Relational Preaching: Conversation and Collaboration in the Postmodern Sermon

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

Preaching in the postmodern world has evolved into an intriguing art form that invites creativity and conversation in new and exciting ways. Whether you preach in a large or small congregation, a traditional or informal setting, the opportunity exists to engage in relational preaching.

The emerging call to become more relational and interactive in our preaching styles is one of the greatest gifts we receive from postmodern preachers and worshipers—a gift that energizes both preacher and listener. When I experience a sermon that invites me into the conversation, I am challenged and included in ways that transform my spiritual journey.

We live in an era where people long for relationships in their spiritual journeys. When we reflect this sense of relationship in the sermon moment, we are responding to that yearning. The relational aspect of conversational preaching is far more important than the actual style of the sermon itself. A preacher need not redesign her entire preaching style to become more conversational and interactive while preaching. She shouldn’t feel pressured to speak from a stool and high-top table, but neither should she feel restricted to a manuscript and a pulpit during the message time. Relational preaching can take place in any number of ways. Below are a few ways you might be able to move toward conversation and interaction in your own preaching.

The Manuscript or Memorized Sermon

Many manuscript preachers begin their week with a lectionary study group. When this group includes your own congregants, the study group’s conversation can infuse your sermon manuscript with new insights, ideas, and questions that come from the worshiping community. The study group conversation itself is a type of conversational sermon that then transforms the Sunday morning sermon into a relational event before the first word is spoken from the pulpit. A lectionary study group of church members serves a different purpose than a lectionary study group of colleagues. Rather than studying the experts, we learn from the listeners. In the learning, we approach the text and the experts with different questions and new possibilities for insights and wisdom. The conversation enriches our preaching and changes sermon preparation into a group project rather than an individual enterprise.

There are other ways for a manuscript sermon or a memorized sermon to become conversational and relational in nature. Inviting questions in preceding weeks regarding a topic or passage of scripture can inform and challenge the preacher as he studies and prepares the sermon. Simply pausing and asking rhetorical questions during a traditional sermon can invite participation and reflection. Allowing time for silent reflection after the sermon can also give people a new opportunity to absorb the message as the Spirit fills their hearts and minds with insight and wisdom. Silence is a rarity in our world and can create quite dramatic results when we allow silence to fill the space and time of worship!

Blogging about the sermon topic can extend conversation for weeks beyond the worship service. Invite people to write questions down and put them in the offering plate, or to e-mail you later in the day, then respond by writing and inviting discussion on the blog. 

The Teaching Sermon

Preachers who teach during the sermon moment can use many of the same techniques noted for manuscript preachers. However, there is an additional freedom that comes from observing and responding to your listeners. Most teaching sermons involve a passage of scripture or doctrinal issue that the preacher wants to explore and unfold for the congregation. In this setting, the preacher has many of the freedoms a great teacher has. Watch your listeners. Respond to their body language to transform your teaching from lecture into conversation. Eyebrows raised? Raise your own and admit that you have just made a shocking point. Forehead wrinkled in confusion or concern? Move back and restate your point in a new way, and watch to see if wrinkles are suddenly smoothed. Acknowledge the listeners’ concerns by sharing concerns you have in dealing with this scripture. When the listeners’ attention begins to wane, wind down your lesson and recognize that they’ve learned as much as they are capable of for today.

Think back to the teachers who influenced your years of schooling. Most great teachers are good conversationalists and incredibly attentive to the reactions of their students. Imitate the best of the tools and gifts displayed in great teachers, and you will discover a new strength in your own teaching sermon.

The Interactive Sermon

Preachers who interact regularly with their congregation will find relational, conversational preaching to be a natural outgrowth of an already interactive style. Asking questions and inviting responses during the course of the sermon is a common way of interacting with listeners. Walking amongst the people as you preach is a visual way of including them in the sermon moment. However, these interactions must be managed with great care. You are still the preacher, with an enormous amount of power during the sermon moment. Teasing can feel like bullying, and questions can feel like threats if not handled carefully. The interactive preacher can ease some of these tensions by occasionally sitting on a stool, bringing herself down to the listeners’ physical level. The interactive preacher can ease tensions by asking open-ended questions without “right” or “wrong” answers. Likewise, listeners trust the preacher who displays a sense of true compassion and love for the listeners. If you don’t like your people, it’s probably best to move back to the pulpit!

The interactive sermon becomes more conversational when the preacher is truly awaiting the end of the sermon to reveal itself. Listeners are invited to both question and respond as the preacher interacts with them. The questions and responses of the listeners are woven into the sermon as the sermon evolves. The preacher pauses to listen to both the people and the Spirit as the sermon progresses. As the interactive preacher begins to listen as much as she talks, the sermon becomes more conversation and less lecture.

The Conversational Sermon

Preachers who approach both preparation and preaching with an awareness that wisdom comes from the Body as much as from the preacher are able to engage in fully conversational preaching. Conversational preaching is a risky endeavor, and it is not for everyone. Postmodern preachers and listeners are usually comfortable with the idea that truth is relative. Most postmoderns believe that truth is more likely to emerge within the community rather than from one designated leader. When ministering with postmodern worshipers, conversational preaching is the perfect match.

The conversational sermon is perhaps easiest in a small worshiping community. The group can sit in a circle and listen as the preacher introduces the scripture and topic. True conversation ensues, more like that of a book club or study group. The preacher becomes facilitator during this sermon moment as the group wrestles with the scripture and the preacher offers wisdom from research and thoughts he has explored beforehand. Even as the preacher shares insights, however, she awaits and expects additional and even new wisdom to emerge from the group. The conversation is the message, and the Spirit speaks through the gathered community.

In a larger setting, conversational preaching can also find a place. Invite another preacher or appropriate person to debate and dialogue about a scripture with you. Worshipers will be drawn into the conversation by imagining their own responses. Preachers who are comfortable with extemporaneous speaking and spontaneous conversation can invite feedback and questions during the sermon, or such inquiries can inspire conversation after worship or in future worship services. Alternately, the preacher may invite artistic or emotional feedback, using art supplies such as clay or markers and blank paper.

The Questioning Sermon

The Questioning Sermon has long been a favorite conversational method of mine when preaching to new Christians or seekers exploring various spiritual paths. I announce a topic or read a provocative scripture early in the worship service, providing note cards to each participant. Throughout the service, ushers are available to collect the note cards, filled with questions. In a setting where the technology is available, comments and inquiries can also be submitted electronically through text messages or Twitter. (Use a hashtag—a distinctive word or acronym, preceded by a pound sign—to identify messages intended for this sermon on Twitter.)  

To plan for a Questioning Sermon, design the worship service so that there is time to review the questions, organize them, and reflect for a few moments before beginning the message time. The message time then centers on the questions and comments from the congregation. Although I study the scripture thoroughly and prepare ahead of time by anticipating potential questions and responses, I allow the sermon to flow from the questions—even unexpected ones. This method of “conversation” can be used in a room filled with hundreds of worshipers or only a few. The written mode of communication allows introverts to participate in a way that can be more difficult with a verbal conversational approach.


Regardless of your setting or your preferred preaching style, integrating a relational approach to preaching is a beautiful way of providing connection for the worshipers with the preacher, worship leaders, and other worshipers. Although conversational preaching is often a weekly occurrence in an emergent church or a worship service filled with postmodern participants, our more traditional settings of liturgical or praise worship allow for conversation, relationship, and connection as well. Consider your setting and your own gift mix as you reflect on these ideas. Perhaps a particular scripture calls for conversation, or a specific season lends itself to a more participatory approach in the message time.

Conversational preaching is not for everyone every single week, but it is one more way of relating God’s holy word to the living, breathing disciples of Christ who are striving to live that word each and every day. Allowing conversation into our preaching encourages new connections between listener and preacher, worshiper and scripture, culture and church. Conversation is connection. And connecting to people is often the most rewarding and difficult task pastors and preachers face. Connections like these can truly transform lives as we seek to transform the world.


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