I am the pastor of a congregation that loves to talk! My first year featured tensions with several congregational members who wanted to limit my Sundays in the pulpit in favor of hearing from other congregational members. This was not the desire of most of the membership.
Before my arrival, the congregational practice had been that of members providing leadership through preaching at least half the Sundays. This is a congregation that takes its image of congregational leadership very seriously. I was aware and even excited about that identity before coming, but I did not have a clear understanding about the idea of shared preaching.
Performing the ministry of preaching most Sunday mornings is central to my understanding of pastoral ministry. As a result, I was not willing to share the pulpit to the extent some were wanting. At the same time, I was struck by the importance of the congregational voice in worship. This voice is expressed in much of the singing, praying, and other voicing of worship. Worship in my congregation is largely lay planned and lay led.
Theological exploration takes place in many ways as part of the structured life of church. One of the most compelling ways is in small study groups. Whether a Bible study or a book study, this format provides opportunities for dialogue. Through the give and take of questions and discussion, the depth of learning seems to grow more profound. I find myself stimulated and enriched.
In the process of sermon preparation, I found myself wrestling with some of the same issues and questions that characterized our small group discussions. On occasion, I shared these questions directly with the congregation. Once they realized that I really did want to hear from them, they began to respond with enthusiasm and depth.
I began to be more open in my preparation to the opportunities, in a given scriptural text or sermon theme, for these types of questions and was genuinely disappointed when they did not seem to arise. Though some of my initial motivation for shaping sermons this way was to let this congregation talk, because they love to talk, I soon became aware that this approach really helped me hear them and often affirmed my sense of where they were theologically, socially, and even politically.
I stopped trying to guess what the congregation was thinking. I didn’t really need to anymore. I began to clarify my own thinking at the same time I was deepening my relationship with them as a community. My own motivation in my sermons moved from trying to impress the congregation with my knowledge and my eloquence to trying to meet them and at common point, clarify understanding, and encourage growth.
This approach is working very well with the congregation I pastor. Why its working probably is the result of two factors: the congregation and me. I enjoy the interactive process because it really helps me to receive consistent feedback to clarify my thinking and focus my message. Sermon preparation often involves anticipating questions that might arise in people’s minds. This way, I actually get to hear the questions. I still do all the preparation I’ve ever done for more traditional sermonizing. This approach just provides an added dimension.
The second reason it seems to work is the congregation. Some congregations are content being still and quiet and listening to the preacher. The congregation I serve is not passive, by and large. I find the dialogical approach keeps them engaged. They seem to learn a lot more with this approach.
I find that the process of developing a sermon involves discerning the key questions that arise for me from a particular biblical text. This is certainly not unique for me. Clarifying the questions focuses the entire sermon. What I’ve begun doing is paying attention to those questions with a mind toward which of those questions the congregation might be well served to grapple with themselves.
Sharing the questions helps the congregation. They have the chance to see the core issues as I see them and then grapple with them as I have been doing. For those who respond aloud during the sermon time, they benefit by articulating their views and by being heard. For those listening, they benefit from hearing a voice other than mine and, often, a perspective different than mine. The congregation benefits by hearing something of a composite congregational voice. There is a sense of empowerment in having the opportunity to voice views and hear peers voice theirs. Anxiety tends to be reduced because views that are shared are known. They are more likely to be shared and heard by the body as a whole and less likely to be reserved for conversations in the parking lot after the service.
Sharing the questions and listening to the responses helps me. I generally have an idea of how people in my congregation think and feel about certain issues. Hearing them share in the context of a interactive sermon usually confirms my thoughts. Occasionally, it opens up a new insight for me that I can incorporate immediately or about which I can reflect for future use.
The process of actually leading discussion in the context of a sermon is a lot like teaching a class. It is important to manage the discussion so that the larger focus of the sermon is not obscured while also being open to thoughts and insights from congregational members. One of the most effective ways I have of managing the discussion is to be the one who recognizes and calls on each speaker.
We generally do not make microphones available to individual speakers from the congregation, so I listen to each speaker and restate what is said. The process of restating gives me a certain amount of control, though the fact that many people are able to hear the original speaker holds me accountable for the accuracy of my restating. I use the skills of pastoral conversation to listen and then restate what I’ve heard. The restating gives me a chance to frame the comment to help clarify how it fits within the general context of the sermon. That’s helpful for me and also for the other congregational members. It may be most helpful for the speaker. I generally check in with the speaker, whose comments I have reframed, to see it they agree with what I have said.
The use of interactive sermons is not a panacea. There are times when it is not appropriate. There are some who don’t really like the discussion, for whom it is disruptive of the flow of the sermon. There are many times when a more conventional approach in a sermon is the better choice. I have, on occasion tried to force a dialogue into a sermon when it really did not fit. I have sometimes asked the wrong questions or confusing questions.
Making those decisions is far from an exact science. I find, in my setting, that the congregation generally appreciates the opportunity to participate even when my questions are not as helpful. When it doesn’t seem to be working, I have to deal with my own anxiety. When I can keep my anxiety low, really listen, keep a sense of playfulness and openness, the discussion time flows much better. It is more helpful.
My anxiety is the key. The best way for me to keep my anxiety down is to be as clear as I can be about my questions and my reasons for asking them. When I am clear about my reasons for asking, I can listen to what people actually say with worrying about how that might tie into what I am saying. The connections seems to happen more naturally. The results are very encouraging. I find my intuitive sense of what the congregation is thinking gets affirmed. Sometimes it gets corrected. Ultimately, my congregation, who love to talk, feel heard by me.