The Future of Preaching

The Future of Preaching May 15, 2012

In the world of homiletics, not much has changed since Charles Wesley delivered monological sermons.

I’m sitting in the Buckhead Theater in Atlanta, about the take the stage with Doug Pagitt to talk about the future of preaching. We’re at the Festival of Homiletics, the premier conference about traditional preaching. The program is basically sermon-lecture-sermon-lecture. A person preaches, then later they give a lecture about what they were trying to do in their sermon. There’s also some singing peppered in between.

As you might guess, Doug and I will be delivering a different message.

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.

That’s what Doug and I will propose this morning.

I wonder if anyone will listen.

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Great point. This recognition made my wife and I more interested in liturgical worship. We became complacent with hearing the same message.

    In my opinion, the typical sermon today consists of:
    – The need for discipleship
    – The importance of living missionally
    – The evils of compartmentalization

  • And yet, millions of people tune in to watch TED lectures on a daily basis. I’m not sure that I’m completely convinced that the age of “lecturing” is over. I suspect that a lot of the reason churches decline is not because ministers are preaching, but because they are doing it so badly. There remains a massive “audience” who love to hear great, or even good, oratory.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t become more participatory and dialogic. I’m all for that – again if it’s done well. But, to turn dialogue into another “technique” to stop your church declining or to make your church grow? I don’t buy it…

    I wish I could be there to hear what you and Doug are saying. Any chance of a recording?


    • But TED is not trying to form an ongoing community of faith. Neither is a college professor or a stand-up comedian.

      • TED, the professor, and even the stand-up comedian are, however, still trying to form an ongoing community of something. I think those are decent analogies and at least pieces of the puzzle to consider. Some people will say that “people these days won’t sit and listen anymore,” but that just isn’t true. People will sit and listen if what they are listening to has relevance, is intriguing, invites participation (whether in that moment or afterward), creates community, maybe even entertains, is important, promises a changed future.

        I in no way mean to say that preaching can’t or shouldn’t or won’t change. I like and practice a variety of ways of preaching and even, as a previous poster almost said, a return to more ancient liturgical practices. I’m just thinking that what we’re calling “traditional” preaching doesn’t have to be thrown out in the process. I think there are places and times and contexts where it is working well. Some of that, I think, is helped by a church culture that welcomes and invites and even makes real space for discussion of and disagreement with what is preached throughout the rest of its life together.

        • Thanks for these comments, Stephanie – they’re very helpful.

          I agree with what you say about making space for real conversation throughout the rest of the church’s life. I’ve added some thoughts on that below.

      • Cody Stauffer

        Also, TED IS interactive, to a point- I can select which I want to watch; I can comment on the presentations. I can pause them and come back to them. I can share the ones I like with others. In fact, on the TED-Ed part of the website, you can nominate your favorite animators to create educational videos in conjunction with the lecture, or even create your own lesson based on the video (“flipping the video” they call it) to distribute how you want. And there’s also TEDx, which is all about getting others to step up and contribute their ideas to the conversation. Shoot, something like TED might BE the church soon!

      • Perhaps part of the problem is that preaching has become an end in itself.

        The responses to my TED comment, all speak about how people interact with the lecture. These are good comments, and they give necessary detail to explore what a movement like TED might have to say to the Church. The comments do not, however, change the fact that the core of TED’s offerings remains the lecture.

        To relate this to preaching: At its best preaching has the same interactive possibilities. That’s what the Wesleyan “class meeting” or the “cell group” are intended to be, in my view. When the sermon is taken into a small group for questioning, interaction, exploration etc. the sermon can be a genuine force for life change. Then it can be remixed, quoted and passed on – just as people do online with TED lectures. All that’s different is the medium.

        It disturbs me that the spoken presentation – call it, speech, sermon, presentation, lecture – remains a significant part of our culture from political speeches, to academic presentations, to motivational seminars – yet, in the Church, where it has potentially the best platform for good, transformational impact, we are trying to throw it out. As others have said, this is not to say that preaching doesn’t need to change, or that new ways of communicating shouldn’t be used. All I’m saying is, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

        Thanks for the thought-provoking responses! 🙂

  • Tim

    Anything other than a monologue, please! I’d rather have a poke in the eye than listen to a 45 minute lecture every Sunday. I support any endeavor to encourage participation and conversation. Please share some of your ideas. Thanks.

  • Kevin

    May your tribe increase, Tony and Doug!! Will your talks be available for us to see / hear / experience?

    • Aran

      I second this benediction and also ask the question . . . were your presentations/conversations recorded so that others not in attendance can reap the benefits of listening to the sultry sounds of your voices?

  • “Until the pain of the same is greater than the pain of change, change will not occur.” Thinking the current model is creating pain…eager to hear your conclusions.

  • There are a couple of colleagues with you in Atlanta, so I’ll be checking with them on their return for further information. I agree with you to a point about the interactive method of preaching. I am concerned however when I hear someone say there is a better way and everyone stampedes to the new way and the success of the old way becomes a victim of change. We are talking here about learning styles, personality types, culture, technology and a great myriad of other things. It should be both and, not either or. I would want to start (and I continue to gingerly try this approach in my parish) to come to a better understanding of what the people already in the pews are interested in and develop that way, all the while trying to stay current on the latest techniques from the world around to try and see what those that we would like to have join might be interested in. A big part of this issue needs to be dropped in the laps of seminaries/theological colleges who are teaching Homiletics. My experience is that communication methods and theory is not taught, not discussed and at some points actively discouraged.

  • Thank Jesus, thank Buddha, thank all of them. I hope this discussion goes well for you. There is a place for talking heads, but we need to improve on the Q & A part. I have been to one or two seminars that broke into smaller groups, with leaders sitting in the circle. Also an “inner circle” model seems like a good idea, with newer, listeners on the outside. It sounds elitist, but it is less elitist than one voice in front of a passive audience.

  • Frank

    If you have something compelling to say people will listen. If they are not listening, well….

  • Brian P.

    How institutions gain trust and respect is deeply changing in the age of the Internet and social media.

  • I’m also hoping there is a recording of your talk. Please let us know if there is.

  • Chris

    Don’t you mean, “I wonder if anyone will” participate?

  • Britt

    Wish I could be there, Tony. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford to go this year, but I would like to watch your sermon/lecture. Will you post it on the blog? Wish you and Doug the best, and I hope your talk is well received.

  • Tanya

    Is it really about the format, or is it content? I’m bored listening to a bad preacher — unengaged, and not likely to feel connected to meaningful community around me. But pooled ignorance? At least as bad. Maybe worse.

    At the conference, you can feel how electric the atmosphere is when someone stands up who is gifted, who has worked at it for hours, maybe days, and who has something to say. And the conversation can go on for months, following. Gotta say, that doesn’t always happen after a small group meeting.

    • Phil Miller

      I love the term “pooled ignorance”… That’s pretty much what I’ve happen when preachers decide to open things up for discussion. Great… now instead of listening to one person ramble about his opinion of the passage, I get to hear twenty.

      Personally, I don’t think it’s the format of preaching that bothers so much. It’s just that there a lot of really bad preachers. It’s rare to find people who are good public speakers just in general. The fact that someone graduated from seminary doesn’t automatically give them that skill.

      • ME

        I feel the same way.

  • Carla

    For those who want a sneak peek, Doug Pagitt’s book “Preaching in the Inventive Age” is a great overview of what I assume he and Tony will be talking about.

  • I’m here at the Festival and heard you. I’m inspired to give it a shot – I see lots if capacities within myself that need to be developed further to do it, not the least of which is courage.. Loved the contrasting perspective with Nadia too on all this. We’re not even close to either, however.

    One practical question. Whenever I’ve been in classroom settings more dialogical in nature, it seems that there’s always some annoying guy (it’s usually a guy) who asked too many asinine questions, etc. Does this happen at Solomon’s Porch? Does the community regulate these people?

    • Carla

      It happens now and then, but for the most part, people tend to recognize that it’s not the time to say everything you know and hijack the conversation. The person doing the sermon will sometimes throw out a reminder that there is time to talk more about an idea between gatherings or give a “let’s take one more and then we need to wrap this up for now” warning shot to let people know there is a time limit. Even just saying “that’s an interesting idea” and asking if other people have thoughts can get that person off the soapbox. It also helps that the kids come back into the room as the sermon is ending, so if someone is getting long winded, they will inevitably be interrupted by the activity of 20+ toddlers and preschoolers looking for their parents.

  • Jane Parker

    If you’re still here (Atlanta) tomorrow, I’ll take you to dinner.

  • Here I am, doing my best to participate ….

  • This is great conversation. I too hope your talks are recorded. In addition to Doug’s preaching book more traditionally minded folk might like to check out Lucy Atkinson Rose’s Sharing the Word and John McClure’s The Roundtable Pulpit, both of which try to move mainline homiltics toward more conversational approaches. With Tony, I concur that much has changed since the hey days of monological preaching. Most important of all, I think, is the shift in theological thinking since the Enlightenment, which mainline homiletics is yet to catch up to. This is at least what I argue in my forthcoming book, Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo, and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics. Which of course I think everyone should read! 😉

  • As Nadia might say, “And they invited you guys to speak at the Festival of Homiletics? How adorable!” 😉 Seriously, I’d love to hear how this alternative message goes over at such an event, Tony. Please post an update with reflections on the conference and your conversations with folks there.

  • Seems to me there are two different streams at work here and success with one doesn’t necessarily mean a connection to the other. Many have commented on public speaking ability. Having spent two decades in radio broadcasting, I can tell you with certainty, that it takes much intentional work to become a good public speaker. Not everyone one is gifted with a deep rich voice, or a naturally broad vocabulary. Many get weak at the knees just thinking about getting up in front of people. But the bottom line is you have to be able to speak in public to communicate your ideas. If you want to do dialogue homilies on an ongoing basis, you need to work on your skills and the skills of the people you are interacting with. And I am here to tell you the good news is that we can all learn, we can all improve if we are intentional about it. This stuff, which seems absolutely fundamental to me, is often ignored completely in homiletics courses in theological college.
    Then there is the theological stream. Once you have done the work, once you have studied the text, read what others have to say, given it great personal thought and meditation, you need to be aware if what you are ready to share can in fact be absorbed by your audience, or might they find you completely self absorbed. There are many creative theologians who also preach and write and can give us wonderful examples on how to interact with people theologically, whereever they may be on their spiritual journey.
    The real learning in all this, to me, is to be able to balance the two streams. Self evaluation says I’m better at the first than the second, so I need to connect with people who have the opposite strengths and weaknesses so we can grow together

  • kristin

    I’m here at the FOH. I’m 45 and minister primarily with young adults…18-21. I welcome and encourage change and newness in the church. But, I strongly resist the ongoing negative rhetoric aimed at “traditional” preaching or church as if it has no value. It is on the shoulders of the generations of leaders that came before us on which we stand. I wish you and others like you who are aiming for a transformed understanding of church would be more respectful and less oppositional. We are called to embrace the whole body, not just those who do things our way.

    Dialogue requires an other. If we are serious about holding meaningful conversation across generational and theological spectrums, we need to hold the other in due respect and honor, choosing to listen to and learn from the other rather than dismissing them or assuming they’ll dismiss us.

    • Curtis

      But what kind of dialogue is it when one person, the pastor, is the only one talking? Tony is talking about true dialogue, where everyone speaks and listens in turn.

  • Curtis

    Have you heard of the “upside down classroom”. That is exactly the concept you are describing, as it is playing out in schools and colleges across the country. The idea is, instead of gathering together to listen to one person talk, use the communication technology we now have to listen to the lecture *before* we arrive as a group. Then, we can spend our group time discussing the lecture, and responding to individual questions or ideas. Maybe spend the group time on a group project related to the lecture.

    The term “upside down classroom” comes form the idea of, instead of coming to school to hear the teacher and then going home to do individual homework, we can now listen to the teacher while at home before class, then use class time to work on individual homework and respond to individual needs, when the teacher available face-to-face to help out if needed.

    A lecture during face-to-face group time is a waste of increasingly-hard-to-find group time. Instead, watch the lecture on your own time, then use the group time for truly group building activities and to respond to individual questions and ideas. Google “upside down classroom” to read more.

    • Phil Miller

      I think a lot of these things depend on the personality of the students involved. Personally, I never liked group projects in any phase of my education. It’s not because I’m anti-social, but it’s just that I felt that I never really learned anything from working with other people like that (other than perhaps patience, which isn’t a bad thing). But as far as learning how to do a math or engineering problem, just give me a book with examples to follow and I’m good. I do know people, however, who have to have another person there to show them how to do things. The problem is when we try to force one style on everyone.

      I notice this in church environments as well. I’ve been involved in churches (both in the congregation and as the leader) where we had a more discussion-based sermon, and even, then, it seem that the discussions turned into the same small group of people participating. Some people actually don’t like having to vocalize their thoughts immediately. They prefer to have time to think things over before discussing them.

      • Curtis

        Well, it doesn’t *have* to be a group project, that was just one example of what could be done. Take the individual exercises you mention that help with your learning. Why doesn’t a traditional church service have individual exercises for the congregation?

        Of course, if you give out exercises to complete at home, a very small percentage of people will take the time to do them. But what if the sermon were pre-recorded and viewed by everyone, before they came to church? Then, during “sermon” time, instead of a sermon, exercises were given and 15 minutes was provided to word on the exercises, either alone or in small groups. The pastor and/or other leaders would be available to circulate among the congregation as they work to answer questions and provide guidance. At the end, people could be invited to share their work with the large group for a limited time.

        This “upside down” sermon would provide a deeper understanding of the sermon, invite more participation from the entire congregation, and make better use of social face-to-face time, than having everyone passively listening to one person talk for 20 minutes.

  • One thing to keep in mind is that if a pastor brings others into the conversation well before the sermon is preached, i.e. while in the process of sermon prep, then even a monological delivery during worship can be collaborative and dialogical, especially when done well and with intentionality. Again, these are ideas that have been well developed by homileticians like Lucy Atkinson Rose, John McClure, and Wes Allen. I highly commend their books for preachers, as well as Doug’s.

  • I’m 31 and I’ve been preaching regularly for 10 years now. I value in monologue teaching, but the reality is listening is not most people’s natural learning style. Real learning usually happens as we process the information through conversation, so I’m drawn to preaching in dialogue. My problem is this: When I have tried some ideas I have heard from Doug and others they usually fall flat on their face even when given an extended period of time and number of attempts.
    What do you do if your congregation is so used to monologue preaching and subconsciously convinced it’s the way it should be even if they would naturally be drawn towards learning in dialogue? How do you help people transition?

  • I’m finding a great deal of non-snarky irony in the number of us who want to watch broadcasts of a lecture about how lectures don’t work. OK, so that’s not exactly what Mr. Jones said he will talk about. At least two of them will be participating in a dialogue in front of and possibly including the audience. But the image was giving me a giggle. 🙂

  • Christina444

    I feel like you have let us hanging. How can we find out more?

  • Christina444

    I feel like you have left us hanging. How can we find out more?

  • Pingback: Preaching and the evangelical left « Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism()

    • ME

      I wonder if one answer is to have much smaller churches. If you have a church with only 50 people in it you could have a sermon and have participation.

  • Jurgen Moltmann has this to say:

    “God is not only a speaking but also a hearing God. The pastor should not preach only, but should also listen. But up to now the situation is one great mouth and many little ears. The congregation should also speak… So, in an assembly the group should show up and speak out about what they are doing, what they need.

    “We need more gathering of the whole community, not just once a year and not just for the budget, but for festive coming together, where people must not only listen but can also speak. I think this was also the idea of the Bible study movement three hundred years ago, that the lay people should also discover and say what they understand.”

    “Let me give you an example. My mother-in-law was a true church-goer. She had listened to at least three thousand sermons in her life, but had great difficulty to speak out what she in her heart believed. She had always learned to listen but not to speak, to express her own belief and profession.”

  • Pingback: Evangelicals Don’t Own Missional()

  • Pingback: Rethinking Preaching: Monological vs Dialogical Preaching — Pomomusings()