A Conversational Approach: Will it Preach?

Article
02.25.2010

“Conversation” is one of the buzzwords in the twenty-first century church. It has very positive connotations, to be contrasted with less amicable words like “debate,” “argument,” “bickering,” “fighting,” “commanding,” and “condemning”. One only has to look at the front and back covers of Doug Pagitt’s Preaching Re-imagined to see the perceived difference between a monologue and a conversation.

Conversation is polite, respectful, collaborative, revealing, humble and compassionate (Allen, 21-22).

It is also biblical; we must be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Christians who cease to be engaged in authentic conversation with one another and with the world have failed to follow their master. Truth can be powerfully proclaimed and deeply apprehended through conversations. Through conversation,

  • Nicodemus discovered that he must be born again;
  • the Samaritan woman exchanged her water jar for living water;
  • the man born blind received spiritual as well as physical sight;
  • Martha’s hope of the resurrection became focused upon the one who gives life;
  • Peter apprehended forgiveness and re-commissioning.

Biblically-centered conversation is a sign that a congregation is truly engaging God’s Word.

Why is it then that most Christians, when we gather for the most important meeting of our week, do not have a conversation? Instead, a preacher stands in front of the congregation for thirty, forty, even fifty or sixty minutes and speaks without any verbal interaction from the congregation (except for the occasional “Amen!”).

Is it time to replace the single voice in the sermon with something, well, more conversational?

There are certainly conversations out there proposing precisely this.

Wesley Allen is one such conversation starter. Though Allen doesn’t consider himself to be an evangelical, similar approaches to preaching are advocated by so-called post-evangelicals like Doug Pagitt. Pagittgives an impassioned plea to abandon the centrality of conventional preaching (which he calls speaching):

Weekly speaching functions like a repetitive stress disorder for both preacher and parish. Occasional usage won’t hurt anyone, but to make a regular practice of speaching may well be an act of relational violence, one that is detrimental to the very communities we are seeking to nurture (25-26).

Some web articles also denounce the “monologue sermon.” Galen Currah and George Patterson suggest that the fruit of such preaching includes believers who are “hearers only,” young preachers full of pride, bored congregations, weak communication, and a necessary expertise that inhibits church planting.

Blogs are discussing the same ideas. Typical to the sentiments expressed are those of Louise from Malta: “Passively sitting and listening to someone else will never change the world and that is what we have been called to do.”

Of course, nobody explicitly advocates listening to sermons passively. Even those who advocate silent listening to preaching advocate active listening, or even “expositional listening.”

Yet the kinds of sentiments voiced by Pagitt or Louise from Malta typify what more and more evangelicals are saying. They critique traditional preaching as authoritarian, irrelevant, monologue, obscurantist, dry, and unengaging, something prized only in relationally weak, disengaged preaching-centers that call themselves churches. But is this characterization just a straw man?

Henceforward, I will refer to traditional preaching as “authoritative preaching.” And just to be clear, authoritative preaching consists of faithfully speaking God’s words under God’s authority, much like an ambassador speaks “authoritatively” on behalf of his or her king. Such preaching therefore requires the ears of the congregation who eagerly wait to hear and be transformed by the Lord.

Let me also be clear about what I don’t mean. Authoritative preaching doesn’t mean the preacher should shout. It doesn’t mean the preacher must be ignorant of his own sinful, flawed nature. It doesn’t mean that he is unapproachable or unanswerable or that he will refuse to have conversations with those in the congregation after the service or throughout the week.

One frustration I felt in reading about conversational preaching was the lack of clarity in the exact matter being addressed. The term “conversational preaching” can mean several different things in one book, or even in one paragraph.

Thus I shall spend the rest of this article examining the different ideas people are proposing when they recommend “conversational preaching.” Some proposals are commendable. Others are reactions to genuine problems in some preaching today, but are nonetheless unhealthy reactions. Still others demonstrate a failure to grasp the nature of the Word of God and the authority of the gospel.

1. a conversational context: One voice provokes another

Sometimes an author calls for “conversational preaching” in order to emphasize the fact that churches are not just preaching centers, but communities of believers. Multiple ongoing gospel conversations should occur within the congregation. The preacher should not only preach, but also be involved in relationships where conversations about the gospel are central all week long.

“This kind of preparation requires the preacher to have not only an intimate relationship with the text but also with the congregation” (Pagitt, 187, cf. Allen 93). “[W]hat is normally done between the pastor and a commentary [should also] be done between the pastor and the community” (Pagitt, 189). Truly expositional preaching would also benefit from such interaction.

The desire to see an ongoing conversation about the gospel as a vital part of congregational life is commendable. We should not see the sermon as an isolated event unrelated to the ongoing life of the congregation.

The church to which I belong certainly cherishes conversation. Every Wednesday evening, the church gathers for an inductive Bible study. Conversation ensues over a verse or two of Scripture and its relevance to our lives. Following this and every other service, people often linger for at least an hour of informal conversations, which the pastors encourage to be centered on the Word just taught or preached. Also, many of our members take part in small group inductive Bible studies throughout the week, as well as less formal gatherings and meals. Twice a month after the Sunday morning service, we hold a Q&A luncheon for college students with the day’s preacher.

Authoritative preaching doesn’t ignore the conversations that happen throughout the rest of the week. Those conversations inform the preacher’s application. In our church, the preacher will typically study the text, prepare a sermon outline, but then before writing the sermon itself stop to have lunch with another elder or church member to discuss ways Sunday’s text might be applied to the congregation. Authentic, conversation-rich congregational life is the proper context for expositional preaching. The pastor must know his flock.

Another habit that I have picked up at our church has been to look through a page of the church’s membership directory when preparing sermons in order to think carefully about how the sermon can be applied to people in different stages of life. Preaching that doesn’t seek to engage the particular congregation hearing the sermon falls short of being expositional. The preacher may understand the message of the text, but fail to preach it to his particular gathered people.

However, some writers offer more radical statements about the relationship of the sermon to the ongoing conversation of the church.

The sermon ceases to be the starting point or the center of the conversation and becomes a significant contributing factor to the ongoing conversations owned by the community. . . . The pulpit is placed on the edge of the community conversational circle and the preacher’s is one voice among many in a matrix of congregational conversations (Allen, 15-16).

As soon as we say that preaching is merely a peripheral voice in the ongoing conversation– rather than the center, fuel, and compass for its conversation– we have forgotten the source and foundation of Christian community. We have no life but that which is imparted by God’s Spirit upon God’s Word. It is God who builds the life and conversation of the community. That time in the week when his Word is not discussed but heard must remain central if his one clear voice is not to be marginalized by our many confused voices.

2. A conversational tone: No voice has authority

“Conversational preaching,” as it has been proposed, might also mean that the preacher shouldn’t speak with an authoritative tone, and by tone I mean both the tenor of one’s voice and the language one uses to frame or package homiletical propositions. Adopting a conversational tone then means that preachers should not so much declare the will of God as that they should suggest a possible understanding of what the Word of God might be.

There is something dangerous in the life of the preacher who regularly tells others how things are, could be or ought to be.” (Pagitt, 32)

“When I bring up an idea, I frame it with a phrase like, ‘it seems to me’ or ‘this is my take on it’ or ‘from the perspective I have.’ This language is helpful both for the community and for me. (Pagitt, 200)

Again, I have some sympathy with those who have sat under pulpit-thumping preachers who scold their congregations week after week. A friend told me recently that it’s preachers who keep some throat doctors in business! Yet we should not confuse the personal authority of the preacher with the authority of the Word that he preaches. We should also not confuse the general course of authoritative declaration of the text with a wrong dogmatism in areas where textual interpretation is particularly difficult. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally saying something like, “Well, this is a difficult verse. Some people think that the angels here are angelic beings, but on balance I think he is talking about human messengers.”

Yet to say that some statements in the sermon should be tentative does not mean that all of them should be. A preacher must not say, “It seems to me that unless a man is born again he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” This may sound humble. But it’s really arrogance. It’s a refusal to acknowledge the authority of God’s Word. A conversational tone at this point leaves us only with the opinions of a sinner about God’s Word, rather than God’s Word itself, and so the Word never pleads, exhorts, rebukes, encourages.

The best way to protect against preaching that places authority in the personality of the preaching is to protect what I’m calling authoritative preaching. With authoritative preaching, a preacher knows that what he says comes from having grasped what God has said; he then faithfully applies it to the congregation, trusting that God will do his transforming work. The answer isn’t a conversational tone but truly expositional-authoritative preaching.

Anyone who has attempted to preach expostionally should know how humbling it is. I can get up on Sunday morning and say, “It seems to me…” without having done much soul searching. When I know that I will stand before God and men and declare, “The Lord is commanding us today…” I must fall on my knees and beg for God’s mercy, that he might grant me faithfulness.

Preachers are not inerrant, which is why preachers themselves should initiate regular conversations for inviting correction. At our church, the pastoral staff and interns hold a weekly service review where we give feedback to those who preach, lead, and otherwise participate in the services. There will almost always be disagreement about some part of the sermon. But insofar as the sermon is faithful to the Bible it is authoritative and should be presented as such. This doesn’t mean that the preacher must shout, but it does mean that he should demonstrate a passion appropriate to the burden of the text.

3. A conversational hierarchy: No voice may lead

Perhaps one of the most frequently cited doctrines to suggest that authoritative preaching is unchristian is the priesthood of all believers.

A belief in the priesthood of all believers compels us to reconsider our ideas about speaching and pastoral authority. . . . In truth the idea that a person needs to be specifically educated to understand the things of God is little more than Western conceit. . . . There was a time when churches believed that a pastor should be the sole speaker for God because he was among the few who could read, as though the only important knowledge of God is the kind that comes from reading (Pagitt, 153).

Every believer has the Holy Spirit, and every believer has been enabled to understand divine truth better than the most intelligent and educated unbeliever. Yet the priesthood of all believers is never taught in Scripture to contradict the teaching gifts of some believers. The Bible is clear that not many of us should presume to be teachers (James 3:1). Similarly, one biblical office requires that any individual occupying it be apt to teach. If what he is to teach is God’s revealed ideas (and it is!), then at the very least he must be someone who can read and, more than that, correctly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). Such teaching is also described as authoritative (1 Tim 2:12). In fact, pastors are commanded to teach with authority (Titus 2:15). It’s therefore not arrogant for a preacher to teach with such authority– it’s humble submission to God’s Word and being obedient in the charge that the Lord has given him within the congregation.

The Holy Spirit lovingly gives pastors and teachers for the edification of the congregation (Eph 4:11). Advocates of conversational preaching seem to have no category for someone who would lovingly exercise that God-given authority on behalf of others. “If the function of the preaching is mutual edification, then the creation of the preaching must be a collective act” (Pagitt, 39). Why then has God given some for the edification of the whole? He has deliberately gifted his people diversely. I do not assume that congregational singing would be more edifying if we all took turns on the piano. Why should I assume that preaching would be better if the pulpit were shared by all?

4. A conversational format: Every voice must be heard

Allen, in fact, stops short of replacing the sermon itself with a multi-voiced conversation. Pagitt does not stop short.

Progressional dialogue doesn’t mean groupthink, discussion, or even agreement. It means we listen to one another in such a way that what we think cannot be left unchanged. We hear what others in our community are saying and have no choice but to let it impact our thinking (Pagitt, 54).

It is certainly true that large group conversation about a biblical text can be very useful in revealing people’s understandings and helping many to move toward a better understanding of the text. Every Wednesday night our church has just such a Bible study, as I’ve mentioned. But the function of authoritative preaching is somewhat different and rather more significant.

Authoritative preaching symbolizes and models the very nature of the gospel. Those who advocate a conversational format misconstrue the relationship between preaching and the gospel. The gospel is news to be heralded, not an opinion to be discussed. When we come together as God’s people, we need to hear that news proclaimed as a royal edict and brought to bear upon us. The preacher is not the king, but the ambassador. The authority of a sermon does not rest in the personal authority of the preacher, but in the authority of the word he is preaching. He is not a philosopher, but an ambassador. His ideas do not originate with himself; he faithfully proclaims God’s ideas to God’s people.

We might find this uncomfortable. We are supposed to, for the Word of God is not there to confirm our own wisdom. The Lord speaks and humbles us in our foolishness. Let the earth be silent before him! The congregation’s voice is to be heard, but it’s to be heard as a responseto his revelation. It’s to be the unison words of praise, confession, and a committing of ourselves to obedience—in all the diverse ways that might look in our different cultures and individual lives.

5. A conversational hermeneutic: The text has no voice

My greatest fear for the removal of authoritative preaching from the congregation is that the Scriptures themselves will cease to be treated as authoritative. I fear that people are shy about authoritative preaching ultimately because they want to protect themselves from the authority of Scripture. If every exposition of Scripture is interrupted by a number of “opinions” as to what the Scriptures might really mean, the text itself will lose its voice. We will be left with no more than the individual voices and personal perspectives. Why then bother to listen to the text at all?

Many of those who advocate conversational preaching say that it is necessary within the present cultural climate because of postmodernism. People can no longer sit and listen to one voice. No! Postmodernism has made authoritative preaching more important than ever. In a context where texts are presumed to have no meaning, where all authority is relative, where no voice is more authoritative than any other, only authoritative preaching will open up the biblical worldview to a postmodern world. God’s voice must be heard with closed mouths. Salvation is not something that we ‘find’ through a collaborative community process; it’s been initiated, declared, and made effective by the one sovereign Lord. While we were still sinners, he took the initiative in sending his Son to die for us. We were confident in our own view of the world and unable to hear his voice, so the Word came.

The gospel confronts the relativistic assumptions of a postmodern age. There is only One source of authority. “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6). I wonder if the muddle of so many voices is one of the reasons why Pagitt’s book offers no clear expression of the gospel, even though he claims to be evangelical.

In authoritative expositional preaching the question is not “what are the congregation’s perspectives upon this text,” but “what is this text’s perspective upon the congregation.” In short, I highly recommend engaging with the congregation in conversation before and after the sermon. I highly recommend using one’s words to engage the lives of the congregation throughout the sermon. But if the symbolism of authoritative preaching (one Biblical voice addressing the congregation) is lost, then God’s authority to address his people will itself soon be marginalized.

A conversational approach may comfort, engage, and affirm. But, in the end, it will not preach.