Rethinking Preaching: Monological vs Dialogical Preaching


Last week I wrote a bit about preaching styles (manuscripts vs outline vs more free form) and today I want to chat a bit about the form or content of a sermon.

First, a note about the above photograph. This is a shot of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, a community that Doug Pagitt helped to form. I love so many things about the photo above, but I think this gives you a bit of an idea about what preaching “in the round” or having a dialogical type of sermon could look like.

I think most would agree that the church is one of the last places around that you’ll still see the primary/sole mode of teaching/transformation be a lecture-style sermon, monological preaching. Folks in education have been experimenting with different forms of pedagogy for years, and have moved past the “talking head” format for quite awhile now. Sure, there are times in a large lecture-format course where it still makes sense to give information that way – but most students would probably tell you there are more engaging ways to learn and actually have the information stick, than listening to a lecture.

Yet, it’s a safe bet that you can show up at church on a Sunday morning at your typical church, and expect, for the most part, to sit back, listen, hear and be a passive recipient of a worship service, particularly during the sermon.

And yet, there are other folks who argue for a more interactive and participatory. Doug Pagitt is one of those persons, and has referred to the traditional model of preaching as “speaching.”

Let me say that if I look at all of my preaching experience, the majority of it has been the more traditional format. I get up. Preach what I feel God is calling me to say. Say AMEN, and that’s the end of it.

But there have been some times here at Ashland where I have tried to find ways to incorporate discussion and sharing both at the end of the sermon, and during the middle of a sermon. I’ve always received very positive feedback from folks who have experienced that form of preaching. I’ve also thought about trying something like a flipped sermon.

Tony Jones is another person who values a more participatory style of preaching, and wrote the following about a year ago while he and Doug spoke at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta:

We live in the most highly educated society and the most highly participatory culture in the history of humankind. Everything around us has changed: the clothes we wear, the way we transport ourselves, how we communicate. And yet, 99% of preachers stand up on Sunday morning and deliver a monologue. A soliloquy. And their churches decline. And they wring their hands. There is another way. There is a way of participation and inclusion and dialogue and conversation.

And so, my question has to do with the purpose of preaching. Do we still have a view of the preacher as the educated one who should be “dispensing” the word of God to the congregation? The Presbyterian Church (USA) did recently change the title of our ordained ministers from Ministers of Word and Sacrament to Teaching Elders (not a change that everyone loves), so according to our polity and view of ministers, we are called to be “teachers.”

Although I would still point to the vast array of educational theory and methods out there today that differ from the “talking head” approach of teaching and learning. Ministers can be teachers, but that doesn’t mean that we need to only deliver sermons that are “speaching” or one-way communication.

Or is preaching not as much about dispelling information, as it is to take our sacred text, and help bring it to life amidst a community of followers in the way of Jesus. To take a text, and allow others to bring their vast array of knowledge and life experiences to the text, and join together to have a discussion about the text and how it can be meaningful in our lives today.

Again, I feel I should say that I’m not trying to say that I do this well. For me, I think it’s easier to sit down and write my manuscript sermon, as opposed to thinking how I can engage the congregation and invite them into the process. But I still say that when I take the time to do that, I am more engaged in that time of reflection, and I think the congregation is as well.

And I do still like to hear good monological preaching. I have heard Barbara Brown Taylor preach a few times, and I could listen to her every week! And there are some preachers who are amazing storytellers and are able to really bring a text to life. And as a preacher myself, there are times, I think, that call for a more straight-forward, old-school style of preaching.

But I don’t really foresee that style or preaching being what’s going to be part of the future church. I think it’s time to really live into this reality of the priesthood of all believers, and really buy into the idea that we all have unique gifts and experiences and insights to bring to a text, and our communities would be richer in hearing a multitude of voices, as opposed to only one, single voice, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

Now, I could be wrong. I’ve never belonged to, or served, a community of faith that actively lived into this style of preaching. So, who knows? Maybe I’d get bored by it. Maybe it would take too much time to try and craft a participatory sermon every week. But, I think it’s something that more preachers ought to try more often.

What about you? What do you feel the essential role and purpose of preaching is? And do our methods today (the methods that have been used for years…) still connect with our people and culture of today in such a way that it’s really allowing us to bring about the most transformation in the people belonging to our communities?

Photo Credit: Courtney Perry


  1. says

    I read Doug’s preaching book several years ago and put it down in frustration. I think it’s too simple to characterize all preaching that doesn’t invite verbal response from the congregation as a monologue (or “speechifying,” to use Doug’s term). The best preachers invite a vivid kind of participation from their hearers without the need for a dialogue. I don’t think that amounts to being a talking head. I think it amounts to preaching.

    I think the conversation here is really about the value of preaching. Do we still think that it’s a valuable form of discourse? The preachers I listen to most definitely make me think it is.

  2. Martin says

    The preaching is certainly one of the main reasons why I stopped going to church some years ago. It is beyond me that 99% of all Christians still seem to believe that this is still a valid part of a service. From power aspects to knowledge transfer sermoning does a very bad job. Of all the sermons I have heard in my life, how many can I remember? Two maybe?

  3. says

    It doesn’t matter how many people are speaking in a sermon and how many listening. It matters whether there’s any relationship connecting them. You’re right, preachers can get away less and less with talking at passive audiences. (I happen to think they never should have gotten away with it.) I will listen to a preacher who can share not only learning but ideas s/he may not be quite sure about, the things that are going on in her/is life, and even doubts and fears, and knows me, or wants to know me, well enough to say, as one of the best preachers I’ve known did on more than one occasion to a member of the congregation with whom he almost universally disagreed on social and political issues, “Corny, you don’t look happy. What are you feeling?” He made himself and his well-planned service vulnerable to relationships he knew weren’t always going to work to his advantage. And he somehow almost every week managed to make me feel the sermon had been written to me. Of course, I had often attended his Wednesday-afternoon sermon-prep Bible study, where he told us where he was heading but often made a sharp turn, which he readily credited by name or in general on Sunday.

    Even though I usually preach (very occasional pulpit supply) from a manuscript, giving special attention to the always-participatory children’s sermons has also helped me learn how to establish a relational communication very quickly, and to adapt when the feedback demands it.

  4. says

    For me, this is illustrative of the larger conversation that we need to be having about how we do church today and in the future. Beyond the sermon, the entire way that we have structured church and church participation is clearly not working all that well in our culture anymore. The “nones” are the fastest growing segment of the religious population, and their dissatisfaction goes beyond the sermon to something more fundamental. I think the question of how we preach (or don’t) is going to take many different forms going forward, dependent on the context and the community; but ultimately, the larger issue is going to be how we do church in general. As we live into new models of ministry, we will discover things that we probably never imagined or anticipated. But business as usual isn’t going to cut it, whether we have a traditional sermon or a hip, interactive one; if we’re still doing church the same basic way, it’s not going to survive.

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