There is nothing new under the sun, mused Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Then someone confects a nouveau practice for the Church, “dialogue preaching,” where at the usual place occupied by the sermon, two or more “preachers” share in the exposition of a biblical text or topic. Still, Solomon’s inspired maxim holds true: What postures as “new” turns out to be a recycling of yesteryear’s iconoclasm with the same effect, undermining the onus of biblical preaching and the established homiletical tradition of the Church and, especially, its authoritative association.
Originating during the 1960s repudiation of a disciplinary society with its institutional authority and then resurfacing during the short-lived Emergent Church movement at the turn of the last century, “dialogue preaching” has been a feature of postmodern and post-conservative worship practices. Advanced by the 2005 book, Preaching Re-Imagined,  author Doug Pagitt dismissed traditional preaching as antiquated and inadequate for our advanced milieu, labeling it as authoritarian “speaching.” Dialogue preaching or (as it is sometimes called) “progressional dialogue,” contends Pagitt, facilitates opportunities for alternative viewpoints and input, flattening the ecclesiastical topography and democratizing the worship experience.
Having waned for a decade, Pagitt’s intentional interplay of multiple viewpoints evidences a resurgence in vogue and acceptance. Dialogue preaching is making a comeback.
For those unfamiliar with the dialogue preaching phenomenon, picture two or more ministers/panelists standing or sitting near to one another on the stage or, in liturgical settings, the chancel. One initiates commentary on the text with the other(s), adding their own insights and reflections. Sometimes it takes a form akin to a sports announcer, calling play-by-play in a verse-by-verse exposition, augmented by a color commentator. Other times it seems to reflect an academic panel discussion or dueling mics replete with rebuttals, banter, and no small amount of perspectivism and experientialism. But dialogue preaching may be broader than this, too, to include contributions spanning a given congregation. In this way, dialogue preaching replicates the democratizing complexion of a Quaker Meeting, where anyone and everyone may contribute with an equally valued insight. Where this approach avails, judgments concerning the truth or falsity of individual messages, as well as discernment about their value, are perceived to be in poor taste. All contributions are welcome.
Where this approach avails, judgments concerning the truth or falsity of individual messages, as well as discernment about their value, are perceived to be in poor taste. All contributions are welcome.
Not confined to a corner, dialogue preaching may be found in virtually every Christian tradition, even among confessional church bodies. Glen Schlecht penned a 2017 Doctor of Ministry thesis titled, “Giving Permission for Creative Preaching in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod: Returning to our Creative Roots.” Schlecht, himself an advocate of dialogue preaching, promotes congregational participation and contributions during the sermon. Not employing a device of rhetorical questions, but one requiring actual in-the-moment discussions, Schlecht invites his auditors, “If they are comfortable, talk with someone sitting near them. [And] after a few moments, I will invite people to share their responses.” Word association may also be utilized to introduce the sermon topic and stimulate “guided conversations.” Dialogue thus emerges in a horizontal plane stimulated by categorical questions, ranging from, “What makes Jesus so great?” to, “How do you see God as your provider?”
Individual contributions are not only welcome but “essential” to preaching, according to this author, because maximum participation is what the “priesthood of all believers” is all about. Significantly, for Schlecht, the theological principle of the priesthood of all believers resonates with millennial ideas about authenticity in relationships. For millennials, what authenticates or legitimates their relationship to the ministry is their participation in it through the formats with which they themselves are the most comfortable — multi-media, TED Talk, town hall, the freedom of expression on social media, and the like. All are worthy speakers, so opportunity should be given to all. The liturgical provision for preaching during the “worship experience” facilitates the essential voice of all believers through formats that welcome group participation, or so the reasoning goes.
Writing for www.preaching.com, James L. Killen Jr. likewise encourages the practice asking, “For a change, why not try a sermon in dialogue?” Killen even delineates some benefits: “A sermon in which two or more speakers work in interaction with each other can provide some welcome variety. It can catch and hold the interest of a congregation.” In sum, Killen’s reason for adopting dialogue preaching is “variety,” otherwise known as consumer choice and the abatement of boredom. Schlecht views such creativity as a return to biblical and Reformational origins that exhibited latitude in preaching “styles” and participants, but also accommodation to contemporary expectations and comfort levels for a given congregation’s demographic (i.e., socioeconomic) composition. Nothing to be doubted about their motives, each of the authors would agree dialogue preaching is about engendering opportunities to promote the Gospel for postmodern’s through formats palatable to postmodern’s.
But one wonders whether an accommodated medium has become the accommodated message. Has even the mode of sermon delivery succumbed to narcissism?
There are multiple avenues by which one may critique dialogue preaching, beginning with nomenclature. By Pagitt and Schlecht’s own choice of descriptors, the sermon or homily has become a “guided discussion” or “dialogue,” not a sermon, where a sermon is understood as the authoritative proclamation of the Word of Christ. In the assembly of believers, this is done by the called, trained, and ordained ambassador of the King, the pastor or priest. Indeed, Scripture intimates a numeric identifier for each sermon, a preacher, hence commonplace references to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill. Acts and the Epistles contain numerous references to Paul’s preaching, Peter’s announcement of the Gospel, and all such preachers in the singular. There are no references to multiple preachers for a single occasion. This is because of the doctrine of apostolic representation: As the Son represents the Father in His speaking and acting (and so Christ is the apostle of the Father (see John 10:30; 12:45; 14:9-10; 17:21; 20:21; Hebrews 1:3)), so too Jesus’ called and commissioned apostles speak and act on His behalf (Luke 10:16; John 20:21). The correspondence is one-to-one since the Lord is one and His message is one. However, bearing evangelistic witness to Christ outside the assembly of believers in a worship service (sometimes also more specifically named a eucharistic liturgy, see Acts 2:42) constituted an entirely different set of circumstances. These scenarios permitted and sometimes necessitated pluriform attestation. During the eucharistic liturgy, however, the preacher preached the sermon and upheld the doctrine of apostolic representation. The sermon comes from Christ and Christ is represented by His commissioned ambassador. Multiplicity of preachers for a single sermonic event confuses or conflates the notion of in persona Christi, that is, the apostolic representation of the Son.
The sermon comes from Christ and Christ is represented by His commissioned ambassador.
Conceptually speaking, the rationale for dialogue preaching is misplaced. The premise that preaching purposes in any sense to provide an opportunity for pastoral interaction, “…with the greatest number of people at once,” during the sermon (Schlecht, p. 5) cannot be substantiated in Scripture or tradition. The idea of “interaction” by advocates of dialogue preaching means mutual, democratic interfacing — truly, a dialogue. In this way of thinking, a spurious doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” justifies the pastor as one who, among other things, serves to facilitate formats for participatory preaching. This functionalist view of the ministry does not correspond to the biblical Office of Holy Ministry instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ in John 20:18-22 and Matthew 28:19-20 or Paul’s articulations in First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus. Instead, the Office of Holy Ministry connotes Christic representation, a commissioning as a royal ambassador to herald or proclaim the Word of Christ, indeed, the word about Christ for the salvation of the lost but also the sanctification of the baptized.
What is more, during the sermon the Holy Spirit uses the Law and Gospel on believers to beget repentance and faith, illumination, and good works. The Spirit does this through biblical, meaning-laden institutions and formats, and always within a governing hermeneutical framework of kingdom. The principal metaphor of kingdom plays no small role in the craft of preaching. The King announces and applies His kingdom message through His kingdom ambassador — the preacher. The singularity of pastoral representation during the sermon dispels all such notions of democratization, but also plurality of interpretations. Relatedly, the posture of God’s people during the sermon is passive. They are to receive the Word proclaimed by faith. This by-faith-reception-of-the-Word recognizes preaching is a gift of the Lord which He graciously dispenses. He is the speaker. In speaking, the Lord is the active agent: For, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Thereby the Spirit engenders an auditor’s faith and repentance. In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon extols such faith as the heart of true worship in the Augsburg Confession (IV 48-49). Dialogue preaching, on the other hand, transforms the auditor’s experience of the sermon from recipients to participants. The so-called sermon becomes indistinguishable from the Bible study hour. Sunday School and the Divine Service (or Worship Service, depending on your tradition) are collapsed into one and the same thing.
Where auditors are not participating directly, there remains the problem of indirect participation. Multiple preachers during the kairotic event of the Divine Service introduces the problem of pervasive interpretative pluralism. That is, a spectrum of hermeneutical possibilities from which the auditor must actively exegete, adjudicate, and choose. Instead of conveying the clear and certain proclamation of the Lord for the Holy Spirit to apply, a gaggle of pastors present interpretative options. The auditor is left shopping for an interpretation and leaning on their own understanding, in a quest for knowledge or insight, rather than the summoning of faith. This cannot but make for selective hearing and lend to the practice of self-justification; listening for the option that most resonates with one’s personal disposition, whatever that disposition may be. Thus, dialogue preaching suggests a spectrum of interpretative readings to the text and, by extension, an expansive understanding to the Church’s Creeds and confessions.
Dialogue preaching neither finds biblical justification nor validation with Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” — a term he actually never used. There is an Office of Holy Ministry that has been instituted by our Lord, but the priesthood of all believers does not mean laypersons and clergy have equal responsibilities and exchangeable vocations. Rather, just like in the Old Covenant, the people of God (themselves a priesthood) had a priesthood who served them as they served their neighbors. The “general priesthood of all baptized Christians” meant they all share in Christ’s royal priesthood, giving them equal access to the Father through the Son. The upshot being that every baptized person has the responsibility and privilege to serve as a priest to other believers through the Word, but also to their neighbors in their respective vocations as they act as God’s hands and the masks behind which He cares for the needs of the world. So, while there was no spiritual divide between laity and clergy, they did have complementing but not univocal vocations. As Paul put it, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ” (NKJV, Ephesians 4:11-12). It can be convincingly argued that the phenomenon of dialogue preaching takes its cues from culture to be participatory, for everyone to have an equal opportunity to contribute, just like in “reality television” programming. Such thinking is evocative of Neil Gabel’s 1998 book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality: Starring Everyone
There is an Office of Holy Ministry that has been instituted by our Lord, but the priesthood of all believers does not mean laypersons and clergy have equal responsibilities and exchangeable vocations.
Be it Pagitt’s “progressional dialogue” or contemporary manifestations of “dialogue preaching,” this complicit phenomenon connotes yet another example of iconoclasm within the Church through efforts to “reimagine” worship, as if the theology of worship disclosed in Scripture and preserved through the eucharistic liturgy through the millennia were somehow outmoded or insufficient. It purposes to deconstruct the tradition and authoritative structures conserved (such as crucifixes, vestments, pulpits, etc.) and replace the iconic preacher and the act of ambassadorial preaching with an alternative form substantiated by ideologies that conflict with the established genius of New Testament preaching and apostolic representation.
Indeed, in the pursuit of democratizing the worship experience, several things are lost. First, and most importantly, the uncontested, unconfusticated voice of Jesus heralding the full counsel of God (we go from hearing the voice of God to hearing voices and in some cases hearing our own voice!). Secondly, the power of associating the preacher’s proclamation with the voice of Christ. Thirdly, the sense of anticipation (and comfort/discomfort) by believers and unbelievers alike when they enter the Divine Service for an authoritative sermon. Lastly, the forum itself has gone from that of a divine assembly to something more redolent of a lecture hall or town meeting. Either way, the personalities of the participants are front and center while Christ recedes into the background.
Dialogue preaching smacks of an upside-down and inside-out understanding of who stands as the primary actor and primary speaker in the Divine Service. The unwelcome truth is that our participation does not authenticate how God delivers His grace.