One of the reasons that I feel Jim Belcher’s Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional is an important book is because it gives a voice to many guys, like myself who feel caught in the middle. I am not “traditional” (as Belcher identifies it), though I share many of their theological concerns. Nor am I “emergenting,” though I share some of their concerns.
One of the areas I feel the pinch of being caught “in between” is dialogical preaching. Doug Pagitt’s Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith has done us all a dis-service by coloring the way many people view dialogical preaching. Matt Chandler has summarized dialogical preaching as “going from nothing to nothing.” But this isn’t a fair presentation or an adequate consideration. Pagitt’s understanding and practice are world’s apart from, say, Soma Communities, who also practice dialogical preaching.
I wonder how much of our current understanding and practice of preaching is actually cultural. It seems to me that we have removed it from the synagogues in which it brewed and the Rabbinical teaching methods in which it marinated (both of which were heavy on dialogue). We actually have more biblical snapshots of dialogical teaching than we do of what we would consider “preaching.” The examples where an individual stood in front of a large crowd of primarily already-Believers and talked at them for 45 minutes to an hour without ever taking questions are few and far between, yet that is exactly what we have come to hold up as our tradition.In Acts 20, before the poor sleepy boy fell out of the window, we’re told that Paul “talked with them” (Acts 20:7). Acts 17:2 reminds us that it was Paul’s custom to “reason with them.” Ephesians 4:11-13 reminds us that it is the role of the teacher to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry rather than do it for them.
While I think there’s much more to be said (and that probably needs to be said) about some of the biblical foundations of dialogical preaching, that’s not my aim today. Instead, I hope to just clear up a bit of confusion. In other words: what are we even talking about?! Here are a couple of things to consider:
Dialogical preaching is not conversation: At least not in the way most conversations are conversations. Most conversations are two-sided in the sense that both parties (at least in theory) have equal rights to be heard. It’s a give and take. One party has the power to change the direction of the conversation at will. So, even though one participant may have intended the conversation to go one way, the other participant had other intentions and neither of them found resolution. They conversation didn’t go where either of them intended.
Dialogical preaching does include dialogue, yes. The preacher (and yes, he is still a preacher) does ask questions, elicits feedback and even interaction (GASP!) during the sermon, but the preacher also guides these questions and even the answers. That’s not to say he plants the answers, just that he has a very clear destination in mind (the point of the sermon) and if the dialogue gets off the tracks, it’s his job to put it back on the rail. Think the Socratic method.
Dialogical preaching is not an extended “tell me what you think this text means to you . . . ” jabfest. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, chances are that you’ve been to some small group Bible study where the “leader” reads a passage and essentially asks the people what it means to them. The implication here is that there is no right or wrong answer, just what it means to you.
Dialogical preaching is built on sound exegesis. The foundation and even for the most part, the structure of the sermon are identical to most preaching. The preacher has done the hard work of exegesis and is aware that there are, in fact, wrong interpretations of the Bible. Remember above, when I said that the preacher had a clear destination in mind for the sermon, well, apply that here. Though I might ask our church family why an author included a particular line or phrase, the point is not to hear what people think but to equip them. So, good dialogical preaching is not afraid to tell someone that they’re wrong. Yes, you want to be polite about it, especially in a large group dynamic, but the point is to help people work through the passage on their own. So, you walk them through some of the exegetical steps, letting them see them for themselves.
Dialogical preaching is not just verbal “fill-in-the-blanks” sermon follow-alongs. In an attempt to “engage” the congregation, many pastors write up some fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines for people to follow along. Usually, this is meant to help the people follow along, grasp and remember the main points (not necessarily the main point, because these usually accompany bullet-point type sermons). Some people think of dialogical preaching as nothing more than this, except, instead of writing the points down, the people say them out loud.
Dialogical preaching might begin with some more fill-in-the-blank questions to get the people rolling, but if often goes for more application/implication oriented questions. For example, the preacher might ask: “What are some idols that you struggle with . . . ” This is clearly a penetrating question and not everyone is going to answer it out loud, but someone will and then someone else will realize they’re not alone in that struggle and someone else will see that the biblical truth applies to them in a way that they had never realized, but I’m getting ahead of myself. A preacher might ask: “Where are we as a church family succeeding in this/where are we failing/what might it look like for us and our surrounding community if this truth sank deep into our hearts, etc.” These questions are at a different level than the typical fill-in-the-blank sermon outline and when a person comes up with the answer on their own, it’s generally going to be more penetrating than the preacher telling them what their idol is our how we as a local church family fail at something. There is an ownership to biblical truth that is sometimes missing in monologue-preaching.
Though there is much more that can be and needs to be said, I’ll leave it at these two points for now because these are two of the most common pushbacks I receive to the idea of dialogical preaching. Hopefully this helps to clarify, at least a bit.