Pastor's Pastor

Dialogic preaching

I had been spending hundreds of hours in communication classes some at Garrett Seminary, most at Northwestern University. The buzz words were dialogue and group dynamics. Howe helped me relate all this theory to the practical life of the local congregation. I began to grasp the absolute necessity of dialogue in the church generally and in preaching particularly.

Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is a former secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association, and continues to pastor and preach in Oregon, where he and his wife, Ellen, live in retirement.

My heart beat just a little faster as our bus pulled into the tiny town a few miles north of Detroit, Michigan. Traveling by the cheapest mode of transportation available, I was doing personal interviews with the 16 homilists chosen by their peers as the most outstanding teachers of preaching in America research for my doctoral dissertation on the teaching of preaching. Reuel Howe, director of the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies, was next on my list.

Soon I was standing alone in the bus depot, holding my 10-page interview instrument in one hand and my tape recorder in the other, hoping Howe had not forgotten his promise to send some one to meet me.

A tall, unpretentious man, probably in his late 50s, approached and introduced himself. I was both shocked and flattered. Howe himself had come. The hour we spent chatting in his car and the two-hour interview in his study were to change my understanding of preaching.

I had been spending hundreds of hours in communication classes some at Garrett Seminary, most at Northwestern University. The buzz words were dialogue and group dynamics. Howe helped me re late all this theory to the practical life of the local congregation. I began to grasp the absolute necessity of dialogue in the church generally and in preaching particularly.

We learn most and come closest through dialogue. Communication research persistently teaches that there must be two-way communication feedback if there is to be maximum comprehension, acceptance, and internalization. But not only does dialogue improve our comprehension of content; we understand others and even ourselves better after we have shared our ideas and feelings.

Every pastor wants his church members to feel close to him and to each other. This closeness happens, this community spirit grows, when people dialogue openly and often. Howe insisted, "Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies." 1

The church must often use the dialogic method. Christianity has not been unaware of the importance of dialogue. Most of the sermons Jesus and the apostles preached were either preceded or fol lowed by conversation. Not until the oratorical schools of the West took on the gospel message did oratory replace conversation. In recent decades, the Sabbath school class has played a unique role in bringing people together for Bible study and dialogue. And in their renewed emphasis on home fellowship and Bible study groups, many churches are reviving group discussion.

Especially in religion, where theory must always be combined with experience, is group discussion an excellent teaching device. One of the best ways for people to learn Christianity is through the experiences of their peers through dialogue.

Should group discussion, then, re place preaching? This suggestion falters on a couple of counts: First, while ideal groups provide an ideal way to share Christianity, anyone who has ever sat through group discussions in the church knows there are very few ideal groups.

Second, though dialogue is an ideal way to learn, preaching is often a better way to motivate. And important as learning is, most Christians need to be motivated even more than they need to be taught. Worshipers do not come to church so much to learn what they never knew as to be motivated to do what they already know they should. Preaching is still needed especially the kind of preaching that's based on the dialogic principle.

Preaching must always use the dialogic principle. Dialogue occurs when each participant both talks and listens. Although preaching is basically a monologic method of communication, Howe's great contribution was to emphasize that it could and must follow a dialogic principle. Dialogic preaching occurs when preachers talk to their people only after they have listened to them. When they have heard their hurts, felt their frustrations, and attempted to walk in their shoes, then their sermons ask those questions and seek those answers that meet their listeners' needs.

Howe summarizes, "How tragic that they [preachers] do not realize that they need the meanings, thoughts, questions, understandings, interests, and encouragement of their congregation in order to prepare and preach their sermons; and that their sermons, far from being the great production of the occasion, are only a preliminary contribution to the sermons which are formed in each hearer as he responds out of his meanings to the meanings of the preacher."2

In another column we'll suggest some exciting answers to the question "How can I make my preaching more dialogic?"

1. Miracle of Dialogue (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), p. 3.

2. Ibid., p. 145.


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Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is a former secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association, and continues to pastor and preach in Oregon, where he and his wife, Ellen, live in retirement.

March 1988

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