Dialogue Sketches 3 Why didn’t dialogue sermons continue?

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2

Chapter 3   Why didn’t Dialogue Sermons continue?

Dialogue Sermons seem to have died by the end of the 1970s. A search for books on the subject finds little after that date. Current books on preaching assume a monologue, stressing perhaps the need to engage with the congregation, to assess their needs, culture and response, but offering the rhetoric of the solo voice. The College of Preachers MTh course on preaching has no significant section on dialogue, the use of multiple voices, or drama. Fred Craddock’s textbook “Preaching”1 and Thomas G Long’s “The Witness of Preaching” both assume monologue delivery.

Yet that is not the whole situation. Talking with colleagues in Sketty Ministers’ Fraternal, I discovered that the Baptist minister regularly uses dramatic sketches in services [2], and the URC minister [3] had used a “plant” in the congregation to ask questions and create interest. Fully staged drama, sometimes with professional actors, lighting, costumes etc continues to develop and attract audiences eg Riding Lights Theatre, touring larger towns. Mothers’ Union has produced a number of Role Plays (actually, despite the name, scripted sketches) over the years to inform and promote discussion about family relationships and issues in the world church. While there is little published work on dialogue preaching, there are plenty of books of sketches (eg Dave Hopwood [4], Michael Botting [5]) which clearly suggest performance in church as well as school. Perhaps they are meant for “Family Service” or “All Age Worship”, but why should that be any less serious in communicating the Christian Faith? It seems that dialogue, and dramatic dialogue, have not disappeared from our churches, but are not acknowledged as “preaching”, nor used in the most “serious”, “adult” or “mainstream” services. Why is this?

In the absence of reported research, or time and resources to conduct it myself, I can only speculate. Yet this speculation may give leads later when I come to consider reactions to my Dialogue Sketches. Let me suggest possible answers under two headings.

Social Factors working against Dialogue Preaching.

McClure [6] speaks of changes away from an authoritarian style of preaching coming after the 1939-45 war, in reaction to Nazi and Japanese authoritarianism. Yet he does not follow this through, because it seems that the very stimuli which motivated the egalitarian and democratic ideals (which led to the Labour Government and developments such as the National Health Service – which many Christians could identify with) continued to the hippie revolution of the 70s, with its opposition to Establishment ideas and to Religion, in institutional form at least (at which point most Christians felt themselves firmly in opposition). In other words, a popular change of perspective, which might have empowered and encouraged congregations, came to be seen as a threat to the Church.

The first stage of this process is reflected in the work of the Second Vatican Council and changes in other churches, among which Marian Young Adell [7] included community, participation, and an emphasis on the vernacular and cultural context. The second stage was a conservative reaction, as decline in numbers of worshippers in Europe lead to financial pressures, decline in the number of candidates for ministry, and an awareness that popular culture was increasingly moving away from Christian principles and assumptions, and even from Christian understanding. It would be most interesting to know whether we are now moving away from this reaction to a new awareness that a twenty-first century church needs to proclaim the gospel in ways that secular people can hear, understand, even enjoy, and want to share.

“Fresh expressions” of church exist and experiment with new forms of life and worship, but in very small numbers. “House churches” had some popularity, but have often now outgrown their houses, hired or purchased buildings, and encountered the additional problems of second-generation and elderly members. The traditional denominations in my area have done little to adapt their traditions to the needs of contemporary culture. Will they continue, and decline, or adapt?

Organisational Factors against Dialogue Preaching.

If the social history of the last sixty years has discouraged innovation in church, after briefly seeming to welcome it, the organisation of the denominations has also hindered new moves. The churches have always moved slowly, perhaps reflecting their membership with its over-representation of those with a personal interest in the proximity of death. It is said that for some years after the 1939-45 war, a number of those who might have entered ministry in Britain went instead into teaching or social work. As a result the less attractive and financially rewarding work of Christian leadership was in the hands of the more elderly and less adventurous. The perceived opposition between Christian and popular cultures from the 60s on may have continued this trend. At a time when business innovators and senior managers seemed to be becoming younger and more flexible, in a world where increasingly rapid change was taken for granted, the churches went a different way.

A second difficulty for dialogue preaching was the changing role of the minister. Even fifty years ago, he had a clear leadership role and social position. There had been, and continued to be, fundamental questionings in theology [8], but this left his leadership of the local congregation largely unaffected. When financial pressure and decreasing recruitment increased his workload, there was less time to spend on experiment and innovation. Similarly, as his role declined in status, at least in the community outside the congregation, he was less likely to hand over the distinctive role of preacher, and suggest that lay people might have a greater part in worship, and that part of worship seen in Reformed and Evangelical circles as most important. Again, we have to ask whether the early years of the twenty first century have produced ministers mature and spiritually secure enough to enable their congregations in ministry.

What is the Sermon attempting?

At this point some consideration of the purpose and function of the sermon – or sermon substitute – seems necessary. I began this dissertation with a reference to monologue preaching as a medium of communication and learning. Is it fair to evaluate it in such terms, or should it be judged by other criteria?

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that preaching has always been regarded as an essential part of Christian ministry. “Its purpose has been to teach, strengthen, and enthuse congregations that they may become more effective witnesses to Christian truth and the Christian way of life.” or “so to move those who listen” (as non-Christians) “that they become a congregation of believers”. [9] The assumption that the medium is the spoken word, and that the level of education of the speaker is critical, is explicit.

The first module of this course, “Preaching and Hermeneutics”, considered a variety of definitions of preaching, some concentrating on the activity of God’s revelation, some on the role of the preacher and his congregation. Fred Craddock’s textbook avoids a formal definition, but is happy to say “A sermon is a communication and therefore is to be located as much among a particular group of listeners as with a particular speaker” [10] He further affirms the role of communication in saying “preaching is understood as making present and appropriate to the hearers the revelation of God. Here revelation is used not in the sense of content, although content is certainly there, but in the sense of mode.” [11]

Thomas G Long has rather more to say about the focus and function of preaching. [12] Considering a series of images of the preacher, he finds the “Herald” focussed on communicating scriptural truth, but unscriptural in distaining communication skills, and in danger of diminishing the preacher’s responsibility, the role of his personality and his relationship with the congregation. The preacher as “Pastor” takes seriously the effect of preaching, as a communication strategy to provoke change in the hearers, but loses its focus on the gospel, and its corporate implications. The preacher as “Storyteller” is a strong image, objective and experiential, realistic about communication and inviting listening participation, but in danger of underplaying the non-narrative dimensions of scripture, and of measuring preaching by its perceived, short-term, effects. Long thus moves on to his preferred image of the preacher – the “Witness”, who testifies to the events of human encounter with God, and gains the authority, not of rank, but of possessing important information.

I think these authorities endorse a view of preaching as communication. (If there is no effective communication, preaching fails). The message communicated is in part factual information, but also includes emotional material, in the sense of conveying feelings (the love of God, the beauty of holiness . .) and attempts to motivate and to offer alternative visions of self and self-in-relationship. If we are to judge preaching by the effectiveness with which the congregation learns, we must be careful to use a very wide definition of “learning”, moving far beyond religious knowledge to include emotional maturity, Christian self-image and the setting of practical priorities for appropriate action in each person’s social setting.

But is the sermon a suitable vehicle for communication and learning? David Norrington mounts a headlong attack on its place in worship. His argument that a regular sermon cannot be detected in the practice of Judaism, Jesus or the Church until the third century or later is weakened by being largely an argument from silence. More serious is his claim that sermons create dependence rather than developing thought or analysis, often fail to instruct (both because of a diverse audience and because of one-way communication), and by deskilling fail to promote spiritual growth but rather contribute to the impoverishment which “characterises large areas of the church today.” [13] He advocates small-group and experiential learning, but has to recognise that many church members are not attracted by serious study, and might have to be left behind.

The following chapters will take some criticisms of the sermon further, but offer a less radical programme in response. Norrington’s argument is weakened by the assumption he shares with McClure [14] that sermons consist of hierarchical, authoritarian instruction. Where the preacher is aware of the danger of creating dependence, and actively seeks a style which engages the congregation and encourages their exploration and development, it is harder to claim “deskilling”.

This different style is seen in Donald Coggan’s work. He is clear about the engagement of preacher and congregation, indeed, “Ideally . . preaching should be followed by discussion when further truth will be teased out, and preacher and people both be enriched” [15]. Coggan cannot contemplate the abandonment of proclamation, because of general ignorance of the bible, the nature of Christian ministry (evidenced by the Anglican Ordination Charge), and the New Testament. Yet his insistence on dialogue [16] is consistent, and refutes Norrington’s view of preaching as “one-way” communication.

A similar argument could be based on the work of David Schlafer, who counsels against expecting a text to teach a point. He suggests rather that a text should allow entry to an adventure – an adventure to be shared. Playful creativity, while not sparing the preacher hard work, will produce sermon art. “The effect on listeners . . . is not that of being informed, explained to, exhorted, accused, or upbraided, but that of being engaged – invited, for themselves, into the play of fire.” [17] Perhaps the average sermon falls far short of such an ideal, but is this what we should strive for, or are there other forms which might enrich the congregational diet, and perhaps lead us forward?

References cited above:
1 which says “More particularly in the case of preaching, however, it has been contended that no useful textbook can be written as long as the field of communication remains in a state of flux due to experimentation with new technology. . . Such a conclusion is not without support” Craddock, Preaching, p13
2 The Rev Wayne Evans, minister of Sketty Baptist Church, admits his wife often writes the text when it is not taken from a book.
3 The Rev Kim Fabricius, interestingly an American, though working in Wales for many years.
4 Dave Hopwood, Playing Up, and A Fistful of Sketches
5 M Botting, 50 Sketches for All Occasions
6 John S McClure, The Round-table Pulpit, chapter 2 p30ff
7 Marian Young Adell, Preaching in the Renewal of Worship in the Last Thirty Years, p1ff in Greenhaw and Allen eds, Preaching in the Context of Worship
8 eg the publication of JAT Robinson, Honest to God, and subsequent debate
9 ed Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, article “preaching” p1317
10 Craddock, Preaching, p31
11 Craddock, Preaching, p51
12 TG Long, The Witness of Preaching, p19-48
13 David C Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach, passim, quote p115
14 page 10 of this dissertation
15 D Coggan, New Day for Preaching, page 5
16 ibid chapter 4, p27ff Preaching and Dialogue
17 David J Schlafer, Playing with Fire, p99