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?