The results are in – people prefer short sermons followed by discussion.

Pencil with "Y" Circled For Yes

This week, I conducted some research on Twitter. I asked which people would prefer; short sermons with the opportunity for discussion, or long sermons without. The results of my poll were resoundingly conclusive – 100% of respondents would like to have short sermons (or even long ones) followed by the chance to respond and explore the topic together.

Now, I’m not going to pretend these are statistically significant results. This was a small sample group, and a very biased one. But I still think this is a simple and easy-to-implement strategy most pastors and churches can take on board, with the potential to equip and empower God’s people.

Next time you are preparing a sermon, think about stripping it back to the essential points, then letting people break into groups of 4 or so to discuss what they have learned. They could answer questions such as;

What stands out to you?

What did you learn about God? About people?

Any life-lessons to apply? How do you plan to apply them?

How can we pray for one another?

The advantages to this approach are huge. You are training God’s people to have spiritual conversations. You can give them the tools they need to think for themselves, and to communicate their knowledge to others. You are sending the message that the church is an equal laity under the headship of Christ, not artificially divided into “professionals” and “consumers”. You are giving them a chance to respond to God’s Word and message, and to teach one another.

However – please take note – this suggestion comes with the following warnings;

WARNING 1: Once people get used to participating and having a voice, they’re not going back. They will find it difficult to sit passively through lengthy monologues, once they realise they can be actively involved.

WARNING 2: Some people won’t like this. They think the current format for church is the way it has always been. They don’t realise the early church meetings were interactive, multi-voiced and participatory.

WARNING 3: Dialogue is an open floor, not a pop-quiz. People are allowed to give any answer at all. Pastors may have to go through a period of “unlearning” – instead of having all the answers, they have to learn to shut up and listen. Get used to a whole new way of thinking as you move away from performance towards facilitation and empowerment.

Don’t rely on the results of my not-very-reliable research – conduct a poll of your own. Ask your congregation whether they would prefer a 40 minute lecture next Sunday, or a 10-15 minute presentation followed by a chance to explore and discuss it together. Your ego may take a bruising if they tell you to shorten your sermons – but it could be the start of a new journey for you and your church community.

17 thoughts on “The results are in – people prefer short sermons followed by discussion.

  1. The challenge for many Church Leaders is that they are not ‘trained’ for interactive teaching. In some cases they might not feel called to such a Ministry. However most should be able to manage the transition, providing they take the time to change. The issue of technology is also vital to consider, could twitter or facebook assist in the process, and open up the teaching process to those not able to attend in person?

    • Great points, Ian. I would love to see seminaries and Bible Colleges explore and experiment with a much wider range of effective teaching techniques, rather than training people for monologue/lecturing. I agree that many church leaders could adapt to interactive teaching – although they really benefit from a chance to see it and experience it in action first.

      I also appreciate your thoughts about using social media. I’m certain churches could make far better use of these tools. It’s a great way to help the more “online” members of the community feel connected and engaged, and extend the reach of teaching and interactions. Some of God’s people are already out there having a significant impact through their social media presence.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

  2. You have quite the scholarly audience! 🙂 It’s long been known that lecturing is the worst teaching method man has ever invented. Yet, we continue to make it our primary method. Go figure!

    In the non-preferred case that you have someone in the meetings who has previously and/or currently been the primary talker, what do you think about the strategy of having that person intermittently not show up to the meetings? Maybe they do some training and then give the group a chance to put what they’ve learned into practice by not showing up some weeks. Or maybe they go away for 6 months or something. Thoughts?

    • Hmmm, this is a great question, Michael.

      We’ve certainly been through this in a conventional church setting. My husband took over from a retiring pastor, who graciously went on holidays for 6 months, before returning as a member of the congregation. In this way, his “status” didn’t get in the way while we were in the process of “gaining” status.

      However, I believe one of the most powerful things about ministry in a circle is using our status to empower others. People instinctively know who the “leaders” are, and accord them status. When those people choose to lift up others, affirm them, listen to them, accept and acknowledge them, it speaks volumes. Instead of leaving, it would be powerful if a “leader” chooses to stay and shut up, saying “great” and “good point” and “I love what Jeff just said”, refusing to answer questions but passing them back to other members in the group, paying particular attention to “the least of these”, and never, ever having the final word.

      Of course, if they just don’t “get” how to do all that, send them away for 6 months (and then some)! 😉

      Hope that answers your question,

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

  3. Kathleen,
    I love your insights here. God has really been working on changing my views concerning this. I recently resigned (or “got resigned” depending on how you look at it) from a small church as their pastor. My goal was always to work towards a more interactive presentation – primarily on Sunday and Wednesday nights. I kept Sunday mornings a typical lecture/sermon. However, I’ve been involved in jail ministry for almost 7 years now and I’ve seen the most impact with group Bible studies where I sit around a table with a group of inmates or delinquents and play the role of facilitator for a Bible study. It encourages the group members to dig into the text themselves, and they almost always returned with questions the following week. I always started with their questions, no matter how off the wall they were, and never shied away from saying, “I just don’t know” or “There is no perfect answer.” I saw some incredible things happen.
    Today I find myself totally discontent with the paradigm of traditional church. I’m not sure where I am headed, but I don’t want to be a spectator or merely speak to spectators anymore. I see it stunting spiritual growth. I want to empower others to plumb the rich depths of God’s word and also be inspired to share it with others. I appreciate your prayers in this matter and I’ll be hanging out here on your blog more often.

    • It feels like you’re on a similar trajectory to ours, Randy. We also resigned/got resigned from a small church – I’m now convinced that was a critical learning period in our lives, and I’m grateful for it (at the time, I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall…).

      I’m glad you’re involved in prison ministry. They’ll teach you more than conventional churchgoers ever can. And maybe, just maybe, church is always supposed to be about “the least of these” – after all, Jesus didn’t come for the righteous. He came for the sick, not the healthy – yet our church model is all about administering weekly meds to a bunch of healthy people.

      I wonder whether your background and training are setting you up to have something really valuable to offer the church in the future – when people finally reach such a state of discontent they are willing to embrace change. Most of them aren’t quite there yet – but they’re on the way.

      Blessings as you continue to do church in non-traditional ways,

      – Kathleen

  4. Great Post! Evangelicalism is overrun with paternalistic pastors who want to tell members what to think. There is a reverse Gestalt aspect to these cultures. Learned passivity prevails. Thinking and often Christian action is outsourced to the Pastor. Members remain passive and undeveloped for decades in these environments. Your post about engaging in a teaching format that is interactive and starts to transfer the responsibility for knowledge and action back to the members is a great start. As it heads towards Socratic, activity and maturity will increase. Of course the downside (as a Pastor) is that you will be seen as only a facilitator rather than grand poobah.

    • Thanks for your comments. I agree especially with your final point – pastors struggle with stepping off the stage and into the circle, giving up the microphone and allowing others to have a voice, shifting from performing to facilitating. However, they need to go back and re-read the New Testament, which is full of interactions to “build up” and “equip” the church, not just lecture people.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

  5. I read this article under a different name in SermonCentral. In warning 2 you have “They don’t realize the early church meetings were interactive, multi-voiced and participatory.” I would love to have more evidence for this. Can you supply references? Your article is timely for me personally. The men’s class at chapel are just starting to go through Mark Dever’s 9 Marks Of A Healthy Church. I agree with him that the Word must be central in our teaching. But IMHO, he overstates the pastors role, saying “he is standing in the place of God” p.60. To me, the Spirit is the one doing the work here. Certainly, I see Him working in the teaching I give in my seminar. But I also frequently see Him working in peoples questions and comments which follow up each session in break out groups and when we gather back together to hear from them.

    • Hi Kent, thanks so much for visiting from sermoncentral.com! Your comments were a great encouragement to Kevin-Neil and myself this morning.

      1 Corinthians 14:26-33 is quite clearly describing a typical early church “worship service” that needs a bit more facilitation/structure. Everyone is involved, everyone has a voice – so much so, that “if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop” (v.30).

      The New Testament is overflowing with “one another” instructions, including “teach one another” (Col 3:16), “instruct one another” (Rom 15:14), “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess 5:11). It’s simply not possible for these things to happen when we sit in rows, looking at the backs of one anthers’ heads, and placing one person as a mediator between us and God, between us and Scripture.

      Finally, Jesus explicitly commanded against placing anyone in God’s rightful place in Matthew 23:8-10. “‘But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructor, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah'” – these words challenge the way we universally do church today, and the position and power we ascribe to pastors.

      Blessings as you revisit Scripture and search for God’s vision for his church. You are on an exciting journey,

      – Kathleen

  6. Hi Kathleen, so glad to have found your site, and your blog. I’ve been actively searching to see if anyone else out there has been discussing alternatives to the one-way monologue most churches employ.

    We engaged interactive teaching with young adults for almost 10 years. We hosted a Christian forum where we allowed participants to stop the discussion at any time to participate, ask questions, offer opinions, raise objections and even challenge the presentation. We believed there was no better way to wrestle openly and honestly with the issues we face as Christians.

    From our experience, this teaching method was far superior to the monologue used in most Sunday morning experiences. (I also teach in the Sunday morning worship service as part of our teaching team, so I have experience in both methods and can observe the outcome of both.) Our forum would sometimes go a full hour and we had active engagement the entire time.

    I would also add that there is one factor that is more important than the learning or retention of those in attendance. In our experience, the most important issue is that interactive teaching opens up the floor to hear what the Holy Spirit might be prompting in others. We believe the Holy Spirit speaks through all participants, not just the discussion leader. Often times, a question or comment from a participant yielded significant insights that would have been lost had we followed the main format where people are required to remain silent.

    There’s also no more honest way to evaluate how someone is processing the message than to give them the freedom to interact with the speaker while the discussion is still ongoing, and while there is still a chance to address those issues directly.

    We have podcasts and other articles about our method at http://www.exoduspodcasts.com.

    • Fantastic to connect with you, John! My husband Kevin-Neil dreamed of running such a “forum” in churches over 10 years ago – part of our journey to where we are now.

      We’re looking forward to exploring what you’re doing and connecting more. Are you on Twitter? It’s wonderful to find people on a similar trajectory through the internet.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

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