Dialogue sketches 5 Dialogue Sketches

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Chapter 5 Dialogue Sketches

Dialogue sketches are a new format developed in my own ministry. I first wrote dialogues for a Sunday 8pm “Alternative Worship” service, encouraged by my then colleague the Rev Jenny Wigley, who was also a part-time Chaplain at the neighbouring Swansea University campus. I didn’t research a new technique – it evolved and developed with practice and encouragement. Much of the reading and material presented in this dissertation is subsequent to the writing and use of the earlier sketches, though their development does parallel the time that I have been engaged in the College of Preachers MTh course, with the associated reading and reflection. Initially I wrote them, as a presentation of my ideas in a different format to that of a sermon or talk. The idea of group composition came later.

At the time of the dissertation, I set up a website to make available the idea and specific scripts. The Home and Index page read:

Welcome to the Home and Index page of the Dialogue Sketch Website.

What is a Dialogue Sketch?

It is a sketch representing a conversation, written to explore and teach the Christian faith in the setting of worship. Read from the script by regular members of the congregation, it is easy to put on with minimal rehearsal. The congregation hear people talking about the scripture reading, and discussing what it means and what difference that might make.

Why would I be interested?

If you are involved in a Christian teaching ministry, as a preacher, or just a hearer of sermons, this technique might be a useful supplement to your regular diet. It might help more people get involved, appreciate what preaching is trying to do, and encourage people to talk about Christian faith and practice. With those possibilities, it’s surely worth reading further!

What’s involved?

I am suggesting a simple programme. First, you use a script from this website with people in your local congregation. As a second stage, you develop your own script from reading and discussing the text – don’t worry, there are full instructions and a number of different ways of going about it. The third stage comes when you do the whole process yourselves, starting with a set of readings, and producing and using a script.

There’s no cost, but I am developing this idea as part of an MTh Course with the College of Preachers, so please use the evaluation forms and send me the results which will enable me to write about the process, and share the overall results with you. I hope in this way that something of practical and spiritual use can be available widely and freely. (To go to the evaluation forms, click here. – this was a hypertext link to the form in the original web version – for more information now, use the contact page on this website!)

Where Next? (Then there were hypertext links to the other pages)

This page was advertised in a number of ways: there was a flyer distributed to Anglican clergy in six Welsh dioceses (including a Welsh language translation in Bangor, which has a policy requiring bi-linguality) [1]; it was also distributed to people attending Theological Society lectures in Swansea University, and from there by Alison Davis, the Training & Development Officer for the National Synod of Wales, to URC ministers. A different formatting of the same text was circulated to lay and clerical members of the Evangelical Fellowship of the Church in Wales (EFCW) with their newsletter, Bwletin. The URL featured in my e-mail “signature” over many months, the text drawing attention to new scripts or other aspects of the project. Finally, I was gratified to discover that the web search site “Google” recognised “Dialogue Sketch” with a link to this page.

It will be clear that the style of the website was meant to be accessible, and not only for “professional” or experienced ministers. Nevertheless, there was no intention to “dumb down” either the concept or the scripts themselves. A second page (which I called “theory”) will explain some background, and require more discussion:

Why would it be worth getting several members of a congregation to read a scripted “conversation” when a preacher could speak in a traditional, monologue, sermon?

Let’s be clear that I have nothing against the sermon (I am a preacher, and have no intention of stopping). What I am exploring is the idea that using this technique occasionally might be helpful both then and for subsequent sermons.

In contrast to McClure [2], but with Thompson and Bennett [3], I see dialogue sketches as an addition to monologue preaching. Unlike both, I am concerned with the break with tradition [4]. I think the reasons traditionally cited for the importance of preaching (such as hearing the Word of God, making discipleship a practical learning and growth in understanding . .) have sometimes confused Christian teaching and learning with the form of monologue preaching. This means that the acceptance of a different form, a dialogue sketch, for the same learning purpose may need explanation and gentle introduction. Nevertheless, if successful, the use of each form may help people to think about, and get more benefit from, both.

Why? Here are some ideas, and I hope you will get involved in this project, which should provide some answers (as well as involving people in thinking about scripture, preaching, and Christian living).

This is the big question – if preaching isn’t broken, why meddle? I hoped the following paragraphs would both interest and explain.

Western culture has changed from hierarchy (with “experts”) to diversity (“all opinions are (supposedly) equal”). Chat show has replaced lecture, the media use several people to present information – think of television news for example. Churches often haven’t changed their presentation style.

It didn’t seem tactful to say that this was true of traditional, liturgical congregations, and of the historic “Free” churches, but also of modern independent community and housechurches, where the teaching style could be equally hierarchical, or dogmatic, or lecturing. I wasn’t wanting to advocate uncertainty, still less to preach a gospel without content, but to question the Christian culture for its effective communication of both explicit and implicit messages.

Preachers know that it is important to speak the language people understand. In Wales, that sometimes means using the Welsh language. Often the preacher isn’t “local”, and has to guess at the concerns and background experience of his congregation. If they speak for themselves, they may speak more effectively to that community. They may even do that when a “preacher” is not available.

I know the situation in my own diocese of Swansea & Brecon. On the one hand, Welsh language is not very strong (the strongholds are further north and west), but the supply of ministerial candidates who are fluent in Welsh is tiny. Often Welsh language ministry, in anything more than the competent reading of service, lessons and prayers of which I am capable, will have to be lay ministry. Dialogue Sketches offer this possibility. A group could have the input (in limited Welsh or even English) from a theologically educated person, but produce a sketch in Welsh of the appropriate local dialect, to be spoken by native Welsh speakers. Similarly, a University educated “outsider” could facilitate an English speaking group to address their concerns and voice them in a vocabulary and accent he never could or should use.

Again in my own diocese there is concern at a finance-led reduction in the number of stipendiary clergy over the next few years. Especially in rural areas, lay ministry may be the only way of maintaining Sunday service in remote churches. We hesitate to read other people’s sermons, or to recommend other people to do so, but there seems no reason why lay worship leaders should not first use dialogue sketches written by others, and then perhaps develop to write or adapt them themselves, growing in ministerial skill as a result. [5]

We’ve all known our minds to wander in sermons. Several voices command attention better – even when the novelty of doing something different wears off. (That is why the media use more than one presenter!)

During my ministry in the Parish of Morriston (1989 – 2000), we had at one time three clergy and five Readers. The variety of preaching, both in style and approach, was a great asset. That followed my time in Llanwrtyd Wells (1982-9), where the congregations of the group listened to me for 50 weeks of the year! No doubt they came to understand me, but I was aware of at least one (very gracious) person who found my style and personality something of a hindrance. Dialogue sketches in any setting allow and affirm diversity of personality, gender (without the theological questions some find difficult) and personal experience.

Many of us know the theory that Worship is what the whole congregation does. Sometimes we have people to read lessons, lead music, even take prayers. But what happens after that? Is there any way to bridge the gap to “solo” ministry as Reader/Lay Preacher or Priest/Minister/Pastor/Elder? This might just help.

A monologue sermon is, by definition, preached by one person. Because a dialogue sketch can be a group production, there is scope for people to develop and examine a vocation to leadership, and to what sort of gift they have been given. It may be that confidence gained leads a person to offer for training or ordination, or that members of a group come to recognise and encourage one of their number to such steps.

Some preachers are good on logical argument, some help us to feel for a situation. For each preacher there are some people who understand them easily and some who have to work harder. A dialogue sketch can include different types of people (eg those who go for logic as well as the “feelies”; different ages, – even those with special needs). That gives a picture of the congregation as including, involving and valuing all these people. [6]

This is the point made in my previous quotations from Thompson and Bennett [7]. Congregational participation, while it may be expressed in a variety of ways, is of enormous importance in worship. Anything which causes a worshipper to distance themselves from worship, unless it is truly the “offence of the gospel” – the appreciation of the cost and difficulty of discipleship – is dangerous

There are many “traditional” congregations (not all sharing the same tradition!), and a smaller number of “new expressions of Church”. Using dialogue sketches might help both styles to evolve and keep links of fellowship and understanding with other Christian groups – both by sharing a technique, and by being encouraged to think about their faith and life in “ordinary” terms.

I am concerned with the way some very traditional Anglican congregations might develop to a style more accessible and sympathetic to contemporary culture, and so attract more people to faith and progress to another generation. Changing the music style or liturgical text to something contemporary can be highly contentious; changing the way the Vicar speaks may be impossible; introducing an occasional dialogue sketch might just be a way forward!

Jesus told stories to the crowd, and encouraged his disciples to ask questions. We’ve sometimes lost the art of getting people involved (like a good storyteller) and fallen back on a moral lecture. Would the technique of dialogue sketches help us do better? (Those familiar with academic theology will see the relevance of narrative criticism. You don’t have to hold a particular view of it to take advantage of the ideas.)

There could be much more work done on the form of dialogue sketches – to include storytelling, for example. My main point here is that dialogue sketches can be quite direct, even controversial, without people feeling “got at” in the way they might resent comments from a monologue speaker. At they same time, they can open people’s minds to other points of view without being aggressive or controversial at all.

Passion Plays, films and animations of Bible stories can be wonderful, but vary in quality, and none are easy to use in a congregation. Does this pattern, of scripts read by the participants, bring the benefits of drama to a congregation while reducing the need for memorisation, extensive rehearsal time, and confidence in acting and direction? (or the expense of technical equipment, and screening fees?)

I hope this is not just laziness, but I don’t have time to produce a play every month, even if I could find texts, actors and all the other resources needed. Dialogue Sketches are meant to be simple, to be read by “ordinary” people, with minimal props, rehearsal and effort. At the same time, they are more “local” and apt, both in culture and in spiritual relevance – at least, that is the intention.

Are dialogue sketches better than sermons? Silly question – they are different. If they encourage members of a congregation to be involved in worship and ministry, to have realistic “ordinary” conversations about scripture, and practical Christian living – Alleluia! What preacher would not be pleased with that?

References cited above:
1 see Appendix for the text of this flyer, in both English and Welsh languages (translation by the Rev John Walters, Vicar of Pontarddulais)
2 McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit, chapter 4 p59ff argues for his technique as the permanent method of preaching in a congregation.
3 Thompson and Bennett, Dialogue Preaching, propose dialogue preaching as a supplement to monologue in their preface, p7ff
4 Thompson and Bennett, Dialogue Preaching, chapter 4 p65 sees “breaking with tradition” as a reservation, not a significant objection.
5 see the clergy questionnaire analysis for investigation of this – p43-45.
6 see for example the sketches F (p67) and D (p64)
7 at the top of page 6, I quoted Thompson and Bennett, Dialogue Preaching p27, and on my p8, their p72