Is conversational preaching in some form a possibility at your church?
If you went to church last Sunday, chances are you listened to a sermon. It’s a regular part of worship—more predictable than what songs we may sing or if communion will be served.
Much of what we do leading up to the Scripture reading and the sermon prepares us to hear the Word. Greeting each other as we come into worship reminds us that we are not alone. Singing songs of praise and thanksgiving reorient us towards Christ and this community. Time in corporate prayer allows us to lay our burdens at the feet of Jesus. These parts of worship prepare us for the moment when we hear this ancient story of God and find ourselves inside its pages.
Each week, the sermon puts into practice our conviction that this Word is living and active—that it continues to speak, Sunday after Sunday. Remember Jesus’s first sermon in the gospel of Luke? It’s actually quite short. He opens the scroll to Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
After reading the Scripture, Jesus preaches one exceptionally precise sermon. “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). And in this single line of elaboration upon what He read, Jesus gives us the blueprint for a sermon.
A sermon speaks the Word of God for today, for specific people in a concrete time and place. In opening God’s Word today through the sermon, we practice what we preach—this Word is living and active.(1)
In all but one of the churches I’ve attended, the pastor stands up front to preach the sermon, often behind a pulpit or elevated on a platform or stage. The preacher delivers the sermon while the congregation listens. There is typically minimal interaction between the preacher and congregation during the sermon itself, other than a call and response between the preacher and congregation, perhaps with an “Amen!” or “Yes!”
Interruptions and talking back
Preaching can also take other forms. At Refuge, the church where I pastor, the sermon is interactive and conversational. The preacher doesn’t stand behind a pulpit or up on a platform. Instead, we sit in a circle and the preacher sits at eye level with everyone else.
Why include conversation? Why encourage people to talk back? Why ask questions to involve the congregation in the sermon? What does the conversation do?
One thing a conversational sermon does is invite interruptions. When we show up on Sunday, we don’t necessarily leave behind our problems or struggles, questions or doubts. We don’t take them off like a jacket and hang them up outside the sanctuary, to put on again when it’s time to leave. We usually bring them with us into worship, and hear today’s Word in light of all that we’re experiencing. Every follower of Jesus knows that there are days (or even weeks, months, or years), when our doubts and questions are too much to bear.
Instead of passively listening, a conversational sermon makes room for the congregation to interrupt, to ask questions, to name struggles aloud.
A conversational sermon also opens up space for testimony, for the congregation to see where and how God’s Word is speaking today and give witness to it. I recently preached a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, taking each line one week at a time. In the sermon, Thy Kingdom Come, I began the move to conversation with an image.
“What if praying and living ‘thy kingdom come’ is like looking at the world through a pair of binoculars?(2) In one eye, we see God’s deep grief for the world. We see those who suffer—those who are treated unfairly, those who have been lied to about the American dream, we see the news of this morning—the news of Orlando. We see, in one eye, the ways in which the kingdom has not come. In on the other eye, we see the world with the love of the creator for God’s spectacularly beautiful creation. We see moments where justice flows down, where laughter brings people together, where a group of people who don’t have it all together come to the same table week after week.
Jesus talked about the kingdom using pictures and stories. Look through the one eye, where God grieves, where God’s kingdom has not yet come. Describe the picture. What do you see?”
People responded. The room felt heavy with lament and holy with honesty.
After some time passes and several people shared, I asked a similar question. “Now, look through the other eye, where God see’s the world with great delight, where God’s kingdom has come. Describe the picture. What do you see?”
Again, people responded. But this time, their laments transformed into testimonies. They give witness to God’s Word today, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Finally, a conversational sermon can offer the participants space to begin integrating the preached Word. Instead of taking the preached Word home with you to (I hope) ponder later or discuss over a meal after church, conversational preaching makes space to reflect and begin integration in real time.
What do I mean by integration? We are both integrating today’s Word through love of God and neighbor and being integrated into God’s story. In the same sermon series, the sermon, Thy Will Be Done, explored this line of the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of risk and patience. On the one hand, it’s risky, because it offers up our wills to be transformed by the will of our Father. On the other hand, it requires patience, because the sanctifying work of the Spirit can sometimes be painful and takes time.
As the sermon developed, I asked some vulnerable questions of integration:
“I’d like for us to take a few minutes to consider where it is that God is moving in our midst. Where, in your life, do you sense your will being transformed into the will of the Father? Which of your wills, wants, or desires are being reoriented to the will of God? How is this process requiring patience?"
Integration, then, becomes a communal act as part of the sermon. By speaking a response aloud about where and how the Spirit is transforming us, we may be practicing confession or inviting accountability. Further, by speaking aloud our integration of the Word, we acknowledge that the Spirit moves and transforms the whole community of faith, not only individuals.
Conversational preaching makes space to reflect and begin integration in real time.
Is conversational preaching in some form a possibility at your church? I’m convinced it is. Preachers—try something different. Be creative. Invite the congregation to participate in the sermon, exploring what might work in your context. Laity—support your pastor as she or he explores a different approach to preaching. You, too, have something to offer the sermon as a participant in the Word today.
Megan M. Pardue is the pastor of Refuge, a home church in Durham, North Carolina, and a teaching assistant in homiletics at Duke Divinity School.
(1) Thanks to my preaching teacher, Charles Campbell, and his work with Jesus’ first sermon in Luke chapter 4.
(2) N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer. (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 31.