Most evangelicals would, I suppose, think that ‘proper’ preaching consists of a prepared speech, delivered without interruption to a group a silent listeners. The use of dialogue would be thought to ‘water down’ the content and authority of the message, by allowing what was being said to be questioned or even doubted.
Consider the biblical evidence. Ian Paul quotes Jeremy Thomson:
Much of Jesus’ teaching was given ‘on the way’ and involved a high degree of interaction with the audience (Mark 8.27–10.52). There were many occasions when it arose out of the question or an incident (Mark 2.18–28, 7.1–23, 9.33–37 and even 13.3ff), and it frequently included interaction with his hearers (Mark 8.14–21, 10.23–31, 35–45). The culmination of Jesus preaching in a synoptic gospel took place in the temple, where he was constantly responding to aggressive questions (Mark 11.27–12.44)
Thomson concludes, with regard to preaching and teaching in the New Testament:
- It was not confined to a formal religious setting, but often took place in homes, outdoors and on the road.
- As much as a planned for regular activity, preaching arose spontaneously as Jesus and the early Christians involved themselves with the lives of others. It entailed recognising and challenging assumptions, and dealing with questions raised by others.
- Preaching was not confined to any particular size of group, but was addressed to individuals, families and small groups as much as to large gatherings.
- Only sometimes did preaching take the format of a monologue. There were speeches, but these were frequently given in the context of discussion, and often included interaction with the audience. Argument and discussion were important as a means of persuasive preaching.
Even those longer blocks of teaching that are recorded in the New Testament, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) are evidently constructed out of shorter elements, in order to fit with the Evangelist’s purpose.
Such artificial construction of apparent monologues is apparent elsewhere. In Acts 2, the onlookers seem to deliver a monologue as if in unison, but this can scarcely have been the actual case.
Then again, we have authoritative teaching delivered in the form of conversations. Jesus’ interaction with the two on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24) is just one example of this.
The word dialegomai (to debate, to discuss) is used regularly in Acts to describe Paul’s preaching/teaching (as in Acts 17:2; 19:8; 20:7).
But if preaching exclusively by monologue is not supported by Scripture, neither is it supported by our own experience.
Although popular theories of ‘learning styles’ lack solid evidence and are therefore someone discredited, it does seem plausible that some people prefer, and perhaps benefit from, some communication ‘channels’ more than others. At the very least, we can agree that people appreciate regular changes of content, format, and delivery.
We seem to readily recognise the importance of interactive and multi-channel learning in delivering all-age content. But why resist extending it to adult-only settings?
Our entertainment culture has bred not only a desire for visual and fast-moving stimulation, but also shorter attention spans. Reading lengthy sermons from a script may have worked in an age when there were fewer distractions, but will work less well for most people nowadays.
The need for interactive teaching is also underlined by the alarming gap between what the preacher (hopefully) knows and believes, and what many among his audience know and believe. Many sit under orthodox preaching about the cross, say, but their theory-in-use has no room for atonement. There needs to be, we must conclude, a greater connection between what the preacher/teaching is thinking and what his audience is thinking. That argues for a dialogue between them.
But how is such dialogue to be achieved? How do we get from where we are (where preaching is dominated by monologue) to where we should be (where preaching includes a greater or lesser amount of dialogue)?
One ‘solution’ was proposed by John Stott, in his book I Believe in Preaching. Stott agreed that preaching should entail dialogue, but this should be internal dialogue, in which the preacher imagines what questions and doubts his hearers might have and deals with them accordingly. But this approach, while it may be necessary and helpful, is pretend dialogue, not real dialogue.
Real dialogue, let it be admitted, is difficult to do well. We have the physical layout and furniture of our buildings to contend with, for example. Then we have to consider that dialogue will work better with smaller groups of people, and that it requires particular skills on the part of the preacher/teacher.
But then we must affirm that certain kinds of Christian teaching cannot be done effectively by means of a conversational approach.
You cannot cast a vision by having a discussion. When Paul had the vision in Acts 16 of the man of Macedonia calling him and his team across to Europe, he didn’t invite discussion—he told them what God had told him! This isn’t perhaps the usual context of preaching, and there is an exercise of authority that we might not want to model the whole time. But those in ministry are called to be shepherds, and part of that task is to direct the sheep, not least to the places where they will find food, water, security and refreshment.
A conversational approach may lead to the impression that ‘anything goes’. Any opinion, any experience, any interpretation may be as good as any other. There are no ‘wrong answers’ (and therefore, no ‘right’ answers). Relativism reigns.
Then again, not every hearer wants to be involved in a dialogue. In fact, some would run a mile if asked to turn to their neighbour and discussion something the preacher has just said. Conversely, some do want to be involved – and we end up hearing the same people, riding the same hobby-horses, week after week.
It is, no doubt, very difficult to deliver an effective monologue. But it is even harder to facilitate useful dialogue!
Then we must think about the expectations of our hearers. Is it asking too much of a congregation, many of whom have come to church from busy and harassed every lives, to help to produce a worthwhile sermon as well? Have they not come to be fed? Do not their own spheres of ministry lie elsewhere?
What about visitors? Is it reasonable to expect someone who is nervous about even shaking hands or sharing the Peace with a stranger, to participate in discussion about the Bible and Christian faith?
Finally, those who despair of the whole idea of preaching as monologue should consider that there are other settings (stand-up comedy, for example) where people will sit for long periods listening to one person talk.
Two further observations may be made about monologue. The first is that some people in the church (often clergy) do have particular knowledge and expertise, and are quite rightly looked upon to offer answers to various kinds of questions. The second is that monologue is by no means dead in our culture today. Radio presents monologues short and long, and even TV does so (consider the monologues of Alan Bennett, currently receiving a second airing. Consider, too, the performances of stand-up comics, which are not much more than monologues lasting up to 2 hours at a time).
But it is right and proper that elements, at least, of dialogue should be added to our sermonic monologues. Preachers can encourage discussion both before and after preaching. They can invite members of the congregation to text in questions during the service. A Q & A session can be offered after the more formal part of the service. Occasionally, a conventional sermon could be replaced with an ‘Any Questions’ session.
There are risks, of course. One of the more obvious dangers is that stronger personalities will dominate the proceedings. Equally, some of the more thoughtful members of the congregation may be simply unused or unwilling to share their thoughts in this way. Some preacher may simply not be gifted with sufficient presence of mind to be able to handle dialogue effectively. Preparation may need to be even more thorough than usual, if questions are not known in advance.