The monologue sermon gets plenty of negative press in Christian circles these days; some of it deserved. Preachers routinely go longer than their congregation’s attention span, perhaps overestimating their ability to hold interest, or being too busy to invest the extra time it takes to be sharp and to the point. Further, our culture now expects more opportunity for comment and interaction, and rightly values a plurality of voices in any communication. And since COVID-19, several months of online sermons have, for some, highlighted dissatisfaction with the traditional model.
But before we consign the monologue sermon to the dustbin of history, I want to look at some of its strengths.
For the TL;DR crowd, let me make it clear from the start that this isn’t a defence of bad or lazy monologue preaching. It isn’t necessarily an argument for its retention; or, if we do retain it, that it needs to be the only model—or even the dominant model—for church teaching. But it’s an attempt to at least strain the bathwater in search of any babies, before we unthinkingly pull the plug. Because if we do decide to throw it out, we ought to know what we stand to lose, so we can find other ways of achieving the same ends.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the strengths I see in monologue sermons, which aren’t easily replicated in more dialogical alternatives.
1. The monologue sermon allows for sustained focus on a topic.
Over thirty years ago, David Buttrick argued for the benefits of the sermon as an important form of communication. He outlined the many differences between dialogue and monologue; between one-to-one conversation and public oratory. In the latter, shifts in subject matter are far less frequent, meaning “it can achieve depth and formational power impossible in the rapid linear movement of everyday conversation” (Homiletic, p.25) It gives the audience time to ponder an important topic from different angles, exploring its meaning and significance more fully.
More recently, Cal Newport, in his 2016 bestseller, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, observed that our 24/7 connected, interactive world is crowding out our capacity for the kind of sustained, deep thinking that enables us to fulfil our potential. He urged regular disconnection from all of the conversational noise to give us times of uninterrupted focus on what’s important. To a people accustomed to hurried and ultimately unsatisfying sips from Styrofoam cups, the monologue sermon can provide an oasis of depth from which they can drink the water of life.
Now of course, this kind of deep work is not the sole preserve of the monologue sermon. But if we choose to move away from this form, we’ll need to guard against the superficiality and lack of focus that can be the default with free-flowing dialogue. Discussion-based alternatives need trained, skilful facilitators, who are not always in plentiful supply.
2. The monologue sermon appropriately values expertise and godly authority.
This is a recognition that understanding ancient texts isn’t always easy, requiring learning and practice. Without negating the responsibility of the body as a whole to mutually teach and encourage one another (Col 3:16), it’s an acknowledgement that God has gifted some to be prophets and teachers through whom he will speak and bring his people to maturity (Eph 4:11-14).
This, again, is counter-cultural. Because our world constantly invites us to “join the conversation.” We’re asked to give our opinions, reviews, and star-ratings on everything. Media reports regularly interview a subject-matter expert, followed by the spontaneous reaction of a random person on the street—with the implication that everyone has an equally valuable contribution on complex issues.
The monologue sermon provides a brief pause in this continuous flow of conversation and opinion-giving so we can just sit and listen to a person we have set apart to spend the week prayerfully researching and preparing an exposition of God’s word; half an hour in which we hear what God might be saying, without having to live-tweet our reaction.
(This can, of course, be combined with opportunity for dialogue and response; read on!)
3. The monologue sermon can allow us to hear voices we otherwise wouldn’t hear.
This point may seem counter-intuitive, but a good pastor-theologian will read widely. Even if they simply read two or three commentaries on the Biblical text being preached, those commentators would have spent years scouring and weighing the collected Christian scholarship of the past two millennia. Good preaching isn’t just one person’s opinion on the text; it’s the result of careful interaction with centuries of Spirit-inspired community reflection.
However, this is an area in which preaching—and the Bible scholarship on which it is based—can improve:
Firstly, there’s an urgent need to include non-Western scholarship in pastoral resources, rather than allowing the European and North American bias to persist; writers from different cultures bring different insights to the text, coming with different experiences and cultural assumptions.
Secondly, pastors need to be more collaborative in their preparation, hearing the perspectives of those from different backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, gender, age, and socio-economic status. This may involve a change from a Monday-to-Saturday sermon preparation model to more long-range planning that builds in the time needed to gain more diverse input. (It’s also a good argument for a similar diversity in the backgrounds of the preachers themselves!)
Thirdly, the monologue sermon needs to be set within a broader ecosystem of teaching: congregational Q&A; group discussion in response after, or during the sermon; weekly study groups linked to the sermon.
4. The monologue sermon can model the hermeneutical process.
Biblical Hermeneutics refers to the set of principles we use to apply an ancient text to our present-day hearers. They often form the crux of many of our disputes about doctrine or practice, and inform many of the ways in which we interact with our world.
It can be dangerous to democratise this process too much. The home Bible study movement has brought many benefits; but one of the drawbacks can be the kind of homespun hermeneutics that often predominate. The default approach can often be a “flat” hermeneutic in which the whole Bible is read as a timeless address to “Christians” in general, rather than a collection of texts spanning many centuries and containing specific, targeted words to a particular audience. Or a hermeneutic in which we pick and choose what parts of Scripture we’ll obey, and which parts we’ll ignore as no longer having cultural relevance. (See Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, for an overview of bad popular hermeneutics, and the antidote.)
Good preaching will model consistent, responsible hermeneutics, rather than leaving it to the “pooled ignorance” of discussion groups (as it’s often been characterised). In an ideal world, we’d train group leaders in this important skill; in most pastoral realities, it’s frequently difficult to find warm bodies to lead groups, let alone hermeneutically well-trained minds. Any alternative to the monologue sermon needs to take this important aspect into account.
This function of the sermon, by the way, is one reason I’m wary of any attempt to benchmark sermon lengths against the 18 minutes popularised by TED Talks. In a TED talk, an acknowledged authority on a subject is asked to present their understanding on that topic. In a sermon, the speaker doesn’t come with any authority other than that contained in the inspired text they are expounding. Showing how they’ve arrived at their exhortations and conclusions from the text is an important part of validating their message, and that takes just a little more time.
5. The monologue sermon has permission to issue confronting challenges.
Crucially, the rhetoric of sober address on behalf of God has permission to say difficult things—to issue penetrating, confronting challenges that otherwise might not be expressed in more informal settings. Groupthink can often be mutually reassuring rather than counterculturally provocative. The desire not to sound judgmental among our friends can prevent the challenges of the biblical text being voiced in general discussion.
Having said that, preachers need to learn that monologue sermons ought to be the start of conversations rather than the final word on the matter. This is where each individual has an important role: to work out how—in light of the guidelines given by sermon—to concretely apply the text to themselves; and, in so doing, to provide suggestions for others, too. If using a hybrid monologue-dialogue model in a sermon or study group, it makes sense to be more directive in the original meaning/hermeneutics phase of the process, then loosen up and allow more time and scope for group input when it comes to specific application.
Good monologue sermons have these (and many other) strengths. I think they provide a strong argument for retaining this mode of communication post-COVID, while always seeking to refine and improve our practice. And for those who disagree with that assessment, I hope they provide food for thought as to how these elements might be incorporated in any other programme for the regular teaching, exhorting, and equipping our congregations.