspective. The interest of most hearers seemed to be sustained, and some stayed behind after the formal conclusion to engage in further discussion.

Reflections and Questions

On this occasion I was attempting to argue an ethical case that few hearers would previously have heard presented with conviction. Thus the dynamics involved were necessarily different from those involved in case (a), quite apart from the size of gathering. Some interlocutors were unconvinced or put counter arguments – it was important to allow these points to be made, and that I responded to them graciously.

• What skills does the preacher need to draw upon in such a situation?
• What types of subject matter might be most suitable in this format?

2. Moving Towards Interactive Preaching
It may be that preachers lack confidence about launching into interactive preaching directly, but want to try some other methods of getting the congregation to discuss the conventional sermon, in the belief that this promotes profounder learning. I have come across several ways in which this can be done.

(a) Conventional preaching with discussion following the end of the service

When I worked as a curate in the Church of England, occasional sermons on controversial subjects were followed up with discussion after the end of the conventional service. This had the advantage of facilitating discussion with the preacher soon after the sermon, and was valued by a significant proportion of those present. Yet a considerable number of people tended to leave before the discussion, and the arrangement tended to endorse the impression that discussion was not quite appropriate to the ‘service of worship’.

(b) Conventional preaching with discussion groups during the week

Many churches have used mid-week groups as occasions to follow up the Sunday sermon with discussion. This solution avoids significant change to the conventional monologue sermon while recognising the value of reflection and discussion in small groups. It requires good leadership of small groups, and efficient coordination, and it depends upon a significant number of Sunday worshippers belonging to the small groups. It has several drawbacks:

• Significant numbers of people who hear the sermon may miss out on the discussion because they do not attend small groups.
• It tends to isolate the discussion from the original sermon (and preacher), and feedback to the whole church is difficult unless some further meeting is employed.

(c) Conventional preaching with discussion groups the following week

The Pastor of a Baptist Church in a small market town wanted to experiment with a form of interactive preaching. His plan was to preach a conventional sermon once a month, and on the Sunday following to replace the sermon with discussion groups. The conventional hymns, readings and prayers would happen as before. He went about it in the following way:

• Discuss the plan with the Deacons
• Communicate the plan at the church meeting
• Announce the plan in advance at church services
• Select and prepare group discussion leaders. In the groups these leaders would give a brief summary of the sermon and introduce three questions for discussion (20 minutes). They would not dominate the discussion but draw out those who might be shy. They would allow some exploration of the subject without wandering too far from the point.
• The preacher would lead a group for those who had not heard the sermon on the previous week, giving a brief outline of what was said then and prompting some discussion.
• There would be a time of plenary feedback (10 minutes)

On the Sundays that discussion groups happened, the Pastor rearranged the chairs so that rows were replaced by semi-circles. He plans in future to sit people around tables, and is considering introducing tea/coffee during the discussion.

Some opposition to the idea was voiced by some people (mainly older and more traditional members). There is to be a review of the initial trial and the hope is to agree to make these discussions a monthly feature next year.

Questions for Reflection

• Can you come up with other preaching formats that achieve elements of interactivity?
• What would be the practical implications of each of these formats if you were to adopt them in your church?
• If you were to adopt one or more of these formats, how could you ensure that you moved beyond them to truly interactive preaching at a later date?

3. Practical Considerations concerning Implementation

Church leaders who wish to embark on interactive preaching should explore the following:

• Which of the above formats seem most suited to your church currently, and on which occasions?
• What training and experience is needed by preachers to contemplate such kinds of preaching?
• What preparation, consultation and communication are required before initiating interactive preaching in your church?
• What opposition to new forms of preaching can be anticipated, and what is the best form of response?
• What are the time and effort implications? Where will these come from? Other activities may have to take a lower priority, so is this the right time for such an initiative?

It may be that more fundamental work is required before a church can agree to move towards more interactive preaching. I suggest that exploring the following areas may help to facilitate such moves (as well as having value in their own right):

• Research the effectiveness of current preaching:
o Review whether suggested practical outcomes of sermons are acted upon.
o Interview individuals about what they have found helpful or challenging in sermons (this may be more worthwhile than using written surveys).
• Find out more about and develop communication skills, especially listening, among the church generally.
• Run occasional church events that employ more interactive forms of teaching.
• Develop leaders who can handle group discussions.

Conclusion

Each of the proposed formats requires considerable effort and a variety of skills to be effective. Educating the church is a complex and demanding task that cannot be left to one or two individuals. Those with expertise in these fields should find ways of teaching and training others to develop likewise.

Throwing a Hand Grenade in the Fruit Bowl

by Jonny Baker

Something Has Got To Change

Since I was asked to write this chapter on preaching I have been asking a lot of people when the last sermon was that really inspired or challenged or changed them. The responses have been interesting. A lot of the people have pulled a face and laughed as if to say 'are you serious?' - it's as though they can't even imagine the possibility of being inspired or hearing a brilliant sermon. Others have remembered a transforming preach but a typical answer has been that it was one or two years ago. In a recent debate in the UK on introducing a law against inciting religious hatred the Guardian newspaper published a cartoon of an angry woman pointing at a vicar and saying to a policeman ‘his sermons have made me hate church officer’. It made me laugh but like so much good humour/art it’s funny because it is making something visible that is hidden.

I assume that most people buying and reading this book will be preachers or have some vested interest in preaching. From the preacher's end of things it is often frustrating as well. We have all had the experience of chewing over the theme or the biblical text, crafting a sermon to bring God's word to the congregation, and yet when we stand up to preach, eyes gradually glaze over and we can see minds almost drifting out of the room. There are always one or two enthusiastic listeners taking it all in, but a large percentage just look blank. What's particularly frustrating about this is that we as the preacher have got fired up about the passage and have a sense of God wanting to speak but still people are not getting it. There seems to be a kind of disconnect, a communication breakdown.

Something has got to change. Maybe it’s time to think the unthinkable. For too long we have behaved like the 'well adjusted' courtiers in the famous story of the Emperor's New Clothes saying nothing, propping up the status quo, smiling politely with our vested interests in tact (whether as preachers or as listeners), or simply too embarrassed to say anything. Allow me to be the antisocial brat (as Marshall Mcluhan puts it in his retelling of the story) - the Emperor 'ain't got nothin' on!' Preaching is invariably dull. It is boring. People are sick of three point sermons beginning with P. People aren't listening. People don't want to be preached at. They don’t want to be told what to think. Like so many other areas of church life we're stuck in a time warp. It isn't working. Maybe it's time for a rethink.

Thinking Creatively About Preaching

We need some creative thinking about preaching. There are several myths and several blocks to creative thinking. These are a couple of each:

Myth one is that creative thinking is a mystical gift that some people have and others don’t. This is simply untrue. We are all made in the image of God and we all have this gift. It can lie dormant particularly if we don’t exercise it like an unused muscle but step one to being creative will be recovering the belief that we are all creative.

Myth two is what Edward de Bono calls the logic of hindsight – whenever anyone comes up with an idea very little attention is paid to how they came up with it because it looks obvious in hindsight. The problem is that whilst an idea may be logical in hindsight it is invisible in foresight. So we need to pay attention to the processes of coming up with creative ideas.

Block one is ‘the right way’. When it comes to preaching there is no right way – there are lots of ways. New ideas can be threatening of course. But the more ideas we have the richer we will be for it. Part of the skill of learning to think creatively is learning to detach your ego from the process. You don’t have to be right.

Block two is the habit our brains have for thinking along familiar tracks. We think in patterns and it can be hard for us to think along different routes. We need to be provoked or whacked on the side of the head to learn the art of seeing sideways.

People often come up with creative ideas when they are provoked. So if we want to be creative we need to deliberately come up with provocations or interruptions into our routine to knock us off track and into a different way of thinking. De Bono has devised several provocations. One is ‘Escape’ – in this method you look at some feature that you normally take for granted in a situation and then drop it or cancel it . If we want to think creatively about church then it might be worth trying this by dropping out priests, worship leaders, choirs, church buildings, house groups, alpha, the prayer book, singing or whatever. The point about this isn’t that you have to get rid of that thing forever – but it will force you to think in different directions even if you reintroduce what you have dropped out. (Be warned though I did hear of a church that gave up its choir for lent and never had them back!). I want to apply this to thinking about preaching – let’s drop sermons. Preaching is a sacred cow so let’s slay it.

Route One – Slaying A Sacred Cow

Ok – so no preaching! This immediately raises several questions. What is preaching for? What other ways can we achieve that? What are we going to do instead? What about preaching is good that we need to find other ways to do? What about preaching is it that we’ll be glad to see the back of and never have back?

Mike Riddell suggests that ‘The purpose of the sermon is to unleash the power of scripture in a way that leads to personal and corporate encounter with God.’ I like that. I’d add that it should open up the possibility of transformation which maybe is implicit in his definition. One other goal of preaching/teaching is education – enabling people to learn.

There are actually stacks of ways we can do those things that don’t involve preaching. I am involved in an alternative worship community Grace in West London. Alternative worship has lots of insights and clues to offer the wider church I think on creative approaches to liturgy and worship. One of those is the treating of the whole worship service as the text rather than just the sermon. Another is the involvement of the wider community in engaging with that text from planning through to the service. We recently had a couple of services looking at Psalms. The planning of the services involved a few weeks of discussing and reading Psalms – planning is generally quite a chaotic experience. Anyone is welcome to come and contribute and the process tends to start with brainstorming ideas and letting the theme or the text inspire and challenge us – any random tangents are explored, with often the craziest ideas leading to some wonderful things. The end result of this process of wrestling with the scriptures was a series of two services on the Psalms. In the first we had identified about 10 different themes such as praise, lament, anger, despair, storytelling. Then the whole text of the psalms was printed out at different places/stations in the church along with activities or small rituals that related to the psalm and connected it with contemporary experience. These ranged from an online confession, post it notes of thanks, wrapping your self in a duvet to read psalm 91. The service involved a corporate reading of a couple of psalms sandwiched around time to walk round and pray and interact with all of the stations that had been set up. It was a powerful service, engaging with a lot of bible text. For the second service people were invited to create their own psalm using any media they liked and the service consisted of those being read/shown/performed. Not everyone created a psalm but a lot did. The results were stunning and in a range of media – VJed psalms, rewrites of existing psalms that related to an urban context and so on. Artists’ gifts came to the fore. Some of it was actually great contextual theology.

The same material could have been approached by asking one person to preach on Psalms for us, but so much was gained by everyone wrestling with the text rather than just the preacher. The culture we live in is shaped by consumption. All of life seems to be distilled through this lens including church. It’s very easy for people to come to worship to consume God. As leaders we get trapped in a provider-client relationship with the congregation. They sit and passively consume what is taught or provided for them. One of the keys to breaking this is looking for ways to empower people to move from being consumers to producers – i.e. creative involvement, using their gifts to contribute and create.

This issue is further problematised by the notion of priest/leader/preacher as expert and/or the mediator of God’s word to the people. We should look to move to the hermeneutic of the congregation – i.e. the people as the interpreters and co-authors rather than the one or two experts. I don’t want to overstate this. Communities do need gifts of expertise – but the way that these gifts are brought to bear could shift. One of the gifts a preacher can bring is their theological expertise – it is invaluable to have people who know the scriptures and theological takes on things and have put the leg work in terms of reading and research. But these can be brought as one of many gifts to the community who then need to work out how they might be communicated or discovered by the congregation in the worship, liturgy, group discussion, ritual, artistic interpretations of the text and so on. This is no different to the way a musician or photographer or DJ or liturgist might offer their gifts to the community. It can sometimes feel a risk to open up who can contribute in this way – we’re immediately losing some control. But in the gospels it is actually often (and pretty much exclusively) those with no power or those who are outside of the 'religious' community who have the most profound insights about the nature of the kingdom (such as the Samaritan woman in John 4). There is an implicit belief that God is at work in the world beyond the boundaries that the religious community has constructed where the Spirit leads people to creative discoveries and encounters with God and other people. If we took this seriously then we could let go of some of our fear and experience some of the energy and creativity that the Spirit brings to the community.

Education has changed a lot in the last twenty years, recognizing that people have various learning styles. The emphasis is on teaching people to think and discover for themselves rather than learning facts. This notion is captured in the old proverb ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever’. There is also plenty of research that shows that a talking head is actually a very ineffective means of communication. People retain only a very small percentage of information communicated in this way, and they know that if it is facts they are after, a quick visit to google will probably suffice anyway. Preaching it seems is stuck in the old school. The questions we should be asking are how can we help people to think, theologise, discover and learn – not what doctrine/information can we impart this week.

One of things I realized several years ago was that I had a lot of friends who had been Christians a while and were drifting out of churches. Sermons were the thing they most complained about. I know that for me one of the times I got the most out of the bible was when I had a sermon to prepare because it made me study it in depth. I figured that these people needed to do something like that. So I started a group called ‘nuggets’. We met in a pub and everyone had to deliver a ‘nugget’, (as well as drink plenty of beer). Now a nugget was an insight on a passage in the bible – it could be anything. But being a competitive bunch, people wanted to deliver impressive nuggets. The unspoken thing was that the more original and surprising the better. And a good nugget generally had a build up, the delivery and then basking in the oohs and aahs as people were wowed by it. This was the most fantastic time of learning for the whole group – the group had shifted from being passive bored listeners to active producers – learning and making discoveries in the process. We were often the noisiest group in the pub. The one qualified theologian in the group actually invariably delivered the best nugget and I think he enjoyed it so much more than preaching.

I was chatting with someone recently about preaching and they said that in their church they always preached for a response. By this they meant that the conclusion to the sermon always created space for people to respond to God. I know that these situations can be manipulated and there is plenty of bad practice around. But at heart this expectation is a good one and in line with the goal that preaching should unleash an encounter with God. We also live in a culture now where people want experience – they are up for encounter with God, they want to be touched, moved, changed. This is actually a very big turn around from the British stereotype of the stiff upper lip (thank God) - the unforgivable sin these days is boring people. One of the most wonderful discoveries I have made in the last ten years is the power of ritual to open up encounter with God. In Grace we invariably create some sort of ritual for people to respond to the theme or the text that we have explored in the service. Usually the rituals are inclusive and can be taken on a number of levels – this creates enough space for people to respond to God and for the Spirit to touch people where they are at. The rituals might be old ones such as lighting a candle, burning incense, anointing with oil, eating bread and drinking wine, or they might be new ones such as putting a footprint in sand, writing a pledge, walking a labyrinth. These embodied responses seem to open up a window for transformation and encounter. And you can facilitate the responses and encounter even if you have dropped the sermon.

I recently came across the web site for a café church in Australia. On the web site they describe how they have employed various artists over the last few years. They refer back to the days when churches might have employed someone to sculpt or create pictures in stained glass and see what they are doing as the equivalent. One of the kinds of art they have created is digital art – what they describe as contemporary stained glass windows in motion. Rick Founds was employed to create a flash animation that linked in with the theme of the lectionary for a whole year. Members of the community and further afield could subscribe to an e-mail list and get sent the animations – one each week. Several are available to download form the web site. I love the imagination of that community – the willingness to invest in artists and creative communication. Maybe dropping preaching could give us a chance to let the artists in our midst loose? Art can do so many things. It can be pleasurable, beautiful, and challenging. But it also has the ability to shatter settled reality, to evoke grief, to make things visible, to open up new imaginative possibilities and worlds. Allow me another couple of Mcluhan quotes: ‘the mind of the artist is always the point of maximal sensitivity and resourcefulness in expressing altered realities in the common culture’ and ‘the art of remaking the world eternally new is achieved by careful and delicate dislocation of ordinary perceptions’ . In times of change the gift of the artist/prophet is invaluable to the Christian community.

Our ‘escape’ provocation has led us on a brief journey where we have discovered new ideas, broken the passivity engendered by preaching, moved from the cult of the expert to the gifts of the people, moved from the preacher as the interpreter to the congregation as the interpreters engaging with the bible, let loose the artists in our midst, rediscovered ritual, remembered that the goals are learning, encounter with God and transformation and that preaching may be one gift or art among many that can lead us to that place. Having made this journey, for route two of our rethink about preaching I want to reintroduce preaching and suggest a few ideas for remixing it.

This ‘escape’ may seem contrived and of course it is. But it may also not be such a bad idea in practice. And it is certainly possible – maybe try it for 6 months. At Grace we very rarely have anyone preach. In fact I can’t think of a single sermon as such in the last three years.

Route Two – Remixing The Sermon

Sampling changed the way music was made. A sampler enables you to take a sample of music from a track – a drum loop or a riff say. Various samples can then be woven together to make a track on a computer. DJs and producers create and remix music tracks in this way. They take some elements (samples) of an old track – maybe a break beat or a riff and then add in some samples or loops from other places as well as create some original new parts to create a whole fresh sound – referencing the old but also completely reinventing it and giving it their own unique twist. In this way the tradition if you like of jazz is reinvented and carried forward and given a new creative edge. This provides one of the best metaphors for me for thinking about the art of preaching. We have a history of over 2000 years of the Christian faith, the scriptures, the resources of theology and biblical studies, insights from the world church, sermons preached, the arts, as well as access to what is happening in contemporary culture in music, literature, film, blogs and the media. Where preaching is stuck in a rut we can take a leaf out of the DJs book and sample and remix the tradition fusing it with contemporary culture to come up with some fresh inspiring and original sermons. Brueggemann puts it this way – ‘it (proclamation) is rather a place where people come to receive new materials, or old materials freshly voiced, that will fund feed nurture nourish legitimate and authorize a counterimagination of the world’ . As well as the negative experiences that I began the chapter with I have also been built up, challenged, moved to encounter God, to repent, laughed and wept, had the rug pulled from under my feet, and made new discoveries about God and what it means to follow Jesus all through listening to people who have crafted the art of preaching in this way.

Maybe a starting point for remixing is letting go of the old fixed ways of doing things. I want to end up just with a few ideas for preaching – these are not solutions, just some things I have discovered that you can add to your mix.

Get creative – learn to think outside the box. I’ve said plenty about this in the previous section but surprise people, come at things sideways, don’t let them know where you are headed, draw them in, intrigue them, find resources outside your area to fund your and their imagination.

Stop being a lone ranger. Don’t do all the preaching. Get in a team of people that want to communicate and dream ideas and creative ways of communicating and widen that group as much as you can.

Preach less often. Too many preachers trapped in the role of the provider/expert find themselves preaching too often. It’s no surprise they lose their edge and don’t have fresh things to say. In the previous church I was in I did preach but I said to the vicar I would preach three or four times a year so that I could be fresh and put plenty of effort into making those sermons really good.

Move from a deductive to an inductive approach . Deductive tells people what you are going to preach on, does so via a series of rational logical points, and deduces a conclusion. This is fine for certain types of audience but they have to be highly motivated to listen. What often happens is that you have shown your hand in the introduction so the congregation know what you are going to say and switch off. In contrast an inductive approach starts where people are at and from that life experience or illustrations takes people on a journey to where you want to lead them. When you get there the conclusion is induced – it’s obvious. A classic example of this kind of communication is where Nathan the prophet is tasked with confronting David about his adultery – he starts with a story about someone stealing a sheep. David is drawn right in to the story and Nathan turns it on its head when he says – it’s you!

Use storytelling. People love good stories. Weave them into your sermons or make the whole sermon a story or a series of interwoven stories. One technique I picked up from the comedian Ben Elton is what I call freeze framing. He starts telling one or more stories and then stops/freeze frames them at a point of suspense only to return to them later. People love this – it keeps their interest and intrigues them as they want to know the outcome.

Watch good communicators/comedians. I went to see Eddie Izzard at Hammersmith Apollo a few years ago. He spoke without notes for an hour an three quarters and then came back for a half hour encore and people still wanted more!

Arouse curiosity. The old school of preaching is very much about the banking concept of education – telling people what to think. Move from that to trying to get people to think. Ask questions rather than give answers. Jesus was a master of this. He spoke in parables and did not explain them. I love the translation in ‘the Message’ of Jesus’ answer when he was asked why he spoke in parables – ‘to create readiness, to nudge the people towards receptive insight’ i.e. get them curious, get under their skin, get them thinking because they have got hard hearts to get through to. Sometimes to do that you have to hide meaning. We tell parables and insist on explaining them. Try telling a parable and not explaining it.

Create space for artists to communicate and not just as illustration for your sermons, Use contemporary art forms as well as classic ones.

Create space for dialogue and interaction. One of the Greek words for preaching is actually our equivalent of dialogue. Get people into small groups to discuss and feedback. At the end of every sermon create a space for questions, disagreement and comments. Rather than one talking head have two people present different takes on the same material.

Preach for a response but don’t control it. I think preaching should open up the possibility of encounter with God but combine it with ritual that is open so that you don’t try and control the response too much. Let God do what God wants to do.

Accept that some people don’t need to hear any more sermons. Many of the people who like preaching are those who have been Christians for a short while. They are hungry to learn and grow in their faith. On the other hand there are other people around who have heard literally hundreds of sermons. They probably don’t need or want to hear any more for a while. Instead of worrying about how to please them try and think how to nudge them into doing more with their faith. Maybe they should start a new expression of church at the coffee shop on a Sunday morning for people who don’t like sermons?

Let prophets, evangelists and apostles as well as pastors and teachers preach. I think the comfortable option in letting people preach (and lead) is identifying those with pastoral and teaching gifts. Look for those who have more of a prophetic, evangelistic or apostolic edge. They are likely to see things differently and bring a different maybe more uncomfortable challenge.

Spend as much time on the communication as the content. My experience is that when people prepare sermons they work hard on the content and then put it into shape fairly quickly. I think how you say it is as important as the content. Try preparing a sermon well in advance. Then once you have worked out what to say meet with some others and see how creative you can be with the way you want to say it.

Don’t have sermons every week. Preaching is not sacrosanct. It’s one way of communicating. Do something different for a change.

Use cultural signposts. Jesus did this all the time. His metaphors and symbols for the kingdom were things like salt and yeast and shepherds. His stories were agricultural. They used signposts from the culture. The equivalent for us is using the stuff of culture and life – films, songs, media, art and so on. To do this you need to be immersed in ‘the real world’ rather than the Christian subculture.

Try a few short sermons – it’s surprising what you can say. When slam poetry kicked off the early nights consisted of anyone being able to perform for three minutes. People would do the most amazing things. Introduce slam preaching. I was once asked to preach three 60 second sermons for the BBC. At first I thought it was a joke but by the time I had done it I was thinking why do people need 30 minutes?

I explained my approach for this chapter on preaching to a friend on the phone and it made him laugh. He said it sounded like I was putting a hand grenade in the fruit bowl - the chapter’s not meant to be that destructive! But now you know what inspired the chapter heading. But I hope that it might at least have provoked or sparked you or given you a whack on the side of the head.