Methodist House Churches: Homiletics

August 21st, 2018

The following article is part four of a ten-part series exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here.

In a house church, people talk back to the preacher. Preaching in a living room, instead of a pulpit, requires preachers to have a conversational homiletic. “Homiletics” means the theory and art of preaching, but the Greek root, “homiletikos,” means a friendly conversation, not a monologue.

The origins of preaching were conversational. When Paul talks all night long, so long that a young man named Eutychus falls asleep and falls out of a window (Acts 20:9), the word used is “dialogue.” The church was not passively listening to Paul drone on and on, but engaged in back-and-forth.

In 1995, John McClure’s Roundtable Pulpit described a move away from “sovereign-style” preaching toward a more participatory style of preaching. He outlined a process for group Bible study that would inform the sermon. Lucy Atkinson Rose’s Sharing the Word (1997) anticipated the growing postmodern suspicion of authority and advocated including voices from the margins in preaching. (For more recent books about conversational preaching, see O. Wesley Allen’s Homiletic of All Believers (2005) and the homiletics anthology Under the Oak Tree (2013)).

Conversational preaching is an answer to our culture’s growing suspicion of authority, its critique of religious exclusivism, and the awareness of voices at the margins. It takes seriously the theology of the Incarnate Word, who enters our community not as a conqueror but as a lover and servant. It is an invitation to listen and be heard, and to pick up the threads of a conversation about God’s involvement in our lives that is thousands of years old.

In our house churches, we have a strong focus on discipleship and participatory leadership. Preaching, therefore, is not primarily to persuade nonbelievers to come to a confessional moment nor to teach passive students doctrine. Instead, preaching in our house churches has two main goals: 1) Form community, and 2) model holy conversations people will have at work, school, and in public.

Since our discipleship goals are also about developing leadership, the homiletic method we use needs to be easily-replicable, just like everything else. While I appreciate poetic, profound, intricate sermons, I need to be able to teach novice preachers, both lay and licensed, to do what I do quickly.

Preaching to Form Community

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in Worldly Preaching, “I preach because the church is there; and I preach that the church may be there.” He taught that preaching is almost sacramental, because by preaching, human words invite the Divine Word to be present, walking among the congregation.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center indicates that preaching is still the main reason people choose a place of worship. As a church planter, I’m very aware that most people show up for those first few church gatherings because they want to hear something I say. Something about preaching has to be compelling enough to get people to show up.

But getting people to show up is not the goal; making disciples is. Our objective is to get people not just to listen with rapt attention, but to turn to each other and begin conversations with their neighbors. While I or the house church host likely have relationships with most of the people in the room individually, we want them to develop relationships with each other. The aim of the sermon, then, is to create an opportunity for conversation.

For me as a preacher, this meant changing the way I structured sermons. Early on, I found that sermons I wrote that ended with a powerful conclusion or declaration of faith, the kind of sermon that would get shouts of “amen” at the end of a conventional church service, fell flat in a house church. Listeners would just blink at me. Perhaps they were moved, and they might even say they appreciated the sermon, but there was a sense that I had said all that needed to be said. Conclusions that wrapped up everything in a neat bow did not leave room for conversation.

When someone preaches a conventional sermon in a house church, it’s like watching an expert soccer player do solo drills. It’s impressive, but so what? House church sermons need to finish by kicking the ball to the congregation.

This means that the sermon is not over when the preacher stops talking. It means that the preacher has to be skilled at improv and comfortable with letting the congregation develop the conclusion on the fly. I usually end with a question in mind. I may state the question explicitly, or I may let it be implicit in the conclusion.


Because I was nurtured and mentored in David Buttrick’s Homiletic, I still use this approach in house churches. I tell would-be preachers to storyboard their sermon, or think of it as a series of comic strip panels. Each panel has a single dominant image. Instead of explaining theological ideas, we let the images do the heavy lifting of the sermon. We could also say that each panel (a “move” in Buttrick’s language) makes a theological claim, and when you string the panels together, it should sound like a coherent paragraph.

In this way, the sermon has a clear direction. We have a starting point and an ending point. The conversational sermon is not aimless; it has a trajectory and a method. We should wind up in a place that invites congregation members to share their own experiences, to reflect on the text, and to strategize for how this Word of God will influence how we live together as a community.

There are other ways to structure a sermon, of course. We can do expository preaching or narrative preaching. Sermons might be teaching or confessional. But in a house church, if they do not move toward participation, they miss an important opportunity.

Scripture itself is a conversation: that’s why we have four gospels, two histories, multiple prophets, two creation stories, and any number of authors who comment on and reinterpret each other. The structure of the sermon aims to recreate this holy conversation within the congregation, so that they can take it into the world.

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