Any truly, contemporary preacher would agree that preaching is a form of dialogue. John Stott argues that “true preaching is always dialogical.” He goes on to say, “It refers to the silent dialogue which should be developing between the preacher and the hearers. For what he [the preacher] says provokes questions in their minds which he then proceeds to answer.” I’m sure that most of us would agree with Stott. Dialogue with listeners is essential.
However, Stott quickly dismisses any form of verbal dialogue between the speaker and the audience as being more suited to Bible studies than public worship. For Stott – and numerous others – preaching equates with verbal monologue. This preserves the authority of the Scriptures and therefore the authority of the preacher.
Yet we have a postmodern generation crying out for interaction. They are no longer content to silently ponder and respond to the ideas of the preacher, but are desperate for real interaction.
So is verbal interaction with our listeners a possibility? Can we allow the audience to have part of the sermon and still maintain the authority of Scripture? These are difficult and somewhat uncharted waters, but the pleas of postmoderns cannot be ignored. I would like to tentatively explore the possibility of interactive preaching.
Is it Biblical?
The first issue is to consider whether interactive preaching is actually a form of biblical preaching. So let’s look at one definition of a biblical sermon and see whether an interactive sermon fits within its boundaries. I define a biblical sermon as one that is governed by both the content and the form of the biblical passage; has direction and cohesion; and communicates with and influences an audience through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The last factor, communication with an audience, is not a problem because certain audiences, at least, will find that communication is enhanced by a degree of interaction. However, factors one and two impose limitations on the form of dialogue in an interactive sermon because a biblical sermon needs to be governed by the content and form of the passage and to have direction and cohesion. You can see that these factors exclude interactive sermons that are unstructured (no cohesion), open-ended (no direction), or that involve the sharing of unchallenged opinions that may not be biblical (not governed by the passage).
But a sermon that has a main preaching idea governed by the passage, a purpose, and structure and direction, can still profitably use interaction for explanation, illustration, and application. So here is my definition of biblical interactive preaching:
Interactive preaching is authentic, biblical preaching when it involves a passage of Scripture, a sermon theme derived from the Scripture, a preaching intention, and a cohesive structure. The additional dimension of an interactive sermon is a genuine, spoken interaction with the audience that contributes to the preaching idea and the intention of the sermon.
Reasons for Preaching Interactively
While none of the reasons listed below are sufficient in themselves to justify interactive preaching, together they form a strong challenge to cultivate verbal interaction with the congregation on a regular basis. I hope you feel the weight of the argument.
Jesus’ preaching. In his teaching/preaching ministry, Jesus continually interacted with his audience. For example, in speaking to the Jews who believed him (John 8:31-41), Jesus allowed both questions and comments from his audience. Sometimes those who interacted with him were hostile to his message, but he provided them plenty of opportunity to question and comment. Whether Jesus was preaching as we understand preaching is questionable. But even in the synagogue, where he was definitely preaching (Luke 4:16-27), there appears to have been some sort of verbal interaction.
Paul’s preaching. Debate appears to have been an important component of Paul’s evangelistic preaching. In Acts 18:28, Luke says that Paul vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate. Again, this may not have been preaching, but it is difficult to believe that the skeptical and hostile audiences to whom Paul preached, listened silently to his preaching without any verbal response. Paul seems to have been at his evangelistic best in dialogue, “proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28).
Priesthood of believers. One corollary of the doctrine of the priesthood of believers is that because every believer has the Holy Spirit, God’s voice is best heard corporately through believers together under the authority of His Word. While this has ramifications for decision-making, it also may affect the way we hear God in preaching. Does the body (congregation) have a role in explaining, illustrating, and applying God’s word in preaching? If so, how can it be done better than through interaction in preaching?
The form of the passage. Some biblical texts contain dialogue. For example, much of the teaching of Jesus arises within the context of dialogue with his audience. It may be possible to reflect this dialogue in sermonic form so that the form of the sermon reflects in some way the form of the passage. There are also many teaching passages in which illustration and explanation is given from the experience of the audience (e.g. James 5:7-11). It would be appropriate to mirror this technique by asking the audience to supply the illustration and explanation.
Preaching has always followed cultural forms. Bond says, “Preaching has always borrowed its style from culture. For instance, during the scholastic period preaching was full of allegory, stories of the saints, and the famous four-fold interpretation, all of which reflected the medieval worldview of the three-tiered universe and the manifold structure of God. Preaching style in the baroque period was as flowery and ornamental as baroque architecture. The Enlightenment brought rational, highly philosophical and doctrinal preaching to the forefront, while the Romantic era saw an emphasis on emotion and nature. Preaching style follows culture.” An emphasis on communicating and influencing the audience will necessitate a respect for appropriate cultural forms.
Relevance. In a culture that is bombarded with information, people are no longer interested in accumulating irrelevant information. They want relevance. Preachers now go to great lengths to be relevant, but there is always some question over whether the preacher’s experience and thoughts will be relevant to others. Interaction takes the guesswork out of the equation. The audience has the opportunity to relate the content to their contexts.
Postmodernism. Postmodernists react against the “expert.” They are thoroughly skeptical of people who stand in ivory towers and espouse their views. According to the postmodernists, unquestioned, self-appointed experts have only created legalism, division and intolerance. They believe that truth for a community is much better discerned in community. To many postmoderns the preacher sounds very much like the unchallenged expert. While postmoderns need to discern the difference between expertise and spiritual authority, a greater effort to include interaction in preaching will assure our postmodern audiences that we are not placing ourselves six foot above contradiction (as many preachers have done). We want them to understand that they have a part as we discern God’s truth together.
Adult learning. Theories of adult learning stress that learners bring a wealth of experience to the learning situation and that this experience needs to be tapped to enrich the learning event. While there are other elements involved, an audience is, in part, a group of adult learners who are processing what is being preached. Opportunities for the listeners to contribute to the learning event will enhance the learning, as long as they do not detract from hearing the voice of God through the preaching. So well-planned and structured interaction can make preaching more effective. Many churches encourage corporate processing of the sermon in small groups after the event, but it may be even more effective during the preaching event.
Talk shows. One of the most popular modern forms for the processing of ideas and the development of perspectives is through talk shows. They may not look much like sermons, but in fact the talk show host is doing almost the same thing as the preacher. After the extensive, entertaining dialogue comes the host’s short monologue that interprets and applies the “truth.” This is induction at its best. Talk shows involve the audience although the ultimate goal is never in doubt. Perhaps we can learn from and adapt aspects of this form of “preaching.”
Maintaining interest. Interaction does not guarantee interest. Verbose, divergent responses do not assist audience interest at all. So interactive preaching will always be a risk. But effective interaction and involvement of the audience can produce far greater audience interest than straight monologue preaching.
Ownership. We know that people are far more likely to be involved in and committed to projects and decisions when they take ownership. Interactive preaching offers the possibility of sermon ownership. It can be the audience’s sermon, not just the preacher’s sermon. Ownership of the sermon increases the chances of behavioral change in response to the preaching.
Illustration and application. Any preacher, no matter how well read, has limited life experience and therefore a limited supply of illustration and application. That supply can be greatly enhanced by using the life experience of the audience. For example, most preachers spend more time with Christians than non-Christians. However many listeners spend their working life and much of their social life with lost people. What a resource this provides for preaching. Interactive preaching allows the use of this resource.
Variety. Regular preaching to the same audience can become mundane as the preacher runs out of interesting illustrations and new perspectives. Interaction provides variety.
Obstacles to Interactive Preaching and Some Solutions
Having considered the reasons to introduce interaction in your preaching, let’s recognize some of the barriers to effective interactive preaching and how they may be overcome. Please understand that interaction is not without its disadvantages. It takes a brave preacher to give up absolute control over the sermon and open it up to the audience.
Lack of authority. The authority of preaching is traced back to the authority of the Word and the Spirit. As the sermon is preached, the main preaching idea is announced with authority because it is the Word of God and the Spirit empowers the Word to touch the hearts of the listeners and bring change. Our authority is greatest when the Word is allowed to speak and when the Spirit moves through the God-honoring life of the preacher. Interaction may block both these channels of authority with the clouded understanding and unprepared lives of the listeners. The preaching may therefore lose its authority. This is certainly a danger that must be avoided. However it must also be recognized that sometimes the listeners may have greater authority than the preacher, when they speak from deep experience and trust in God. I have seen God move in great authority through obedient listeners who are prepared to honestly talk about their lives. But generally, authority is preserved by designing the interaction to supplement the main theme, and to expand, illustrate and apply the main ideas discerned by the preacher under the authority of Scripture.
Lack of control. While preachers have little control over their audiences, they have great control over the preaching event. It is a one-person show. This control is a great advantage in crafting the sermon. You can design the sermon, shape the sermon, practice the sermon, and deliver the sermon exactly the way you want and, more importantly, the way God wants. After spending eight hours or more working on a sermon, you have a tightly polished product that can be very powerful in the hands of God. A wrong word, an heretical opinion, or a superior attitude from a dialoguing listener can destroy all that you have worked so hard to achieve. This is a great risk. All I can say is that sometime you have to take a risk. It’s to do with faith. Play it completely safe and you inevitably miss the wind of the Spirit. Oh there are ways to minimize the risks, and I will explain them later, but somewhere we have to trust and risk. It may not work every time, but there will be occasions when God takes over. At the start it could be helpful to organize a few people who are ready to interact. You can also coach the whole congregation in appropriate interaction – what to do and what not to do. Sometimes you have to set the example by modeling appropriate responses. The type of questions is really the key and I will deal with this later in detail.
Loss of status. There are not too many occasions when one person speaks and a whole audience listens in silence for 30 minutes. Preaching carries status. Think of all the people who listen to you speak every week and ask yourself, “Who else do they listen to regularly?” You have status as a preacher. Sharing the sermon with the audience undermines that status. You are no longer the expert. Well that is good because status has no place in Christian ministry! “The first will be last and the last will be first.”
Unfamiliarity to the audience. Audiences are used to settling back and listening during the sermon and may find participation difficult to accept. Because the form is different, they may even feel that it is not really preaching at all, but merely a discussion or sharing time. This depends significantly on the style of worship with which the congregation is familiar. If worshippers are used to participating in the worship through testimony, sharing, prophecy, or verbal or physical response, they will probably adapt more easily to an interactive style of preaching. It may be worthwhile to work on more interactive worship before tackling an interactive sermon.
Loss of direction. A sermon with a strong head of steam and clear direction can easily be sidetracked by inappropriate comments, divisive views or rambling thoughts. This is certainly an obstacle that is not easily overcome because the preacher cannot determine who is to speak or what they will say. Sooner or later, if you try preaching interactively, you will experience a loss of direction. Let me offer two suggestions. The first is to constantly keep the main preaching idea and intention in mind. This will not prevent diversions occurring, but will help you more easily detect changes of direction and assist you to get the sermon back on track. The second is to stick to questions that look for experiences and feelings, not ideas and opinions. The response to these questions may still not provide support to the sermon but they are less likely to distort the sermon or distract the listeners. Examples of these types of questions are provided below.
Danger of heresy. Heresy is an even greater danger than loss of direction. If invited to participate, people can make statements (either by design or ignorance) that contain heresy. Again, the design of the interaction can minimize the opportunity for this to occur. Heresy is more likely to flow from opinions than experiences, from discussion as opposed to dialogue. But should a clearly heretical statement be made, it must be corrected in some way because the sermon is designed to be authoritative truth. Whether it is named as heresy or simply corrected by making another comment is probably determined by the perceived intent of the person who made the comment. Interactive preaching certainly requires courage.
Need for further skills. Some preachers may be gifted and trained in preaching, but may not have the skills required to lead audience interaction. You need to be able to think quickly and to bounce off what others are sharing. It also helps to be able to draw diverse strands together. Most skills can be learned by practice. Start by leading times of sharing in worship. When you feel more confident, introduce a question into your sermon. Make sure you make every effort to keep to dialogue, not discussion. Look through the types of questions specified below. One thing is absolutely vital. You need to value the responses. Those who interact must feel that they have contributed. If they lose face in front of their peers, interaction will become a negative experience. It helps if you come down to the audience when interacting. This may not always be possible, but it produces a more conducive environment for interaction.
Lack of involvement. With small audiences, you might be able to encourage 30% of the audience to interact, but in larger audiences that will reduce to 10 to 20%. There will always be a significant proportion of people who will say nothing. Fostering interaction in larger audiences is more difficult because time limitations mean that only a tiny percentage can participate. I’m not sure that a limited proportion of people interacting is a major problem if those willing and able to interact adequately represent the feelings and experiences of the listeners. Five interactors is a major increase on one (the preacher). Ways to encourage interaction in a reluctant audience include asking easy and uncomplicated questions that people understand, choosing questions that require short, simple answers with little personal revelation, and being ready to rephrase or change questions if they draw blank looks. People will gain confidence as you value their responses and they feel that they can contribute to the sermon.
Difficult people. Some difficult people love a microphone and a captive audience. There have been times when I have had to limit spontaneous sharing in services because it was attracting the wrong people. People can use opportunities for interaction to draw attention to themselves, promote their hobbyhorses, lobby the congregation, or sponsor their opinions on issues. The danger of difficult people abusing the opportunity significantly reduces the advantages of interaction. All I can say again is that sometime you have to take a risk. But let me offer a few suggestions about handling difficult people in interactive sessions. Firstly, never let go of the microphone. Once a person has the microphone in their hands it is extremely difficult to wrest back control. If you are using a microphone on a stand, stay close to the person so that you can intervene if necessary. Secondly, promote short responses. This way any inappropriate comment will at least be brief. Thirdly, always treat people with respect. The audience is looking at your behavior as well as listening to your sermon. Fourthly, if you experience a perennial, problem person, you may need to deal with the issue personally outside the service. Fifthly, encourage a form of signaling desire for interaction from the audience that allows you some choice. If responders walk forward to a microphone, you have little choice. But if they have to raise their hand, you have some choice between those wanting to contribute.
Now it’s time to give some practical suggestions on designing interactive sermons and framing questions that will assist helpful participation. I am only beginning to explore this area and so I make the following proposals with a degree of uncertainty. My ideas have been informed by Bond’s insightful book, Interactive Preaching. I’m sure those who are preaching regularly to postmoderns will be able to take these preliminary thoughts further.
Dialogue not discussion
In discussion we talk about our opinions and generally try to convince others that our opinions are correct. We tend to see ourselves as unbiased observers stating our carefully considered judgments. On the other hand, in dialogue we talk about our feelings and experiences trying to unearth our prejudices and biases so that we may better understand ourselves and others.
In general, opinions tend to produce confusion, argument, conflict, judgmentalism, and even heresy. They separate us from our feelings and experiences rather than leading us to, and helping us share, our experiences. They use detached, secondary language. They often lead us away from the truth of Scripture and insulate us from hearing the meaning of the text. If the listeners share opinions, the main theme of the sermon may be obscured and the audience will be less certain of what the text is saying. So while opinions may be interesting, generally they will not be helpful to the sermon unless you are trying to show the variety of opinions on the subject.
So in interactive preaching, you’re generally looking for personal stories, not opinions. You want stories that will help the participants understand and experience the Scripture. Beware of asking questions that the audience can answer purely on a detached, intellectual level. Look for questions that explore feelings, experiences, stories, and images.
Framing the questions
It may help to suggest a few different categories of questions that you could use to promote dialogue. These types of questions encourage people to look inside their lives and experiences. The purpose of putting questions in categories is to help ensure that there is some variety in the interaction. I’m sure that these categories overlap and they really only provide a starting point. I’m also sure that you will think of other categories as you become more experienced in interactive preaching. I will illustrate using simple questions designed to create interaction in sermons on the parable of the prodigal son and the story of David and Goliath.
1. Life experience questions
These questions encourage people to share experiences from their own lives. They help people remember feelings from the past that pertain to the Scripture passage and its message. They are designed to probe the life stories of the audience to come up with helpful illustration and application. Generally you find the more specific the answers, the better. Life experience questions on the prodigal son may be:
• When have you felt most rejected?
• Can you share an experience of turning away from God?
• How have you experienced the wonder of God’s great welcome home?
• When did you react like the older brother?
Life experience questions on David and Goliath may be:
• What have people said to you when you made a bold statement of faith?
• How did your family react to God’s calling of you?
• Share a time when you trusted God and saw a miracle.
2. General experience questions
These questions draw on experiences of life without being specific as to the particular circumstances. But they are aimed still at experiences not opinions, and contain singular not plural pronouns (i.e. “you” not “we”). They help those sharing, and the audience in general, to apply the sermon story to their own situation. They are slightly less threatening than life experience questions in that they do not require quite so much specific sharing. General experience questions on the prodigal son may be:
• How do you cope with rejection?
• What stops you going home to God when you have really failed?
• In what situations does God throw a special party for you?
• When do you start feeling jealous of others?
General experience questions on David and Goliath may be:
• What sorts of things make you afraid?
• How do you know when God is calling you to do something?
• When are you really confident about making a stand for God in difficult situations?
3. Present experience questions
These questions try to draw out the experiences that people are going through as they listen to the sermon. They allow people to share their present emotions and experiences and therefore draw on what God is doing in their lives during the sermon. This helps others in the audience identify their own responses. Present experience questions on the prodigal son may be:
• What are you sensing when I say the words, “wild living”?
• What would you say to the dad if you were the son returning?
• Are you identifying with the younger or older son?
• What is God saying to you through this story?
Present experience questions on David and Goliath may be:
• What comes to your mind when I say the word, “Goliath”?
• What would you say to David if you were Saul?
• Would you be as confident as David in a similar situation?
4. Feeling questions
These questions major on a person’s feelings or the perceived feelings of a character in the narrative. Because they are feeling based, they draw on past feelings of the audience. They probe the responses of the audience and validate emotional reactions. They also help other listeners to get in touch with their feelings and responses. Feeling questions on the prodigal son may be:
• What does it feel like to be rejected?
• What is the younger son feeling in the pigsty?
• What feelings is the father experiencing as he waits for his son?
• Are you feeling angry towards or sorry for the older son? Why?
Feeling questions on David and Goliath may be:
• Do you feel David was too confident in light of the situation?
• How do you think Saul felt when David volunteered?
• How would you have felt if you had been in the army watching David?
5. Allegorical questions
These questions take an allegorical approach to the Scripture therefore they must be handled with care, but in some contexts they may be appropriate. This is more difficult to illustrate with a parable because, in a sense, the parable is already an allegory. Allegorical questions on the prodigal son may be:
• When do you act like a “parent,” and what results does that produce?
• Who is the prodigal in you and what does he/she want?
Allegorical questions on David and Goliath may be:
• Who or what are the “Goliaths” in your life?
• What “stones” have you found helpful in slaying Goliaths?
• When have you seen a faith-filled “David” slay a giant?
As I have shown, there are many good reasons to preach interactively. It allows listeners an opportunity to become more active participants in the sermon and may well prove to be an effective method of reaching and influencing postmoderns. So while interactive preaching requires a degree of risk, as long as the authority of the Word is maintained, the contemporary, biblical preacher can confidently develop ways to preach interactively using audience interaction to explain, illustrate and apply the truths of God’s Word.
John Sweetman is the Principal of the Queensland Baptist Seminary, Australia.
1. John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 60.
2. Ibid., p. 61.
3. D. Stephenson Bond, Interactive Preaching (St Louis: CPB Press, 1991), p. 56.