Towards A More Effective Sermon Time

We pray, we study, we reflect, we craft a sermon, we illustrate it with stories, we deliver it with passion and integrity – but it has very little impact on those who listen to it.
-Anonymous preacher

I love sermons.  I love preaching.  I am very interested in preaching and preachers.  My preaching teacher at Fuller was William Pannel, who was very kind to me.  He and I went to dinner once after I preached on Galatians 3:28.  He was one of my favorite teachers.

I have listened to many thousands of sermons, in person, on cassette, on CD, DVD, TV, podcasts, vodcasts, and in print. Sermons and sermonizing must be a passion of mine, and has been since 1987.

I have been wondering if there is something wrong though and if something is missing.  While I absorbed sermons, like a dry sponge, I saw Christians around me who also listened to those same sermons, but were not growing.  I always noticed the crowds of people who dress up for church, then file in, listen, and file out; but don't seem to experience growth.

About 99.9% of the many thousands of sermons I have heard have been monologues.

When I began studying Paul's teaching methods, I found out that it was more often than not, dialogical.  When I began to study how Rabbis taught when Jesus taught, I found out that the method was to continually ask questions of your learners.  Remember when Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say I am?".

Teaching is a gift of the Holy Spirit and preaching is completely Biblical.  When I first noticed that something might be wrong with sermons or sermons in church meetings, because of the lack of growth in the hearers, I thought that the answer was revival and renewal.  I thought that if all these people who are not growing could just get a mighty infilling of the Holy Spirit, then the church would shine more.

But, as time went on, I realized the problem is more complicated.  Even people who are very filled with God's Spirit were not getting it from the traditional monologue sermons.  We were encouraged, we felt good, and sermons are often quite entertaining; but growth, not so much.

Jeremy Thomson, in, "Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?", observes:
'But people may listen week by week to the best prepared and presented sermons, given by thoroughly sincere preachers, and yet make little progress in Christian discipleship. Some preachers blame congregations for a lack of expectancy that God will speak, for an inability to listen to a “solid exposition”, or even for disobedience to what they hear. But I suspect that there is a more significant factor in the failure rate of the sermon than the quality of the preacher or the responsiveness of the hearers. I want to suggest that the problem lies in our concept of preaching itself.’
We could spend time criticizing the monologue, but the better way is to look at alternatives.  You may know that the lecture is the most ineffective method of teaching.  Go to lunch or dinner after the church service and ask your brothers or sisters what the message was and some will have completely forgotten it and others will not have comprehended what the preacher was trying to get across.

Stuart Murray Williams suggests four interactive alternatives to the monologue method of preaching:

1.  Learner-focus.  Disciple means learner.  People learn through interaction and participation.  People learn through 'paying the price' of digging down deep.  How can we teach people to fish rather than feeding them fish?

2.  Multi-voiced.  The body of Christ has many voices and no one person has the monopoly on God's wisdom or revelation.  Moses wanted all God's people to speak God's words (Numbers 11:29) and was not threatened by it.  Paul also said that each one that has a word can give it, one by one, in the church meeting (1 Corinthians 14:31). 

3.  Open-ended.  Allow people space to think, reflect, and explore.  Allow people to have uncertainty with what the Bible says, you say, and what other saints are saying.  Learning is a process and discipleship is a journey.  Jesus, The Word, asks us questions so that we have ownership over our knowledge.  The Bible is so deep with treasure, that there is always more insight and light to be gained and discovered.

4.  Dialogue-based.  Interactive preaching makes room for questions, comments, challenges, ideas and exploration.  This might mean inviting interruptions.  This might mean having discussion groups in the middle of or after the sermon or talk.  This might mean re-arranging the chairs to a circle or semi-circle to make dialogue and discussion possible.  This might mean two preacher/speakers debating each other and inviting congregational participation.  It might mean asking two people to prepare a message on a sermon together.  It might also mean that the preacher tells the congregation what the passage is for next week and everybody studies it at home.

Obstacles to the interactive sermon:
  • Fear.  We are threatened by change.  People don't want the challenge.
  • Sacrosanct.  We believe that the sermon, as is, is too important to be messed with.
  • Preachers are insecure.  They might be afraid of losing control.  
  • Monologues just feel good, both for the preacher and 'preachee'.  Nothing is better than an anointed message!  To put it bluntly, preacher satisfaction and listener feel good, take precedent over spiritual growth.

-This post was first published in 2013.
The top photo is:  
"The Rector of St. John's, Rev. Dr. Drew MacDonald, and guest speaker Rev. Derwyn Costinak bring together an Anglican and a Pentecostal perspective on the significance of the Day of Pentecost."
Link to the video
Another video of two guys preaching tag-team style.