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.