Chapter 8 What can we say?
Worship has always adapted to the culture in which it is set. The last half century has seen great changes in Western European culture, and some in its Christian worship. Lay participation has increased, with people reading lessons, leading intercessions and helping to administer Communion. The translations of the Bible read publicly have changed, and the liturgical texts used have modernised and sometimes standardised.
Yet in worship (other than a few “All Age” or “Family” services, and rarer experiments) the monologue sermon is largely unchallenged. In other contexts, modern methods may be used. Programmed learning, group discussion and courses such as Alpha and Emmaeus may be used with groups – but in church the sermon reigns. Even where sermons are of the type David Norrington  criticises – perhaps especially there – theoretical questioning has not led to a change of tradition. In many churches, nobody seems to ask why worship so often relies on such a theoretically doubtful method for communicating Christian truth. Surely there are better ways which should be tried?
In this dissertation, I have tried to build a case for dialogue, and for a particular, simple implementation of it in the “sermon slot”. I think the dialogue sketch format offers a balance:
- Dialogue sketches are simple and straightforward enough to require a minimal investment of time and resources, yet there is flexibility to adapt them to a variety of worship settings.
- Dialogue sketches involve laypeople and increase their confidence and competence in contributing to worship (both practically and theologically)
- Dialogue sketches bring a considerable measure of cultural relevance by their format. The language should be that which the congregation use. The cultural setting should be that of the worshipping community. The style should be one which worshippers are happy with – because the sketch is delivered, and may be written, by worshippers.
- Dialogue sketches allow for the tradition of the congregation. The form adapts to use an existing pattern of housegroup or interest group meeting. Alternatively, dialogue sketches can be written by an individual (who may also write and deliver sermons!).
- Theologically, the sketch may reflect the tradition of the congregation, and even allow for more or less forceful leadership (even censorship) by an appointed person.
Perhaps I should not be surprised that the practice has proved more daunting than the theory. I failed to get feedback from the numbers of congregations I had hoped to involve, but analysing those I could reach, found interesting reactions. There was quite a strong traditionalist group, who might not have wanted anything to change, but were clearly attached to sermons. But alongside them were those who valued dialogue sketches, and a larger number who were ambivalent, but wanted to see them continue occasionally. Overall, a good number thought they might make church more relevant.
My suspicion that the difficulty in getting dialogue sketches into use might be the church leaders was largely born out by my survey of clergy. They wanted effective communication, but thought dialogue sketches would be too difficult to set up, and less beneficial to the congregation that a sermon. I think that is a mistake. But I admit it might take time for a leader, and then his congregation, to understood what a dialogue sketch is, and get used to using them.
That is where we are. Congregations, and their leaders, prefer the familiar, and are wary of committing themselves to extra work. Dialogue sketches need further development and research. Do they suit particular learning styles or personalities better than others? Are there particular problems of implementing the format? (We have identified audibility as one). What texts and topics are they particularly suitable for, and where are they less effective? Are there different styles and “plots” that could be identified, and how might they be used? The format could develop in many ways – but to do that, it first needs to be used, by different congregations, in different settings and stages of growth.
I remain convinced by the argument of this dissertation, that while the monologue sermon has value and a proven track record, there is an urgent need to consider, experiment with, and evaluate alternative ways of communication. If the sermon is not the best communication medium for Christian teaching in contemporary British worship, – even if it needs to be supplemented rather than replaced – how can the leaders be alerted to that fact, convinced of it, and trained in better alternatives?
Reference cited above:
1 see my comments on Norrington, p16