Why Participatory Preaching and Teaching?

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In what ways might you graciously suggest to those who preach how they can make their sermons participatory? Does it seem as if there’s a rule that Sunday messages must be monologues? If so, that’s likely because you’ve heard sermons only as one-person lectures, with no back-and-forth between speaker/teacher and listeners.

This begins a series that will describe ways to open the solo sermon to more than one voice. But why is that important? To lay the groundwork, this blog will explore how moving toward more congregational involvement in messages actually fits the way God made us.

What Educators Have Found

Many educators say effective learning takes interaction and participation. “The problem with lectures is that there is no opportunity to think,” according to Eric Mazur, dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University.

In The Mature Student’s Handbook, Lucinda Becker writes: “I now sometimes attend undergraduate lectures just for the pleasure of being entertained for an hour with no responsibility for having to do anything with the information I receive . . . and that is the problem with lectures.”

But should we as Christians take our cues from educational research? As people of the Book (the Bible), shouldn’t we—made in God’s likeness—pattern our way of communicating after his way? So how does our Creator communicate? And how might his record of speaking with us shed light on how to address those in church meetings?

God Consults Within Himself

The Genesis 1 account of God’s decision to create us reveals him as a God of dialogue. “Let us make human beings . . . .” traces our very existence back to a conversation. The “us” (in “let us”) only hints at what unfolds later in Scripture—that within the one God there is a threeness.

The members of the Trinity talk with each other. The Father says, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (Ps. 2:7). The Son says, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (Jn. 17:1). And when “the Spirit intercedes” (Rom. 8:27) for us, he is surely speaking to the Father on our behalf.

God Dialogues with Us

But conversations extend even beyond the Trinity. The one we worship also discusses things with the people he made in his likeness. When Adam and Eve violate a clear command, we might imagine this would be the perfect time for a stern, monological talking-to.

But does that happen? No. Instead of lecturing, God begins dialoguing with them. “Where are you?” he asks the guilty couple. By answering, Adam gives away their hiding place: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). To which God responds with two more questions: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" (3:11). In his comeback, Adam blames his wife. Now God asks her a question: “What is this you have done?" (3:13). In her answer, she defensively accuses the serpent. What’s going on here? A divine-human conversation.

Cain. In a similar way, God deals with the world’s first murderer not with a one-way oration but by means of a discussion. In that series of exchanges with Cain, God asks him no less than five questions. Cain asks God one. Both make statements. That had to have been a rather tense dialogue!

Abraham. God relates interactively with Abraham. Upon realizing that the Lord is about to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intervenes. After all, Lot lives there—the nephew he had rescued from those who invaded that very community. Reading Gen. 18:22-33 is like watching the ball in a Ping-Pong match. Abraham asks; the Lord answers. Abraham requests; the Lord responds. In all, Abraham poses ten questions to the Lord. And the Lord replies. Every time. A negotiation.

Moses. As he watched a bush burn without turning to ashes, Moses, too, encounters the dialogical God. From inside that mind-boggling bush, God speaks—“I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex. 3:10). Moses quickly back-pedals from that assignment. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" God assures Moses that he will go with him.

Moses asks a second question. What if the Israelites demand the name of the one who sent him? God responds with some detailed instructions and promises. Moses tries again to duck what God is asking him to do. “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue." God reminds him who made his mouth. Moses: “Please send someone else to do it.” So God—angrily—agrees to let Moses’ brother serve as his spokesperson. Conversation. Questions. Answers. Negotiation.

Jesus the Conversationalist

In Jesus, God-with-us, this dialogical pattern remains. In his preaching/teaching, Jesus relies heavily on interactions with others. One author says the New Testament records 187 questions others asked Jesus. The same author counted 307 questions asked by Jesus. For instance: Who do you say that I am? What do you want me to do for you? Do you l.ove me? Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? What are you discussing as you walk along? Questions serve as invitations to conversation.

Notice the conversational nature of the last supper (Jn. 13-14). Jesus asks at least 5 questions. Peter asks 3. Other disciples ask 3. Jesus launches his dialogue with the woman at the well with a question (Jn. 4). She, in turn, poses 3 questions of her own. The New Testament offers very few instances of Jesus giving long speeches. Most of his teaching is conversational. Questions. Responses. Comments. Observations.

Even on those occasions in the Bible when God does speak in a monologue, it is relatively brief. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount includes about 2,300 words (NIV). The longest “speech” of God in the Old Testament is found in Job 38 to 41. Here, God addresses just over 1,800 words to Job—a discourse that includes at least 66 questions. Job briefly interrupts this monologue once (40:3-4). Both the Sermon on Mount and God’s question-filled address to Job run half or less the length of the typical 30-minute Sunday message. A sermon delivered at 150 words per minute for a half hour would contain 4,500 words.

Imitating what God Models

Paul told those in the Ephesus church to “be imitators of God.” In the Bible, God speaks to people mostly (but not always) through dialogue. His authority is not threatened by questions, feedback, discussions—or even challenges. He has modeled the interactive way of relating to and teaching human beings. As our Creator, he knows how we learn and the best way to teach us. Educators—far from inventing participatory learning—are simply discovering what God has already built into us and into the teaching-learning process.

Why not, then, let God’s participatory example shape our Sunday teaching?