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?

A Fresh Look at the Sermon

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the third on such books.

Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?

When Jeremy Thomson, in his subtitle, asks, “Is the sermon a sacred cow?” he is not being flippant. Instead, he raises this serious question: Have we elevated the sermon—like Hindus have the cow—to the point of its being venerated and above question? In his little booklet (just 28 pages), Thomson strongly supports preaching. He says, “because I believe passionately in it . . . I want to see it done yet more faithfully.”

In Chapter 1, he points out that “preaching has become stereotyped into sermons.” The danger: when the 1st-century Bible says “preaching,” our 20th century minds read “sermon.” Yet preaching and teaching in the New Testament rarely, if ever, took place in the same “social setting” as the contemporary sermon.

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No Pulpits for Jesus and Paul

Yes, Jesus gave “a few extended discourses . . . to a ‘passive audience’ (for example in Mk. 4:1ff; 6:34; 13:3ff).” But most of his preaching/teaching took place in other settings: the doorway of a house; during meals; on a shoreline or from a boat; walking through fields or along a road; on the Mt. of Olives; and so on. “Much of Jesus’ teaching,” Thomson says, “was given ‘on the way’ and involved a high degree of interaction with the audience (Mk. 8:27-10:52).”

Back-and-forth discussions, questions, responses—most of Jesus’ teaching involved dialogue. The woman at the well. Nicodemus. Crowds and critics. The man blind from birth. And, “The so-called upper-room discourse includes extensive interaction with the disciples (Jn. 14:1-16:23).”

Like Jesus, Paul preached interactively. Thomson cites an article by Stanley Sowers who “examines the circumstances of Paul’s preaching activity and shows that the most significant settings for it were the private house and the leather workshop. He concludes that ‘the widespread picture of Paul the public orator, sophist, or street corner preacher is a false one.’”

How Monological Sermons Became Central

In Chapter 4, Thomson traces how, as time passed, preaching and sermons came to be seen as nearly identical. Martin Luther’s recovery of “justification by grace through faith meant that this Pauline doctrine had to be declared. Thus the sermon became the very centre of the service of worship. . . . For John Calvin also the preacher was the ‘mouth of God’. . . . Calvin believed that congregations . . . should be passive receptors of sermons . . . implying congregational acquiescence so that any format other than the monologue sermon is unthinkable.”

More recently, “Martin Lloyd-Jones refused any idea of dialogue in the proclamation of the gospel.” In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Lloyd-Jones wrote: “We cannot in any circumstances allow [God] to become a subject for discussion or of debate or of investigation. I base my argument at this point on the word addressed by God Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). Moses . . . was proposing to turn aside and to examine this astonishing phenomenon. But immediately he is rebuked by the voice . . . . That seems to me to be the governing principle in this whole matter.”

However, as Thomson points out, taking Lloyd-Jones’ own example of the burning bush, right after this incident Moses engages God in a back-and-forth conversation, with questions and even negotiations. Thomson observes, “God takes human personality utterly seriously, graciously allows questions and supplies answers in a dialogical relationship. This . . . impels us to reject a monological theology of the sermon.”

The Case for Dialogue

Thomson offers his alternative in Chapter 5: “A Theology of Preaching as Dialogue.” He insists that real personhood involves give-and-take with others. In our vertical connection with God, he says, we “are called and invited into a dialogical relationship with God rather than subjected to megaphone-style address and manipulating power.” In our horizontal connection with other people, each of us is made in the likeness of the one-yet-three-personed God who within himself is relational. Monologue, then, is “distorted communication.” Dialogue is “genuine communication.”

God’s word to the gathered church comes not simply through one individual but “within the process of dialogue.” Thomson points to I Cor. 14:29, in which a prophet says something and someone else judges or evaluates what was said. In other words, God speaks not just through a single person but through the Body of Christ, as “each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). This communication “process may require interaction for the purposes of clarification, interpretation, and application.”

Christian growth, says Thomson, actually depends on such interaction. “There must be a dialogue between teachers and learners if there is to be maturity in the church community; how can characters develop without the opportunity to verbalize? How can a community be a community if one person does all the talking? . . . The greatest preacher of them all asked questions, brought people into the conversation, took the observations and questions of others as opportunities to tackle the burning issues of life. Why have preachers forsaken him in this?”

We Christians, have, Thomson asserts, been “unduly influenced by a hierarchical view of reality.” Why? Because we have focused more on God as one than on God as social Trinity (see previous blog on Trinity in Human Community). Yes, there is a place for leadership in the church. But according to Jesus, leadership is not based on hierarchy but on what Thomson calls “lowerarchy.”

Changes Needed

In Chapter 6 Thomson lists several “practical implications.” In summary:

  1. Turn away from the idea that traditional sermons “fulfil the responsibility to preach and teach. . . . A conventional sermon may be the most effective means of preaching from time to time; I do not mean that we must abandon the [monologue] sermon altogether.”

  2. Do less evangelizing in normal church gatherings and more disciple-making through teaching. “Preaching should largely aim at teaching believers.”

  3. Rely less on the monologue and learn how to make sermons participatory. “For Christians, the scriptural models of communication and education should count most.”

  4. Let those teach who can draw out and involve others in the truth being presented. “It is as people have the opportunity to put their own words together that they become conscious of their thoughts and realize new paths of behavior.”

  5. Give time both to prepared messages and those that respond on the spot to expressed needs. “On-going programs may sometimes have to be set aside in order to deal with unexpected and pressing questions.”

A New Wineskin for Sermons

After offering several practical suggestions for how to transition to dialogue sermons, Thomson concludes with this: “The resources available in the church are squandered if members believe that preaching is largely the responsibility of a special few who give sermons in religious settings. In order to communicate God’s word effectively preachers must recognize the limitations of the monologue format of the sermon and encourage more interaction with their congregations. The new wine of preaching will burst the old skin of the sermon.”

Interactive Preaching in Shared Church

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Think back.

Have you ever heard a sermon in which the speaker invited interaction from the congregation? Possibly. But most sermons are monologues—one person speaking, everyone else (hopefully) listening. Yet monologue messages are rare in the New Testament. Jesus, Paul, and Peter most often taught with dialogue—back and forth between speaker and listeners. Some pastors who teach dialogically report that people sit forward on their seats, tuned in attentively to the interaction.

In the following dialogue, two pastors discuss their experience with interactive preaching. Their conversation originally appeared as an article in the Reformed Worship magazine. Michael Kooy serves as pastor of Grace Community Christian Reformed Church in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Mark Brouwer serves as pastor of Jacob's Well Church Community in Evergreen Park, Illinois.

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Pastors encourage people in our churches to be more than passive observers. Affirming the priesthood of believers, we encourage members to be active participants in the life of faith and in the work of the church. But usually these encouragements happen in the context of a sermon, where we do the talking and they just listen. We teach with our words about participation, but the way we do it teaches people to be disengaged, silent, and inactive.

Mark: First, a little background. I came to interactive preaching as a reluctant convert. Last year I became the pastor of Jacob’s Well Church Community in Evergreen Park, Illinois, a new congregation whose founding pastor, John Wilczewski, had embraced interactive preaching. I realized from the beginning that interactive worship—and interactive sermons— were a core value in the congregation, and I would need to work with that. I was intrigued! I’ve been at Jacob’s Well for seven months, and am still in the process of learning and adapting to this way of preaching. Mike, how did you and your church get started on this journey?

Mike: We began interactive preaching in connection with a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship grant we received in 2009. Our grant proposal arose from a discussion between worship leaders at Grace Community that centered on Grace’s value of participatory worship. We were thinking about ways we could revitalize our worship practices. We believed that vitality would come through the full, active, and conscious involvement of all participants in worship. We asked: How might this apply to sermons? Are the worshipers only passive recipients of a sermon? How might worshipers be more actively engaged in preaching?

Mark: So as you did this study and reflection together as church leaders, what did you discover?

Mike: We looked at some of the biblical models for preaching. We saw that most models for preaching center on the role of the prophets in ancient Israel, like Elijah speaking God’s word of warning to people who were bent on worshiping Baal. We thought of a prophet as a lone voice speaking God’s Word to God’s gathered people. But, in Christ, all God’s people are prophets. Might not the congregation have a role in discerning God’s will for the community today? When we turned to the New Testament, we found that nearly thirty Greek words are used to describe the ways God’s good news was explained and applied. Many of those ways involved interaction with the audience. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost was in response to a question; his monologue left room for a follow-up question from his listeners. Philip “preached the good news” to the Ethiopian eunuch, a one-to-one presentation involving questions and responses. Paul engaged audiences large and small with the good news, often involving a discussion or dialogue.

Mark: And clearly, much of Jesus’ teaching involved varying degrees of dialogue, with people making comments and asking questions. If nothing else, this variety of terms for and practices of gospel proclamation in the Bible should free us to explore a variety of forms for preaching today.

It’s also helpful to think about interactive preaching in light of biblical principles, not just practices. The priesthood of all believers implies that worshipers are called collectively to let the Word of God dwell in them richly as they teach and admonish one another. That is an important principle, but it’s overshadowed by the passive audience orientation of our worship today.

What are we saying to people in our churches by the way we do things? Sadly, the message too often is, “Sit down and be quiet—the preacher knows what is important for you to know about this text. You just listen.” We might think that we’re doing things this way because of our commitment to the “centrality of the Word.” But it’s not the centrality of the Word that is emphasized by this—it is the power of the preacher and the passivity of the people. By creating space for questions and dialogue, we can emphasize the centrality of the Word and the power of community.

Mike: That’s so true. In our church we have several practices that help with how we go about interactive preaching. Once a month, I meet with a group of people from the congregation who study and discuss the text that will be the basis of an upcoming sermon. As the group digs into the text, they seek out its meaning and discuss angles of application to our church and community. I use this discussion as a major piece of my preparation work for the sermon. I bring my own skills and theological insights to the table, but the group’s different voices add insight and perspective that would be left out if I relied only on my own study.

During the sermon delivery, I invite interaction with members by asking open-ended questions about the text and its implications. Sometimes I leave a minute or two of silence, encouraging members to reflect privately on the sermon, writing down their insights. Other times I lead a five-minute conversation with members around a particular question arising from the sermon text. At other times, members are asked to talk with each other in groups of three or four to discuss the sermon-related question for five minutes.

Curing Sunday Spectatoritis  includes interviews with other pastors who practice dialogical preaching.

Curing Sunday Spectatoritis includes interviews with other pastors who practice dialogical preaching.

Mark: The way we experience interactive preaching at Jacob’s Well has changed over time, and varies from week to week. Sometimes we have discussion happening in several places in the message. Other times, I might preach a sermon in a fairly straightforward way, and have a time at the end for questions or comments. Sometimes we might take time for silence and meditation on a passage, and then invite several members to share thoughts or questions that emerged from this reflection. It depends on what works best for the particular passage.

But however we do it, I am struck almost every week by how helpful and insightful the questions and comments are. Every Sunday I find that some important point gets brought up that clarifies or adds to what I was saying and helps drive the point home.

Mike: We’re finding that too. Discussions before and during preaching have helped worshipers become active participants in all of worship and consciously integrate both their story and our community’s story with God’s story.

(Reprinted with permission)

Shared Church on Sunday Morning?

The other day, a woman who recently began participating in our home group made a telling comment. She has regularly attended a variety of churches for decades. “But in church,” she told us, “I could never ask my questions and hear answers about the Christian life.”

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Today shared church—the sort of one-anothering seen in the New Testament church—is more likely to take place in small groups that meet in living rooms than in main congregational meetings. Yet few Christians ever call those home gatherings “church.” Instead, like the woman in our small group, when they say “church," they mean the large assembly that usually gets together on Sunday.

Many Never Take Part in a Small Group

So although what happens in a home cluster comes closer to the practice of first-century Christians, a great many believers never experience that kind of involvement. According to Joseph R. Meyers, in The Search to Belong, “Books on small groups, tapes, seminars, and models abound, yet few of us achieve more than a 30 to 35 percent participation rate.” If accurate this translates to 65-70 percent whose experience of church is something far less participatory.  

Aaron Earls, writing in the website, “Facts & Trends,” pegs the small-group participation rate a bit higher: “In a typical month, less than 6 in 10 churchgoers attend some type of small Bible study group at least once. This means that over 40 percent of those who are in your church building at least on a monthly basis never go a small group.” 

Jesus clearly intended that his followers share in the give-and-take of one-anothering: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

The dynamics in a congregation of 150 or 300, of course, differ greatly from those in a group of 8 to 12. But as already noted, a large proportion of believers never take part in a small group. How, then,  can they experience one-anothering in the only form of church life they know?  

One-Anothering Possible in Congregational Meetings

The interviews with church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis make it clear that some level of body life can take place even in the larger congregational setting. For example:

Panels. One pastor, after his sermon, invites questions from members of the body. Sometimes he organizes a panel of mature believers to help him respond to what people ask. Those on the panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones.

Shared Preaching/Teaching. In another church of about 300, the pastor shares the preaching/teaching ministry with a dozen or so church members who are gifted and able to serve in this way. “My goal,” he says, “is to have someone from the congregation preach once a month, without pulling in a guest speaker from the outside.”

FaithStories. Nearly every Sunday a church in Minnesota includes “FaithStories” in their congregational meeting. Each one usually runs about five minutes. In addition to the examples included in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, these stories  cover a wide range of topics, including reports on: How Christians are living out their faith on the job; How a new mom received encouragement from the church’s meal’s ministry; How God worked in the life of another mother to heal her after she lost two of her children; How the Lord delivered a man from his involvement in a cult. Those presenting their stories are carefully coached as they develop what they will say and how they will say it. This avoids the objections raised against what, in other times, were called “testimonies.”

Sermons with Dialogue. Some pastors have carefully developed the art of preaching that draws the congregation into conversation. They prepare a significant part of the message ahead of time and present it without interruption. But with the skillful use of thought-provoking questions, these pastors invite the people to take part in a dialogue. Anyone may ask about something they do not understand, contribute an insight, express a doubt, or read a related Scripture.

By means of these and other ways to structure the main church meeting, a leader can open new opportunities for those who will never join a small group. This frees them to become contributors instead of passive consumers. They get to know the names and stories of others in the congregation. And after tasting body life, they may even choose to join a home group.

An Experiment

In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens invites churches to “Consider an experiment that has been undertaken in several churches. The culture of a local church can be partially changed in fifty-two weeks by refusing for one year to give ‘air-time,’ speaking time, to visiting missionaries, denominational officials and professors from denominational colleges in the Sunday service. Instead each week an ordinary member should be brought forward and in five minutes interviewed along these lines: 'What do you do for a living? What are the issues you face in your work? What difference does your faith make to the way you address these issues? How would you like us as a church to pray for you in your ministry in the workplace?'”

Ephesians 4:11-12 calls church leaders “to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (NLT).” God’s people include not just those in small groups but also those whose only church experience occurs in the main congregational meeting. Church meetings, even fairly large ones, can be structured to some degree as shared-church gatherings that allow that kind of body-building work to take place.

Dialogical Christmas

During this Advent season the biblical account of Jesus’s birth has reminded me how much God favors dialogue. The buildup to Christmas—the entire Old Testament—shows him as the God who speaks and listens. God had conversed with his human creatures in Genesis 1 and 2, but the real give-and-take begins in Chapter 3. In verses 8-13, God calls the pair out of hiding, asks them four questions, and they reply three times.

God also dialogues with their firstborn. In his conversation with Cain in Chapter 4, God asks five questions. Cain gets in a question of his own. And his spoken responses reveal his heart—both  dishonesty and fear. The relationship between God and Abraham is often a ping-pong-like series of questions and responses. The patriarch’s responses to God took many forms: falling down in worship, laughing, asking how, and negotiating. Moses, too, had a dialogical relationship with God, beginning at the fiery bush.

In his book, Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, Charles H. Kraft contends that “God’s interactions with human beings are characteristically in the form of dialog, rather than monolog. The Bible, from beginning to end, represents God as seeking conversations with people.” Imagine that: the God of ocean-like wisdom asks for input from those with nanodroplets of insight!

Birth Announcements: Dialogical

So no surprise that, when God began to speak to the world through his embodied Son, the advent is announced dialogically. Conversation does come as a shock, though, to Zechariah the priest. As he goes about his usual routine, burning incense in the Temple, a heavenly being suddenly appears and begins to speak. The announcement that Zechariah’s aging, childless wife would have a son—welcome as that might have been—prompts the elderly man to ask how he can know for sure. After all, he reminds the angel, “I am old and my wife is well along in years” (Lk. 1:18).

Several months later, the same heavenly visitor addresses a young woman in Nazareth. Again, the angel makes a birth announcement, this time of her Son to be called Jesus—but also the Son of the Most High. And as with Zechariah, the angel allows Mary to speak, to ask a logical question raised by this incredible announcement. After a bit more dialogue, the angel takes his leave.

As promised, Mary delivers the One who will save his people from their sins. Twelve years later, Joseph and Mary, in company with others, take Jesus to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. On the return trip, however, they discover the Boy is not with them. So back they go, only to find that Jesus has—for at least three days—been dialoguing with the rabbis in the Temple: listening, asking questions, and offering answers. All this prompts even more dialogue among Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (Lk. 2:41-50). 

Adult Ministry: Dialogical

The Boy with the dialogical beginnings becomes the Man who relates to people with back-and-forth conversation and interaction. Far more than 100 times the Gospels show us Jesus “asking” and “answering.” The Master Teacher understands the cooperative process of involved in effective teaching and learning. Why, then, do so many churches continue to make the monological sermon the centerpiece of the Sunday gathering?

Reuel L. Howe, in The Miracle of Dialogue, asks: “How does the Church or any other group of people become a community?” His answer: “It becomes a community when as persons, the members enter into dialogue with one another and assume responsibility for their common life.” In his opening paragraph, Howe says, “Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body.” And he flatly states, “Monologue is not effective communication.”

Contemporary Sermons: from Monological to Dialogical

My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes interviews with pastors who have seen the advantages of dialogical preaching. For example, Dan White, one of the pastors in Axiom Church in Syracuse, NY, had preached monologically for years. Influenced by his training and experience, he saw himself as a platform preacher. “When I visualized what preaching is all about,” he says, “it came down to me, a pulpit, and an audience. I relied heavily on my personality, my words, and my ability to bring the Word of God into focus for his people.”

But that all changed when he began to look into some of the New Testament Greek words surrounding the preaching/teaching of Paul. “Most of his preaching,” White says, “had an element of proclamation, but it was very dialogical. I began to realize that I had been interpreting what the New Testament said about preaching through my own contemporary lens.” How, White asked himself, could he translate the way preaching was done in the first century into the twenty-first century context?

He wanted to make certain his congregation continued to hear messages rooted in the authority of Scripture. And he determined to avoid the pitfall of a meandering, rudderless conversation. Over time, he developed a method of dialogical preaching—now used by himself and the other pastors—that  includes four “movements”:

Instructive. White takes 10-15 minutes to explain his text in its historical and sociological context. This segment includes no dialogue. Following this, he asks two thought-provoking questions: (a) in what you have just heard, where is there conflict for you? and (b) where is there clarity? He then calls for a full minute of silence to “level the playing field” between those who tend to dominate and those who need time to process what they have just heard.

Expressive. In this 10-minute segment, White invites the congregation to respond to the two questions posed just before the waiting period. He acts as moderator, drawing out comments and relating them to the theme of the message. Sometimes, White says, a comment from the congregation may contain a better insight than what he had planned.

Collective. Next White moves to a whiteboard on which he summarizes what has been shared during the expressive segment. This 5-minute Collective time, too, is interactive, with opportunities to refine what has previously been said.

Summarative (a word coined by White).  In the final 10 minutes, White uses material prepared beforehand to draw together the truth from the text and the congregational comments. He usually ends with questions, such as: “What is God proclaiming over our lives,” and “What is our take-home?” As the congregation has grown in dialogical experience, this segment includes more and more of what has been written on the whiteboard. Together, all four segments total about 40-45 minutes, of which more than half has been prepared in advance by the one teaching.

Sharing the Body-Building Workload

The interviews with 25 church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis includes accounts of other pastors who have also developed methods of dialogical preaching. As one of them says, “All in all, participatory church meetings have made it clear that there is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.” This insight seems to echo the last half of Eph. 4:16, that the Body of Christ “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” When practiced on Sunday, the dialogue seen throughout the Bible and in the Christmas story distributes the body-building work—shared-church work. Does it also point toward a way out of pastoral burnout?
 

Should Questions Be Asked in Church?

"I've always had questions for the church, but . . ."

Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope interviewed hundreds of Christians they call the “dechurched” and report the results in their book, Church Refugees. In one conversation, Emily told them, “I’ve always had questions for the church, but there isn’t much room in Christian churches and denominations to question.”

 She is not alone in her concern. Researchers in the Barna Group report that 36 percent of Millennials tell them they are not able to ask "my most pressing life questions in church.” Sunday’s sermon and text may connect to an issue they are currently facing, but they have no opportunity to interact or to clarify.

Dan White, who serves as one of the pastors in Axiom Church, Syracuse, NY, has found a way around that. He has developed a method of dialogical preaching/teaching. He still prepares and delivers a message, but he does so in a way that invites the congregation to discuss it with him and each other. On the one hand, it preserves trustworthy proclamation by qualified teachers.  And on the other hand, it avoids the dangers of a meandering talk-fest.

What do you think?  In the context of the main meeting of the congregation, would you welcome the opportunity to respond to biblical messages, to ask questions, and to hear responses from others? Please explain your answer.