The Reverend Micah Jackson, Ph.D., is a Backstory Preaching Partner and the President of Bexley Seabury Episcopal Seminary in Chicago. He recently served as the John Elbrige Hines Associate Professor of Preaching at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas. He is the author of a forthcoming book from Church Publishing: Preaching Face to Face: An Invitation to Conversational Preaching.
If you ask people to describe the kind of preaching they think is most effective, you will hear many of the same words over and over again. People will offer “Biblical” or “pastoral.” Some will suggest “relevant to daily life.”
Increasingly, both hearers and preachers are using the word “conversational.”
But what does that mean?
Does it mean I have to ask questions during my sermon? Or let other people offer thoughts “off the cuff” instead of presenting well-constructed theological statements?
The truth is that conversational can mean many things for preachers. But, scholars of language have studied this topic and identified several necessary features that distinguish conversation from other kinds of speech.
Some of these features map onto the task of preaching in an obvious way, and others don’t.
But if preachers want to take the idea of having preaching be “conversational,” then considering these features carefully is a necessary step.
I’ll be sharing more about conversational preaching in The Collective+ next week, but here, I’d like to consider one obvious quality of conversation: there is more than one participant.
More than One Participant
Unless there is at least one other partner, conversation isn’t possible.
This is the insight that makes people embrace or reject dialogical preaching, in which voices other than the preachers are allowed to be heard during the actual delivery of the sermon.
But if we can only take a step back, and look at the sermon from a little farther away, we can see that conversation partners are always present, and all around us.
The most obvious conversation partner for the sermon is the Bible.
In fact, in most preaching situations, the sermon is a direct response to Scripture, which usually “speaks” right before the sermon begins.
Seen this way, the reading of Scripture and the response of the preacher is a kind of mini-conversation. One partner says something, and one partner says something back.
Of course, it is rarely that simple.
On Sunday morning, it seems like the Bible speaks and the preacher gives a response. But in reality, the Bible has been speaking since Monday (or whenever the preacher first sat down to begin preparing the message).
And all along the week, a careful preacher has been listening to other voices:
Some are also responding to the reading, such as scholarly commentaries.
Others, such as the voices of those in a Bible study group, may raise questions that the preacher must consider.
And, of course, there are always other voices which can interrupt the flow of conversation between the preacher and the Bible, such as events in the news.
Frequently, these will need to receive a response, sometimes by having the Bible respond from a different place.
Ideally, the conversation will not end when the preacher sits down after the sermon.
When a hearer risks vulnerability to ask a question or make a comment after the sermon has concluded—in the narthex after the service, or even later in the week—the conversation continues.
This exchange may even influence how the preacher prepares the next sermon and what is said.
The sermon is only one small turn in an ongoing conversation among all these participants, and many, many more.
Want to continue this conversation?
Join us in The Collective+ next week to have a more in-depth conversation about conversation and how it can improve our preaching. I look forward to hearing from you.
Micah T. Jackson, President, Bexley Seabury (Chicago, IL)
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