Dialogue on Sermons #5

The following are further edited extracts from an email dialogue that I had recently with someone who wishes to remain anonymous. It followed a talk in which I questioned the privileged status given to sermons.

… My position is this: monologue is the normative form of primary teaching throughout the history of the church (across the dispensations), the monologue is co-existent with, supported by, and equips a rich tapestry of other forms of Word ministry.

So: I expect to find examples of other forms of Word ministry, and commands/exhortations to perform other forms of Word ministry – particularly from sermons.

My reply:
… I wonder if we can identify the nub of the issue. You say: ‘My position is this: monologue is the normative form of primary teaching throughout the history of the church.’ I agree the sermon has had a privileged position throughout much of church history. But this is only true post-Constantine. Up until
Constantine, the church was a gathered community of Christians meeting in homes to discuss and apply God’s word. It was only after Christianity became the official religion of the empire that monologue developed as a way of communicating to larger audiences, including many nominal Christians, seated in rows in purpose built buildings modelled on Roman auditoria and temples. Monologue will inevitably have a central place in a Christendom model of Christianity. But it will not have a privileged position in a non-Christendom (apostolic!?) model of Christianity. I wonder if the reason people react against any questioning of the sermon is that it has symbolic status. Questioning the sermon actually means questioning a Christendom model of Christianity and that is a seismic shift that many people are not yet ready to take. But it is being thrust upon us in the West whether we like or not as we become a post-Christian society.


12 thoughts on “Dialogue on Sermons #5

  1. What about the pragmatism of the whole thing? In South Africa (where I’m at) we still have quite a bit of a Christendom hangover – especially in the poorer areas. Besides this I notice that people in the corporate sector are constantly going to business seminars where they partake in both break-out small group sessions as well as having to listening to many a monologue. So whilst, in theory, I agree with your theological and historical reflection upon the role of the sermon – it seems to me that in my context (and many others around the world) the sermon is still a valuable (almost indispensable?) tool in the bible teaching toolkit.

  2. Tim – gotta question the history here. The Apostolic Fathers, for example (try 1st Clement or the Shepherd of Hermas or Ignatius’s epistles) in the late 1st or 2nd century, write not to home-based churches but to a church beginning to get institutionalised. As for purpose built church buildings: some of the basilicas in Macedonia that have been excavated date clearly before Constantine.

    2nd Clement (2nd century) is the first sermon! A clear homily, made to be addressed to a community that sits and listens.

    I find the whole ‘before Constantine = good/ after Constantine = bad’ thing just a bit simplistic… but I am an Anglican I guess!

  3. I find it almost funny that when we introduced dialogical teaching and discussion as our main form of teaching at our church the congregation was completely fine with it and thought it was a great idea. The only people that seem to have a problem with it are preachers and seminary professors. My experience is that it is that questioning the sermon in turn questions how they are going to make a living and that can be really hard.

  4. I’m no Anglican, but like Michael J, I find the pre/post Constantine argument a bit simplistic.
    After all, Jesus used monologues, the apostles in the Jerusalem church used monologues, and Paul used monologues in churches. (Presumably not all of them were as long as the one Eutychus fell asleep in, but here the exception seems to be the length, not the monologue).
    Also, when you say ‘I wonder if the reason people react against any questioning of the sermon is that it has symbolic status’ – I’m not sure that it’s helpful to speculate about people’s motives. From my perspective I think many people find it stimulating to have questions raised about the monologue, as you are doing, but it seems at least some who argue for the consistent (though not exclusive) use of monologues use Scripture as their basis. (For some recent examples, see the comments section of another recent blog: http://www.joethorn.net/2008/05/28/the-monologue/
    Thanks though for raising the questions, Tim!

  5. I’m sorry, but where is the evidence that Jesus used extended monologue? The label ‘sermon’ is one that we apply to the sermon on the mount. If you read it out it takes about 20 minutes, yet Matthew tells us Jesus was teaching all day. It was clearly Matthew’s summary of a day of teahcing. We can only speculate about its style of delivery. We are left with an argument from silence for either side of the discussion. More to the point, there is nothing in the recorded teaching of Jesus that in any way corresponds to the three-point 30-minute monologue that goes on in most evangelical churches. He taught using story, aphorism, dialogue and proverb.

    I think there is even less evidence that the apostles used monologue in the gathered congregation. You mention Paul’s address when Eutychus falls asleep, but the Greek describes this as a dialogue.

    Still I don’t want to get caught up in speculation about what form teaching took when we are not told. My point, as I keep reiterating, is not to ban sermons, but simply to question their privileged status.

    As for inferring people’s motives when defending the sermon, perhaps I can cite this evidence. I’ve blogged on many topics with many entries that I would consider to be quite controversial. But when I blog on sermons, suddenly I got lost of antagonistic comments. It is the same when I speak. I call for a fundamental reorientation of church life without must response. But question the sermon and people up in arms. Let me ask you all, why is this?

  6. Well, I have to say I didn’t appreciate Micah’s rather cynical comment about motives – for my part, I am not ‘up in arms’. I am not even necessarily defending the sermon, or disagreeing with Tim’s point!

    But I do think the historical case needs to be better made. It seems to me pretty obvious that, however we understand the teaching mode employed by the apostles (and it seems to me that Tim’s argument is at best one from silence – we certainly have speeches recorded in monologue form, whether they were given like that or not), by the second century ‘sermons’ are being given. Doesn’t mean this is right of course, or preferable. Just means the onus of proof is rather more on Tim’s side, I would have thought.

  7. I think people are missing avoiding Tim’s comment about this debate being part of a larger ‘fundamental reorientation of church life’. The accepted norm of the monologue sermon is just one symptom of the way in which conventional evangelical church practice is a variance with NT practice / precedent / principles, eg:
    1. single salaried professionally trained clergyman minister who ‘does the sermon’ for a largely passive (at least where teaching is concerned)laity rather than NT mutual ministry and encouragement when we meet
    2. leadership focused on ‘preaching’ to (at?) the congregation (thereby maintaining the status quo and keeping them ‘dependent’ on that minister)rather than training them up and encouraging them to minister to one another
    3. having large church buildings to accommodate the audience to hear the sermon rather than NT practice of small, interactive, mutually ministering groups meeting in homes
    4. church finances dominated by maintaining the ministers salary (so he can keep on doing sermons) and his auditorium (so he can be heard by as many as possible) rather than NT example of collected money devoted to spreading the gospel and relieving the poor and marginalised.
    5. maintaining our own comfortable individual sovereignty as part of a passive sermon hearing audience rather than active participation and sharing of our lives together when we assemble as church.
    I could go on (boy, can I go on!), but I’m trying to emphasise that the discussion on the validity of the monologue sermon as the primary mechanism for teaching cannot be seen in isolation without it challenging our whole understanding of how we do church and ministry.

  8. I haven’t read all of your blogs Tim, but based on the last couple on the sermon, I wouldn’t have said there are lots of (or any?) antagonistic comments or people up in arms – most seem in agreement with you, with only two people politely raising questions. Isn’t that in the spirit of the dialoguing you encourage?
    Regardless of the reactions you’ve faced though, I still wouldn’t say speculating other peoples motives is ever fair or helpful.
    Thanks again for your thought-provoking blogs!

  9. We do have recorded monologues in Acts, but they are all impromptu defence speeches before a court or mob. There is no recorded ‘sermon’ in the context of a church gathering. We do, however, get explicit reference to dialogue. I really don’t think I’m the one arguing from silence. But the presence or otherwise of sermons in the the NT or post-apostolic church misses the point of my argument. I’m not against sermons, but against the privileging of sermons as the only, primary or necessary mode of teaching. Where is the argument that sermons as understood today have this privileged status?

  10. I wouldn’t want to dispute that the sermon in the form we know it today is a phenomenon of culture and tradition as much as anything, and that your questioning of its privileged status as a mode of teaching is valid. I myself was part of a church community that regularly ditched the formal sermon in favour of more concentrated and dialogical reading and responding to scripture.

    But the presence or otherwise of sermons in the NT or post-apostolic church? You yourself were making the case that the sermon as we know it is a product of Constantinian Christianity – which would make it late, and theologically suspect as a form – ie, indicative of a hierarchical (and therefore actually pagan) ecclesiology. I am just not sure that this holds water. I’d like to see your argument succeed, but on other grounds.

  11. The most common word associated with “teaching” in the New Testament is the word dialogue, not a speech/sermon as we understand it in our modern context. AS Tim mentioned, the sermon on the mount is a summary, not a particular sermon Jesus “preached.” Luke records the “sermon on the mount” as happening in the valley and not the mountainside. It is the essential summary of what Jesus taught in a regular, repeatable, discussion based format in order to challenge and build faith.

    The concept of the sermon as the regular and most emphasized piece of the Christian gathering is simply not to be found in the New Testament. Let’s discuss some texts–

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