The Drama of Preaching
THE MONOLOGUE CONTROVERSY
Before going on to explain why I believe this about the act of preaching, I’d like to chew on the monologue versus dialogue issue for a moment. As many of you know, and even experienced, among some Christian circles preaching-as-monologue is being replaced with preaching-as-dialogue.
Why? Without boring people with detail, let me outline the argument as I understand it. It is thought that preaching belongs to a modernist worldview, a perception of reality which promoted intellectualism and absolutism (which are apparently inherently bad). Dialogue, on the other hand, reflects a post-modern epistemology, acknowledging that no single person has a monopoly on God. Dialogue encourages participation and an appreciation for a liquorish assortment of viewpoints. Dialogue gives the impression that we are all valued, each of us brings to the table a distinct understanding of God, and that as we toss them around we can come closer to discovering divine truth—kind of like the fried rice I make at home, all the ingredients are chosen randomly and it usually tastes like the grey water filling up in the shower’s bucket.
I am not denigrating Christians talking together about God. It is every pastor’s dream to see his church enthusiastic for speaking about God. After all, the Bible affirms dialogue; Paul speaks about Christians admonishing one another with the word of God in song (Col. 3:16). Not only are mid-week Growth Groups an example of dialogue, but church itself ought to include dialogue. When we sing we are singing to one another, as much as we are singing to God. Church also ought to involve a time when we share together words of testimony, encouragement, etc. Yet in all these instances of dialogue, it is only legitimate “God-speech” so long as it conveys the truth of God in the Word of God. But even then, it should not replace the sermon.
The issue is not dialogue, but dialogue in the place of preaching. We need to understand what is driving some peoples’ preference for dialogue. Dialogue is code for a theological concept: divine conversation. Divine conversation says God has not spoken authoritatively, sufficiently, and finally in his Word. Rather, God invites us to converse with him and each other. Thus, God speaks in the Bible, but he speaks in many other ways and places, and the meaning of any given text is not fixed but dependent upon the community of believers who interpret it.
Replacing the sermon in church with dialogue is dangerous because it denies that God has spoken definitively in his Word (Heb. 1:1-4 and 2 Tim. 3:16-17) and it potentially gives voice to views that should not be given credence in church. And, at the end of the day, it’s a farce. When we reject monologue in favor of dialogue we are not doing away with authority, we are simply giving it a facelift, providing an avenue for the “strong” figure in the dialogue to sway others of their set of assumptions about God by stealth.
Here are three theological statements that the act of preaching demonstrates. These are either particular to preaching or more greatly emphasized in preaching, contra other word-ministries.
1. God rules.
Preaching demonstrates God’s authority in a public and visual way. As the congregation sits under the Word, as it is read and explained, they are recognizing God’s rule over them. God is teaching them. God is rebuking them. God is encouraging them. Like at Sinai when Moses read the law, or Ezra expounding the law to the returning exiles, or Timothy preaching at Ephesus, when we preach the Bible God is ruling his people. When we meet to hear the word of God, we are saying God rules us.
2. God is saving a people.
God rules all the time and everywhere, not just in the sermon at church. And of course, every time a Christian opens the Bible (whether individually or in a group) God is giving instruction. Yet, preaching is saying something theological that other word ministries cannot—that is, God rules over his church. God’s big purpose in the world is not to save individuals, but a people, his church.
When Christ’s people congregate together to hear the Word of God we are declaring to each other and to the world that we are his people and that we live under God’s rule. It is a magnificent picture. It is a mirror of heaven. It is an awesome testimony to our community.
3. God matters.
Preachers are preaching shorter sermons: some because they are too busy shooting off emails to expend the time required to put together a decent sermon, others because our congregations believe God is more easily discovered in music than in the sermon, or because our congregations have the attention span of my 3-year-old son, or because they are already thinking about the footy game after church and the preacher doesn’t want to hold them up (especially because he’s going as well).
What are we asserting when we succumb to the trend of giving short sermons or leaving out a sermon altogether? I realize we live in the age of 30-second advertisements. There is a limit to how much our congregations can consume in one sitting, but we can educate them and train them to sit through longer sermons. I wonder, is a 15 minutes sermon sufficient to keep a Christian going and growing for the other 167 hours and 45 minutes of the week? As preachers we need to learn what our limitations are. I’ve been joking around with my church that Christians in the Bible sat through very long sermons, so why don’t we? I learned that I can’t preach for an hour without putting myself to sleep, and with my congregation nodding of 15 minutes earlier.
Know your limits, but work hard at improving and work hard at training your congregation to eat more from the Word of life. We need to expend more time studying the text, applying the text, and making it interesting. If you’re a boring preacher, don’t preach for longer, stop preaching—or at least find a mentor to help you. Let’s not forget the main job for pastors is to “preach the word.” Don’t neglect it or replace it.
When the preacher stands before the congregation, faithfully, passionately, and clearly expounding the Word of God, we are saying to our congregations that God matters. There is no activity of greater worth in the week than listening to the Bible. We are saying God’s Word is crucial for you to live this week. God knows what is best for us and we need to listen to him, now.
Editor’s note: This is a newer version of an article originally published at Christianity Today.