A Theology of Interactive Preaching

Paul Warby

The sermon had been boring. Ten points for effort though, well researched, nice thought structure, sprinkled with some humour and some helpful illustrations yet it lacked life. Perhaps I should have prayed harder? Perhaps I should speak with more passion, louder? Perhaps I should use a different preaching style?

It is questions like these that drove me on my search for a way to preach that reflected two of my core beliefs: 1) that the Scriptures are the source of all Christian practice and 2) that preaching should be relevant in our times.

So, like a good little academic, I rushed off to the University library and started reading what was being said about homiletics (the art and science of preaching). I picked up one of the most referenced books in the field; Fred Craddock’s As One Without Authority (1971) and read from the first chapter:

‘We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion, the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed. All this slim volume asks is a stay of execution until one other witness be heard.’

It seems that I was not alone. In fact a whole new form of preaching has emerged in the last thirty years called the New Homiletic with the purpose of providing a homiletic to our post-modern culture. The New Homiletic has introduced ways of speaking that create a better sense of connection between the preacher and the congregation (Loscalzo 1992), appeals to both emotion and intellect (Breuggeman 1989; Lowry 1989) and how to pack sermons with more of a punch (Craddock 1971, Buttrick 1987). Some have focused on how to structure a sermon so that it mirrors the bibles structure (Long 1989; Hoggart 1995), others on thinking along more egalitarian modes where everyone gets a say in putting the sermon together (Rose, McLure 1995). All in all, if you want to give a more effective speech then these guys have a lot of good and interesting things to say. The problem was that despite all these advances still not much has changed in the churches.

‘We polled adult church-attenders to learn their perceptions of the sermon time. Here’s some of what we discovered:

  • Just 12 percent say they usually remember the message
  • 87 percent say their mind wanders during the sermon
  • 35 percent say the sermons they hear are too long
  • 11 percent of women and 5 percent of men credit sermons as their primary source of knowledge about God’ (Schultz J and Schultz T 1994: 189)

Now maybe we just need to give pastors some time to embrace the New Homiletic or maybe we need to just preach the traditional way a bit better (some academics still prefer the traditional logic-based sermon over the New Homiletics imaginative orientation). I wasn’t sure and the more I thought about it the more I felt the need to develop a stronger theology on homiletics, a theology that would satisfy my intellectual and practical needs. As you will see my exploration led me to a place of seeing preaching needing participation or…interaction.

How theology is developed?

Christians throughout history have approached theology with different models of thinking. Protestant churches have always placed the Scriptures at the centre of theology but have differed on what other sources are to be used and exactly how those sources relate to the Scriptures and one another. The Anglicans have the Lambeth quadrilateral (Scripture; Tradition and Reason; Creeds, historical episcopate). The Methodists use the Wesleyan quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience) which has also been adapted by other conservative evangelical scholars (e.g. Pinnock 1990: 40-44). Perhaps the most recent approach and the most geared towards postmodernity was the theological method of Stanley Grenz and John Franke found in their 2001 book Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. As seen below there are three sources.

This continues in the Protestant tradition of placing the Scriptures as authoritative over the other sources and gives it the title ‘norming norm’. This is to emphasize that the other two sources are also norms (that which governs) within theological thought but that Scripture is the dominant norm bearing over and guiding the other two.

Tradition is taken to incorporate all of Christian history including Creeds, practices and ongoing theological discussions. This is in recognition of the Spirit’s ongoing activity throughout the Churches history. As a trajectory it guides giving insight into how God has been speaking to his church in multiple contexts. Of the sources tradition is the one norm that has, in the Protestant tradition, been the quickest to ‘override’.

Culture is brought in as a source but can be seen to synergize the previously separate sources of reason and experience of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. This is a necessary move to make as it has been established in other disciplines (sociology, philosophy, psychology etc.) that logic/reason have particular cultural favours as well as the experience that emerges within certain cultural contexts.

So there I sat with three sources of theology. In the evangelical tradition (mine) there is also the knowledge that our very tradition states that we are to honour the Scriptures more than anything else in our search for theology (Sola Scriptura). So that is where I began.

What do the Scriptures say? (Scriptures)

1) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

As a follower of Jesus, it just seems that the gospels are a good place to start in any theological inquiry (Ford 1997). If we just take the gospel of Mark and ask some simple questions of the text in front of us we get some interesting results. Did Jesus or those he taught initiate his teachings? Was there verbal interaction? Was there physical interaction when Jesus taught (tactile learning)? In short, I asked the gospel of Mark, ‘How did Jesus teach with regard to interaction?’

I took Jesus’ ministry prior to his arrest and crucifixion (Mark 1-Mark 14:42) and identified 63 teaching events.

  • 7 are unclear as to being either interactive or non-interactive (these are generally sweeping statements, e.g. ‘Jesus came to Galilee preaching the gospel of God’ Mark 1:14)
  • 10 are non-interactive. Here we have taken the text as it stands although interaction is sometimes implied (e.g. the calling of disciples found in 1:17-20; 2:14). I also noticed that some non-interactive accounts like the telling of parables required interaction later in the story for the disciples to understand the message (e.g. Mark 4:26-33 of. vs34).
  • 37 teaching events were initiated by others.
  • 31 teaching events had verbal dialogue. These may be the same teaching events as those initiated by others (e.g. the story of the paralytic Mark 2:1-12) but in this category we are looking for recorded verbal dialogue in the text of Mark.
  • 25 teaching events were also action events. These are healings, miracles and the like where teaching is associated with physical experiences (e.g. Mark 1:39; 1:40-44; 3:1-5 etc.)

It seems fairly obvious that Jesus’ way of teaching is normally an interactive way. It is not merely an interaction that occurs between the thinking minds of the hearers and the words of the believers as some would think (Sleeth 1986, Stott 1982) but live verbal or tactile interaction. This is not to say that the spiritual monologue, which is also recorded in Mark (Mark 6: 7-11), should not have a place but to say that it should make space for more interactive forms of teaching. Now that we have seen that Jesus had used interaction as a common method, we ask whether the Apostles followed in his footsteps.

2) The Apostles in Acts

Acts has many teaching events defined here as where persons attempt to instruct/educate others whether this is toward unbelievers or believers. I identified 68 teaching events. Of the 68 the majority (43) were aimed at unbelievers. This makes sense as Acts tells the story of the spread of Christianity in the early years. But here we’re asking how we should be speaking at churches and so focus on the 25 events where the believers were the main group. Of those 25:

  • 13 are unclear as to their interaction (10 of these are unclear statements e.g. Acts 2:42 ‘…they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching’, others had interaction prior to the unclear statement but were not directly linked to the concept of teaching/preaching e.g. Acts 4:23-20 has worship preceding the unclear statement in Acts 4:31)
  • 10 have dialogue. Sometimes non-believers infiltrate the meeting and begin a debate (Acts 15:1-2) while in other instances the discussion is amongst believers (Acts 15:4-5)
  • 3 have action events
  • 1 has no recorded interaction (Acts 20:17-35)

This survey stuck as close to the Acts text as possible. In the one event categorized as a monologue it can easily be argued as having an implied interactive nature but because the text doesn’t directly point to interaction, I called it a non-interactive event. So even if we accept it as an actual monologue, we still only have one example of a monologue to believers in Acts.

Is there any significant difference in interaction if we add in the events that focused on unbelievers? Not really, you get the following results of the entire 68 events:

  • 33 have dialogue
  • 28 are unclear as to interaction
  • 14 are initiated by persons other than the main speakers, e.g. an opening question.
  • 11 are action events
  • 5 have non-interactive monologues

(In case you’re wondering about my math, some events have multiple elements so they categorized more than once)

3) Behind the Scenes

Before we move on I would like to address two issues that have been raised in theological circles which have often influenced how the New Testament is read, so much so that the belief of preaching as a monologue has lasted this long. Firstly there is the view of the preacher as a continuation of the Old Testament prophet (Sleeth 1986:10) and secondly there is the relationship between the synagogue ‘sermon’ and the New Testament practice of preaching.

The OT prophet as forerunner to the NT preacher.

The evidence for this view is very scarce and the belief is often founded on assumptions of the nature of the OT prophet as well as assumptions of the NT preacher neither of which stand up to scrutiny. I can’t embrace the link for the following reasons:

  1. ‘…there is no evidence to suggest that speeches were ever a regular part of Israelite cultus at the Temple or at their other shrines’ (Norrington 1996: 2) i.e. The OT prophetic speeches were not normal occurrences.
  2. The image of the OT prophet as a solo-speaker doesn’t account for the often interactive nature of OT prophecy; between the prophet and God (Ezekiel 8) and the prophet and the people (e.g. Ezekiel 20:1)
  3. Paul’s understanding of the NT prophet is interactive (1 Cor 14: 20-32)
  4. The link between the OT prophet and the NT preacher is… tenuous.
  5. The practice of NT preachers was predominantly interactive (see above)

It seems natural rather to associate the OT prophet with the interactive NT prophet and to allow the NT texts about the NT preacher to speak about their form of speech.

The Synagogue sermon

The question of how much the synagogue practices affected the early church flows mainly from the works of Oesterly (The Jewish Background to the Christian Liturgy 1925) and Dugmore (The Influence of the Synagogue on the Divine 0ffice ­- 1944). From there homiletic works have often linked the synagogue sermon to Christian sermon (Swank 1981:15) and so the monologue was seen to receive support from the synagogue practices. But there are some serious problems with this approach, namely

  1. The link between synagogue and Christian practice is still contested (Rankin 1993: 173)
  2. Those who accept the link still contest the extent of the link (Rankin 1993:175)
  3. The Acts account indicates that the synagogue was primarily a place of evangelism and not Christian instruction. This brings into question the validity of the link as they are quite different environments and agendas.
  4. The early church separated itself from the synagogue.
  5. Even if the link is embraced the evidence for synagogue practice is found predominantly in the gospels (McDonald 1980: 49) which support interaction (Luke 4:16-30 and John 6: 31-58).

4) Conclusion on Scripture

I believe we can say without fear of contradiction that live interaction was the norm of Jesus and the early disciples with the monologue being an exception.

So, if the Scriptures favour interaction, how did we get to the place where we have focused almost exclusively on how to give a good speech?

How did we get here? (Tradition)

De Wittte T Holland begins the first chapter of his book The Preaching Tradition with these words: ‘Preaching has not always been practiced the way it is today.’ As we have just seen, the preaching styles of the New Testament was more interactive, a conversational biblical study or a ‘progressional dialog’, as Doug Pagitt would say (Pagitt 2005). So how did we get here from there?

1) The tradition after the New Testament times

The first centuries

Not much is known about the preaching that took place over this period. What we can say is that the church was sceptical of using Greek Rhetoric as Tertullian (160-225AD) illustrates when he asked, ‘What is the relationship between rhetoric and preaching? How the two could be reconciled with one another?’ (quoted in Shin 2004: 27) Even theologians who focus on Greek rhetoric today acknowledge that it was not fully embraced in the era of the early church (Shin 2004:27; Sleeth 1986: 20).

The established Church

Some trace the entrance of rhetoric speeches to Origen (185-254 AD), but most understand that the real development took place in the fourth and fifth centuries (Turnbull RG ed.1967: 51). From this point on the dominant tradition was one that focused on eloquent speeches rather than interaction. But even then interaction was not completely discarded as even that famed beacon of rhetoric speech Chrysostom ‘frequently interrupted his discourse to put questions in order to make sure that he was understood’ (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Homiletics).

In the middle ages the church became more focused on the sacraments. The sermon was still taught and certain works were written [Isidore of Seville (d 636) wrote Etymologies, Rabanus Maurus (776-856) wrote Institution of the Clergy, Alan of Lille (d 1203) wrote Summary of the Art of Preaching etc], although no significant changes were made. And so preaching became known as a speech more than an interaction.

Then came the Reformation and although this did bring a greater focus on exposition of the Scriptures sermons still came in the packaging of a monologue (drawing from the Latin and Greek classics that re-emerged within the Reformation Culture). Not much has changed with regard to interaction since.

But the monologue was not the only tradition of preaching. There is an alternative tradition to preaching which is interactive rather than lecture orientated, throughout the middle ages (12th Century Waldensians; 14th Century Lollards and the 16th Century Anabaptists). It is true however, that this is not a dominant tradition but it is there none the less.

The Current setting

And now we sit in the current era where Christianity is still an established religion but is becoming less and less of a majority. In mainline Protestant homiletics there are four dominant views of preaching (Traditional, Kerygmatic, New Homiletic, Postliberal) each supports the format of an individual standing in front of a group giving a one-way speech. Some may use different methods of rhetoric than the classic Greeks (e.g. Lowry’s narrative form) but they are still teaching the art of giving a speech with the attentive but not actively participating audience.

So we have a dominant tradition of the monologue but there is also a lesser known tradition of interactive preaching. If we take our three theological sources of Scripture, Tradition and Culture we are reminded that Tradition should be the servant not the master of Scripture and again we remind ourselves that the Scriptures support interaction over monologue.

But what of our culture, surely how we do things is more cultural? Maybe we should follow culture for practice and Scripture for content. Maybe…but let’s first see what our culture is saying about teaching and interaction.

How do we learn today? (Culture)

Let’s start by taking a sampling of quotes from the various fields of learning

Quotes from Academia

Didactics: ‘The teacher must make it his objective to bring about active and spontaneous participation by pupils’ (Piek 1984:71).

Pedagogy: ‘The traditional “teaching” practice of lecture to passive students has long been discredited as ineffective…Ideally interaction will be a collaborative relationship toward shared goals where students are engaged learners…. (Taylor 2005:4).

Andragogy: ‘Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction… Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities…’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andragogy)

So if you’re a preacher and you want people to remember what you have to say, i.e. that memory retention is one of your goals, what method should you choose? According to this study the more involved a person is the more they retain. Now obviously certain elements (particular dogmatic elements) do not relate directly to experience, for example, how can someone directly experience the Trinity?

But that doesn’t mean we can’t be creative in teaching through media and role-play (just think, you could role play that you are the Jehovah’s Witness at the door to teach the Trinity…or better yet you could knock on a Jehovah’s Witness door!). The possibilities are endless and at the end of the day the congregation will be better equipped and have a far greater retention of doctrine.

The Business World

Although the business world is somewhat removed from the church in agenda, there is some possible crossover with regard to organizational theory. I mean we’re still people, right? Just think of it as the old theology of ‘general revelation’ working, i.e. God also reveals knowledge through the natural world.

In the mid 1980’s Dennis Kravetz set out to see how financially successful companies interacted with their employees. The end result was that the more participative the employees were the more successful the company.

  1. In 1988 David Lewin’s study (reviewing 495 organizations) concluded, among other things, ‘Companies that combine group economic participation, intellectual participation, flexible job designs, and training and development get an added productivity boost- two thirds of the difference observed in bottom-line impact was due to the combined effect of these practices’ (McLagan & Nel 1995: 32).

Now there were of course other factors and no doubt an argument could be mounted against the correlation between sermons and organizational business practices. All I’m trying to do is to point out that in our culture, when adults get together, they are used to participating and when they don’t participate they don’t function optimally. This means that when we have groups gathering (e.g. a church assembly) the people in our culture are used to and thrive under conditions that encourage interaction.

A Cultural Caution

I feel the need for a second to address an issue raised by Buttrick who asked ‘when Saint Paul states flat out that “faith comes from hearing” (Rom 10:17), should we correct him by suggesting that faith comes from visual aids, and visual aids from your nearest publishing house?’(Buttrick: 1987:5). Just as Tradition, as a theological source, was not allowed to overshadow Scripture, so too must Culture act and develop under the authority of Scripture.

Let me be clear; Interactive Homiletics is not about avoiding the speaking and hearing of the Word; it is about finding the most biblical and effective way to speak and hear. It’s about realizing that speech isn’t isolated from action. It’s about following Jesus more and more as we grow in understanding.


So, let’s wrap it all up. When developing theology, we operate with the three sources of Scripture, Tradition and Culture. In my own Protestant evangelical tradition Scripture is the dominant source with Culture and Tradition acting as subservient sources. We have seen that Scripture is strongly in favour of interaction with teaching events (sermons/preaching/teaching/homilies, etc). We have seen that Culture is strongly in favour of interaction in teaching events. We have noted that the Christian tradition is predominantly in favour of the monologue but that there still is a lesser known tradition of interaction there. You might say that the older tradition is one of interaction while the newer favours the monologue.

Given all this, I feel confident in asserting that a theology of participative interactive homiletics should be the dominant theological thought and practice in our culture. I remember a preacher once saying that if biological evolution were true the church would evolve congregations that would consist only of bums, ears and eyes. Let us not be the church that simply sits, sees and listens let us be the church that lives, loves and learns…together.


Brueggemann W 1989. Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Buttrick D 1987. Homiletic: Moves and Structures. London, England: SCM Press Ltd.

Camery-Hoggart J 1995. Speaking of God. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.

Craddock FB 1971. As One Without Authority.

Ford DF1997 article ‘System, Story, Performance: A Proposal about the Role of Narrative in Christian Systematic Theology’, in Why Narrative. Hauerwas S and Jones L (editors). Eugene, Origen: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Grenz SJ and Franke JR 2001. Beyond Foundationalism, Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

Holland DT 1980. The Preaching Tradition. Nashville: Abingdon.

Loscalzo 1992. Preaching Sermons that Connect. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Long TG 1989. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Norrington DC 1996. To Preach or Not to Preach. Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press.

McDonald JIH 1980. Kerygma and Didache. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLagan P and Nel C 1995. The Age of Participation. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers.

McLure JS 1995. The Roundtable Pulpit. Nashville, USA: Abingdon Press

Pagitt D 2005. Preaching Re-Imagined. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing.

Piek GC 1984. General Didactics. Pretoria, South Africa: de Jager- HAUM Publishers.

Pinnock CH and Brown D 1990. Theological Crossfire. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Rankin OS 1993. Article ‘The Extent of the Influence of the Synagogue Service upon Christian Worship’ in Early Christianity and Judaism. Ferguson E (editor). New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Shin SW 2004. Paul’s use of Ethos and Pathos in Galatians: Its Implications for Effective Preaching.

Schultz J and Schultz T 1994. Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at the Church: And How to Fix It. Loveland, Colorado: Group

Sleeth RE 1986. God’s Word and Our Words: Basic Homiletics. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Swank 1981. Dialogic Style in Preaching. Valley Forge: Judson Press.

Stott J 1982. I Believe in Preaching. London, England: Hodder & Stoughton.

Taylor M 2005 article ‘Postmodern Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning with Generation NeXt’ in MCLI Forum volume 9, Spring 2005.

Related Resources