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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Dialogical Monologue

April 16, 2015 •

What makes for sermons that are well delivered and readily received? In some ways it is easier to answer that in the negative. There are may examples of Reformed and evangelical preaching that look good on paper and are beyond reproach in content, but have little or no impact on those who listen. In the words of Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson they come across as, ‘Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, dead perfection, no more.’ It is not the kind of preaching that changes lives. Or, more pointedly, if they do change lives (and all preaching does that to some extent) it tends to be for the worse and not for the better.

More often than not it isn’t the theology of such sermons that is at fault – they are orthodox and precise. Nor is it that they necessarily lack passion in delivery – though if the preacher is not gripped by his message it is unlikely the congregation will be either. Rather, the issue seems to run deeper and the answer is not found in some of the preaching manuals for which we preachers are inclined to reach when we want to refresh our ministry.

The issue and the answer, at least in some measure, lie in how we actually perceive what preaching is. It has classically been described as ‘monological discourse’. That is, one person delivering a message in a continuous, one-sided speech without any interruption or interaction on the part of the audience. The biblical foundation for that view of how the word should be proclaimed is rooted in the Greek word most commonly used for preaching in the New Testament, namely, kerygma. It carries the sense of a herald delivering a message with the authority of the person who has appointed him to that role. So, preachers as God’s appointed messengers are to deliver God’s message with the authority of God himself.

There is no reason to dispute that view of preaching in principle. It has been widely held in the church since apostolic times and it rightly sets out the act of preaching (as opposed to simply ‘teaching’, its New Testament counterpart) as being subtly but significantly distinct. So the question hangs in the air, why is it so often so ineffective and unproductive? And – more worryingly – why does it have the tendency to produce Christians who lack many of the new creation graces conveyed in the message?

Could it be that whereas preaching is indeed ‘monological’ and although it is most certainly ‘discourse’ there is actually another vital ingredient that is all too often absent? If we consider almost every example of preaching found in the Bible – in both Testaments – I think we see that is indeed the case.

Whether we examine the preaching of the Old Testament prophets, or of Christ in the Gospels, or the Apostles in Acts and the Epistles, we can’t help but notice a common feature they all share. It is the fact that their respective ministries did not merely engage with the text or texts they were expounding, but with the audience to whom they were speaking. They invariably handled their exposition in such a way that it engaged with the real life situations of their listeners – not just in the sense of Herman Gunkel’s Sitz im Leben of German text critical scholarship, but of the moral and spiritual condition of the hearers. These Old and New Testament preachers had a quite extraordinary ability to actually handle the text in such a way to make those they were addressing sit up and listen.

They were doing something far more than just ‘applying the text’. Too often the ‘application’ in a sermon can come across clumsily and congregations can usually spot it coming a mile off with plenty of time to put on their sermon body armour to subliminally deflect it. But that was never the case for those preachers in Bible times.

At one level these preachers had a very real knowledge of those to whom they had been sent. They weren’t just preachers, they were pastors too and they knew their flock – often ‘by name’. But that did not mean that they were simply making mental notes on how to allude to so-and-so and their antics from the pulpit to make sure they got the message. (Though sometimes that was the case, as Paul and John demonstrated when, in their exasperation with unrepentant individuals who were damaging others, they named and shamed them publicly.) Instead, they had the pulse of their people, knew the kind of issues with which they were struggling and were constantly taking the spiritual temperature of their congregations. With that awareness they nuanced the way they opened up the scriptures to them.

There was nothing crass or clumsy about this. It was as though from their metaphorical ‘pulpit’ they took their people by one hand and the word by the other hand and introduced them to each other in a way that made them connect. Although they were delivering the message through the medium of a monologue, in a very subtle sense it was actually a dialogue. The listeners were not left feeling as though they were merely spectators tuning in to someone else’s thoughts. Rather, they were hearing their thoughts addressed, their questions being answered, their sins being challenged, their fears being allayed, their discouragements dispelled and more besides.

The widespread appeal of so-called ‘Reality TV’ in recent times has been that what is seen on screen actually connects with what real life is like. The same principle applies to what goes on in preaching. If preaching is to be more than just a spiritual spectator sport, then it has to connect the pulpit with the pew. Or, more accurately, the word with the world in which our people live.

May the Lord deliver his people from mere monological discourse and train those of us who are pastor-preachers in the art of monological dialogue.

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