For a change, why not try a sermon in dialogue? A sermon in which two or more speakers work in interaction with each other can provide some welcome variety. It can catch and hold the interest of a congregation. It can also more adequately represent the interaction with God which preaching hopes to facilitate. That interaction is essentially dialogical.
A life-shaping encounter with the living God is an interaction in which both parties are active. God is the primary actor in the work of salvation, but the people being saved are not inert objects to be worked upon. They are alive, intelligent persons who question, who cry out for help, who doubt, who both seek and resist, and who must ultimately respond in faith and commitment if the interaction is to have its saving effect.
When change is taking place in a person’s life, lots of dialogues are likely to be going on at once. There are conversations — and sometimes real arguments — going on within that person between different aspects of his or her own being. And there are likely to be going on, within, silent or active conversations between that person and other significant people, or the culture, or the religious traditions, or life as a whole. These conversations may either result from or embody the more basic interaction that is going on between that person and God. Sermons in dialogue can help to facilitate this kind of interaction with God.
Dialogue sermons can take lots of different forms. A dialogue sermon may be simply a kind of panel with which a fairly standard sermon is divided up and presented by two or more speakers. This gives some nice vocal variety, especially if one of the speakers is a woman and the other is a man. It can also be useful in a community or ecumenical service. In that setting, such a sermon can make it clear that the proclamation is being shared by the participating churches.
A dialogue sermon can be an interview in which a person with special expertise or insight is interviewed by another person who will represent the congregation in asking the questions the congregation will want answered. I once interviewed a member of our congregation who is a well informed and deeply dedicated participant in the war on drugs.
I could imagine such an interview with a person who had been through some experience like grief or recovery from alcoholism or some unique religious experience. Such interviews should not be done “cold.” The participants should prepare them together to insure that both the congregation’s questions and the insights that are to be shared are well represented.
A shared experience can best be shared with others in dialogue. I once participated in a mission tour along with another member of our congregation. We embodied our report to the congregation in a dialogue sermon in which we shared the discoveries we had made about God, God’s work in the world, and God’s calling to us. By doing this in dialogue, we were able to express our two different perspectives and to draw each other out.
A dialogue sermon may grow out of a real conversation and draw the congregation into it. I once had an associate pastor who was very athletic. Competition was very important to him. We had lots of conversations about the healthy and unhealthy forms that competitiveness can take in a person’s life and about the way in which the Christian faith can help a person to integrate the healthy and reject the unhealthy.
It occurred to me that this is a live issue for many Christians living in a highly competitive culture. We planned a dialogue sermon to draw the congregation into the conversation and to bring the teachings of the faith to bear upon their own competitiveness or lack of it.
Some pastors have tried to draw their congregations into active dialogue. One pastor used to end every sermon with a question and answer period. It seemed that this would be appropriate in the case of sermons intended to inform or to stimulate thought but less appropriate when the sermons are designed to inspire or to elicit commitment. It also seems that people would be more likely to raise questions at an intellectual level in that context rather than to express the deeper questions of their hearts. Even so, it could be a useful method.
Another pastor occasionally turned a whole sermon into a dialogue with the congregation. After introducing a topic and opening up the scripture lesson, he invited the congregation to enter into a discussion, raising questions, sharing experiences and responding to one another. Obviously, these two methods require a preacher who can feel comfortable in dialogue, a congregation that is small enough and responsive enough to participate, and a worship setting that is conducive to discussion.
A certain kind of dialogue is facilitated by some chancel dramas which are occasionally used to replace or supplement the sermon. If the characters in those dramas are made to represent the parties in some dialogue in which the hearers are participating — or, better yet, one that is going on within them — and if they represent their parties well, then the drama can facilitate the hearers’ own participation.
Of course, it is possible to embody a dialogue within a monologue, to engage the congregation in conversation even when only one person is speaking audibly. All really good preaching does this.
Dialogue may begin by intentionally addressing a real need or question of the hearers. Monroe’s “motivated sequence” suggests that a speech ought to start by defining a need that is to be addressed and then follow with: solution, visualization, and action steps. A good sermon ought to start by addressing a real (and preferably felt) need of the hearers.
John Wesley used to occasionally end a sermon by responding to certain questions that he knew some of his hearers might be asking. He did this quite intentionally, introducing the dialogue by saying something like, “But someone may ask ….” This can be useful if the preacher is willing to address real questions and not just to set-up straw men which he can easily knock over. It can be especially meaningful when the preacher is willing to recognize questions for which he has no easy or ready answer.
Faith often takes the shape of moving ahead in spite of uncertainty. A willingness to respect and live with an unanswered question can affirm the hearer who is living through some experience in which faith requires courage.
Dialogue may play a useful role in the form of a sermon but it plays a much more important role in the origins and intentions of a sermon. If a preacher begins the preparation with a real sensitivity to the deep needs and questions of the people who will hear and then tries to bring the Gospel of God to bear upon those needs, the preacher can indeed lead people into life-shaping interactions with the living God.
Some very good sermons may grow out of pastoral conversations or participations in the group life of the church. Sometimes the pastor will hear a conversation in a class or group meeting in which someone expresses a deep feeling or need and gets a response that embodies the response of God. Sometimes people will share their deep questions with the pastor and draw him or her out in a way that forces the pastor to think through the implications of the Gospel in the context of a real dialogue.
When the pastor reflects upon such a conversation and realizes that it was a good one, he may realize that the conversation had within it the makings of a good sermon. The needs or questions expressed in the conversation may represent needs or questions shared by other members of the congregation. And the answers discovered in the conversation may embody the responses of God.
Sometimes, with the permission of all parties involved, it may be possible to make a sermon out of a simple report of such a conversation or to use it for an illustration. More often, it will be possible to relate the same responses to the same needs in some other way and to know that the preaching is “on target.”
(Ruel L. Howe wrote a book that has more to say on this subject: Partners in Preaching, Clergy and Laity in Dialogue, New York: Seabury Press, 1967.)
It is the purpose of preaching to bring people into a life-forming meeting with God. Such meetings have the shape of interactions between two living, deciding, acting persons; that is, the shape of dialogue. It is possible for the preacher to choose form and content for sermons that will facilitate such dialogue. Why not try a dialogue sermon?
– What do you think about dialogue in preaching? Have you tried different sermonic forms aimed at encouraging dialogue? Was it effective or not? Share your ideas and experiences with us and we’ll pass them along in a future issue. Send your comments to Editor, Preaching, 1529 Cesery Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32211.

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