At a workshop we recently led at a national gathering of UCC and Disciples women, we threw out a number of questions to get a conversation about evangelism rolling. Our questions were sincere, but somehow they got the room laughing. “Are people in your congregation comfortable sharing their faith?” “Would you like to grow in your ability to share your faith?” “Does your church do a good job training its members to share their faith?” Finally, a woman in the front row burst out, “They don’t want to share their faith! That’s what they hired the pastor for!” There were hearty laughs and nods of agreement. We all understood how we can easily make evangelism the job of “the professionals.” But as problematic as this idea can be, it doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Many ministers do a great deal to reinforce their congregation’s sense that ordained clergy should do the talking about faith and the people in the pews should shut up and listen. After all, that’s what they’re asked to do for 15 to 30 minutes every Sunday during the event that lies at the heart of most of our worship: the sermon.
But what if our sermons modeled faith sharing to our congregations? What if sermons even gave our congregations the opportunity to practice sharing their faith with others? What if our preaching reinforced values like conversation, honesty, and vulnerability instead of values like passivity, distance, and the importance of “experts”?
Sermons can do all of this and more. The key is to find ways to make them more interactive. If you take a few steps to make your sermons less like a presentation and more like a conversation, not only will your preaching improve, your congregation’s willingness to share their faith beyond the pews of your sanctuary will grow significantly!
Reward the Risk-Takers
One word of warning: when you invite your congregation to interact with you and with each other during your sermon, you’re suggesting to them that they are experts too. They have insights into life, intuitions about scriptures, experiences of God that are key to understanding God’s word to us this day. You’re also making it quite clear that you are not going to do all the work for them. This may not always feel like good news.
So every step you make toward more interactive preaching has to be accompanied by lots and lots of affirmation and praise. “Wow, you all have a lot of good insights!” “Thanks—those were hard questions to talk about, weren’t they?” “Man do I appreciate you taking that risk!” “I really learned something from you all today!”
Four Steps toward Interactive Preaching
Here’s a step-by-step guide to inviting your congregation to be part of your sermon. We start off very gently, but even the first step we recommend opens up possibilities that will be hard not to pursue once you’ve begun.
1. Take a vote.
From the time we were in preschool and someone asked, “Who here likes ice cream?” we knew to raise our hands high to express our preferences. This comes so naturally for many of us that we will raise our hands if a waitress asks, “Who’d like a refill?” With that conditioning it’s no big stretch to get your congregation to do just this—raise their hands in answer to a question that you pose in your sermon. “Who here doesn’t like snakes?” you ask as you begin to talk about Genesis 2, almost as an aside. “Who here has ever been rock climbing?” you ask, as if you’re checking to see if at least someone will understand the metaphor for the spiritual life you’re about to use.
You can begin this way—checking in with your listeners here and there during your sermon as if to see if they’re following your point. If you not only pose the question but actually ask for a show of hands in response, you’re beginning to challenge your congregation’s understanding of a sermon as exclusively your work, your words. You’re expressing to them in a gentle way your expectation that they will be working and thinking right along with you. A sermon, you’ll suggest, is something I need you with me to do.
If it seems like only some people are “voting” you can give them a little push—“Go ahead and raise your hand—I’m really curious!” “Really? Only 10 of you? Anyone else?” Take it one step further and give the congregation two options and ask them to vote their preference. On Transfiguration Sunday we asked, “Where would you rather be with Jesus: on the mountaintop or in the valley?” “If you could only have one, would you rather have Christmas or Easter?” “Would you rather live in a rural area like Galilee or in a big city like Jerusalem?” Begin a sermon on the Beatitudes by asking, “Would you rather be rich or poor? Well-respected or reviled? Joyful or mourning?” Then ask everyone how Jesus would have voted.
You can have some fun as you survey your responses: promise that the debate will continue at coffee hour or at the next meeting of the church council.
2. Ask a “warm up” question.
It’s only a small step to go from taking a vote to asking individuals to explain their vote. You can ask, “Who here has ever ridden a horse?” and take a vote. Then ask, “Do you remember what it felt like the very first time?” See if anyonenods, smiles, leans over to whisper to their neighbor. Then ask, “Does anyone have a story they’d like to share about the first time they were ever on a horse?” Or you can ask for a vote and then notice someone who’s voting differently than you expected. “Gladys, have you really been rock climbing? Good for you! Care to tell us about it?”
When done well, this is one of the best ways we’ve ever found for getting our congregations connected to the topic of our sermon. Just about any sermon suggests a “warm up” question. Here are just a few of the many that we’ve used:
- What’s your favorite part about the Christmas season?
- Have you ever discovered a talent you didn’t think you had?
- What do you do when you’re worried about something?
- Have you ever had a dream come true?
- Have you ever had to leave something precious behind when you moved or traveled?
- Can you think of a time when you had just enough of something—neither too much nor too little of it. Can anyone tell a story about that?
Our questions are often fun to think about, and they provide occasions for people to share a funny story. In this regard, they take the place of those warm-up jokes about Little Johnny in Sunday school. They get people engaged and often get people laughing. But we never ask a question that is just an invitation to share funny experiences. Every question has a deeper side too, and that part is usually the lead-in to our sermon. Thus, every question becomes a gentle reminder to the congregation that their lives and their stories are keys to deeper insight about things that really matter.
For this reason, we never ask a question where there is clearly a “right” answer. Questions of that sort ask the congregation to play a bit part in the preacher’s show. The kinds of questions we seek to ask are ones that build a sense of community between the preacher and the congregation, and among the members of the congregation.
The first time you realize that coffee hour is abuzz with people talking about their best teachers or their secret talents, you may feel a bit miffed that people paid more attention to your question than they did to the rest of your finely crafted sermon. Don’t go too far down that road! Instead, congratulate yourself for prompting some honest sharing, and be sure to note your observation, with lots of approval, at the start of your next sermo
n. (“I loved hearing you talk about your teachers last week! You know, when you tell a story like that to someone else, either here in our sanctuary or even downstairs at coffee hour, you take a risk. Thanks so much for taking that risk!”)
3. Invite an action at the conclusion of the sermon.
We come from churches that do not have altar calls. But we have to confess that sometimes we have altar-call envy. Our preaching is propelled by our conviction that God can change people, so we are constantly on the lookout for creative ways to invite our congregation to respond positively to that invitation.
There are scores of ways to invite your congregation to do something at the end of a sermon to indicate their willingness to accept the challenge, make the commitment, or engage in the question that was the focus of the sermon. Even churches that have occasional or regular altar calls might want to try one of these variations to approach that tradition in a fresh way. In every case, be clear that each one of these activities is optional. Extend an invitation and then let there be some open time in the service, perhaps accompanied by music, when people can choose to respond. Some examples are offered below.
• On a Sunday before the beginning of Lent, preach a sermon about making a Lenten commitment that would help each person take the next step on their spiritual journey. After giving some examples of commitments of this sort, pass out footprints cut out of poster board along with black markers. Ask everyone who feels comfortable doing so to write his or her Lenten commitment out on the footprint and then to bring it to the altar to be blessed. Later, post these footprints all over the walls of the sanctuary, or in the hallways, or in the room where you hold coffee hour. Leave them up for all of Lent. They will be powerful reminders to take the commitments seriously.
• On a Sunday focused on Jesus’s call to Peter and James to leave their nets, preach about what we have to leave behind to follow Jesus. Inside each order of worship that week include a small boat simply folded out of origami paper. At the conclusion of the sermon, ask everyone to write what they need to leave behind onto the paper boats. Then sing the hymn “You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore” (“O Jesus, I’ve abandoned my small boat. Now with you, I will seek other seas….”). As the music continues, invite people to come forward and leave their boat on the altar. There will be very few dry eyes in the congregation.
• Explore ways in which your communion service might flow directly out of your sermon. Then asking the congregation to come forward to receive communion becomes an invitation to grow in their intimacy with God and their capacity to live out their faith in the world.
4. Ask a question and invite the congregation to share their answers in pairs.
The questions we use as openers are ones that people can share without a great deal of thought, or without needing to tell particularly long stories. Not all questions are suited to this kind of sharing. Some questions are important to consider, but they require more time or more intimacy to answer. We don’t shy away from those questions, but we make more room for them. And we don’t start here—this kind of interaction works best when our congregations have really bought into the idea of working together as a community to reflect on God’s Word and respond.
Be sure that everyone has someone with whom to share! You might want to ask some lay leaders in advance to be “rovers,” looking out for those who don’t have a partner. Be sure to encourage everyone to pair not just with the people next to them in the pew but also those who are in front of them or behind them.
Here are a few examples of questions we’ve used in this way:
- What’s your favorite line in the 23rd Psalm. Why? (You can use this question for just about any well-known scripture passage.)
- Have you ever caught a glimpse of heaven?
- Describe a “holy moment” in your life.
- Describe a time when you felt like you were “outside the gate” (for a sermon on Acts 16).
- Share your image of what it might mean for God’s Kingdom to come.
- Share a favorite Christmas memory. Then share something that is hard about Christmas this year (for an Advent sermon or for a sermon on the Sunday after Christmas).
Ready for Lift-Off
We’ve been using these techniques with our two very different congregations for a few years now, and we’re starting to see the fruits of this practice. Not only is preaching more fun for us and for our congregations but, increasingly, people in our congregations are comfortable speaking about their faith in public, using experiences and real-life stories, with humor and grace, and often with great insight.
A couple of Sundays ago, I (Heather) asked my congregation, “Have you ever had an experience that changed the way you saw the rest of the world?” People talked about the birth of their first child, trips to foreign countries, the death of a parent. Then I simply wondered aloud what it might mean to say that faith can conquer the world. Is there some way in which the experience of faith is like these experiences, so that once we have faith the world no longer “rules” what we see and feel? While that conversation began in worship it continued for many of us into the following week. A scripture passage that seemed like a cliché became a truth that we could tell to one another in language of our own.
One of my parishioners later wrote this to me: “The conversations we have at [our church] seem to stay with me as company through the day, when I’m alone, when meeting a colleague, when visiting with my dad as he lives the last years of his life, and when meeting a patient in chronic pain. These conversations help us take our experience of Jesus beyond us, out into the world in many ways.”
When we receive mail like that, we know that faith-sharing is no longer our job alone. Thanks be to God!
Adapted from Dare to Dive In! Strategies and Resources for Involving Your Whole Church in Worship by Heather Kirk-Davidoff and Nancy Wood-Lyczak ©2006 Abingdon Press. Adapted by permission.