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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 four 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 that 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 realize 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 realize 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.

Kathleen Ward co-writes a blog with her best friend and husband, Kevin-Neil Ward. They’ve been married for 18 years and have four children, age 3–15. In her spare time, Kathleen likes to paint portraits, read books and learn to play piano—if only she could find some spare time!

Kevin-Neil Ward facilitates a Christ-centered, active learning community using principles and ideas he picked up through his studies in theology, counselling, life coaching, missions, organic church planting and business administration. Kevin-Neil is enjoying life in his forties and loves bike-riding and watching the Tour de France late into the night every July.

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Talk about it...

Pat Damiani

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Or how about another way to provide the opportunity for discussion? I preach my normal sermon but our adult Bible study, which follows our worship gathering, is structured to allow people to follow up on the message in more of a discussion format. This way, people leave with a more in depth understanding of the passage and hopefully some ways to apply it in their lives.

Jonathan Mbuna

commented on Feb 15, 2014

I support this and not wholesale discussions in Church. The church is the church of order. If its Bible study then yes and not a sermon!

Jerry Dodson

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Wasn't this the same guy who suggested letting the congregation put the sermon together? I like what Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (a physician and one of the most powerful and influential pastors of the 20th century) said: "I never let the patient write the prescription." That article told me that there were some serious problems with the Ward's view of preaching. And this article confirms it. I see nothing about Paul letting this sort of "group participation" go on in his preaching. I see nothing about this whatsoever in the NT. If the Wards could perhaps provide some proof for their assertion that worship services were discussion groups, it would help.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Feb 15, 2014

If such a programme is already existing in the Church on weekdays as outlined in this article, then as in the Early Church Days it is in order to have the following on a Sunday...Apostles teaching, breaking of the Bread, Fellowship and Prayer (Acts 2:42).

Jonathan Mbuna

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Honestly I would support Pat Damiani's idea of floating the message to Bible Study group. If all what a Pastor has to do is to float discussion points, then how can he deal with issues of false teaching and strange doctrines! Preaching and Teaching by their very nature require maturity. The letter to Hebrews chapter 5: 12-14 clearly states that its mature people who need to teach others!

Keith B

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Im all for sermon based Sunday School, Bible studies or small groups....but not not discussion groups in the Sunday morning sermon. To be honest, I have attended churches where they tell us to spend 10 minutes praying or discussing an issue....and it was just wierd and awkward. While we shouldn't do church FOR the unbeliever....if someone that barely found the nerve to walk into church on Sunday morning was them asked to break into a discussion group with 5 strangers, that may not go over very well.

Gary Greene

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Great point regarding visitors to our worship times.

Ron Tuit

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Opening the floor for discussion in WORSHIP is what caused unholy bedlam and "charismatic chaos" in the Corinthian church. There is a time for HOLY worship and a time for Biblical discussion. The problem with "discussion" in the venue of worship is that you are giving an opportunity for ANY FALSE TEACHER or false interpretation to be "floated" out there. We provide two opportunities for such "discussions" during the week, but the governing elders have set the precedent in our congregation to NOT do this on Sunday morning worship.

Mark Shockey

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Don't read into what the Wards are suggesting. We all have different settings. Remember where Jesus was in Luke 2: 46 Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers.

Kenneth Mandley

commented on Feb 15, 2014

Sometimes you get the answer you want by asking those who are already in agreement with you. Other times you get the answer you want by asking the question in a way that elicites the desired response. Just observations. In any case, I suspect this approach would work well in a house church but i can't imagine it working in a mega-church. The optimal group size for it's effectiveness is not much larger than house church. I pastor a congregation with adult attendance of 60-70 and I haven't had much success with congregational interaction with very simple questions. If I tried to break the group into 'discussion groups' I imagine a very awkward silence followed after service by polite questions of 'what were you doing there Pastor?' And if one or more 'groups' did engage I'm fearful of who would take the lead and where the discussion would go (I'm from Wisconsin and I'm sure at least one group would head towards "Are the Packers going to get a better defense this year?") I get a lot of useful thinking points from Sermon Central and an occasional flavor of the month. I suspect this is the latter.

N Larson

commented on Feb 16, 2014

This article is completely off. First surveys are not that accurate about forward prediction. That's like asking a group of college students if they put a gym in next door do you think its more likely you will work out? The overwhelming majority of Americans think they would, but when a gym is built, the statistics do not bear out. You also have to take seriously that no significant church or movement does this as a part of their service on any kind of scale. In an age when Pastors would jump on a pogo stick to keep the audiences attention, its hard to believe that if such a method worked it won't have wide use. Such an idea ignores the long history of preaching (thousands of years). Really, the whole article is the kind of thing a freshmen at a bible college would think of. Suggestion: 1. Read Wider

Jean-Michel Etienne

commented on Feb 16, 2014

This is absolutely a bad preaching methodology. It would create an unresolved church chaos and eventually will split the congregation. We should have open discussion in during Sunday school, Bible studies and workshop.

Richard Scotland

commented on Feb 17, 2014

I think for any established church, this would be hard to change to. I can see the benefits of the style in say a Bile Group type meeting. However, if I were to be starting a new church (and or service), and looking for a new style for people new to the church, then this is something worth considering. There are problems with this style - off the top of my head I could suggest that it could easily get chaotic, or one strong voice in a group could dominate (and lead astray) or some people are much too passive to contribute. But there are problems with the traditional sermon style too - attention spans, comfort of sitting still, not being engaged fully. Anyway, to the Wards, do not be discouraged if we all seem very negative, keep throwing ideas out there and some will be well received, some will cause us to think (and reject too!) and God will take some of the seeds you are scattering and turn them into something good.

Jason Smith

commented on Feb 17, 2014

Breaking into groups during the church service may bring more opportunities for women to teach, talk, or to have authority that she is not to have during the worship service. Paul says in 1 Cor 14, "The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church." (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

Benson Awhinawhi Of The Redeemed Christian Church

commented on Feb 17, 2014

Discussion groups in Sermon,Praise and worship Service? Who is in Focus?Remember He WILL NEVER SHARE His Glory with ANYBODY,we tend to lean ,depend more on our interlect during discussions.Issues raised or needing clarification could be better handled and encouraged in interactive sessions,sunday sch classes nd Bible study classes.I believe Kathleen nd Kevin-Neil may have good nd pure motives no doubt. God Bless them for it-let US All let the Holy Spirit lead Aright.

Geary Rowell

commented on Feb 22, 2014

I once attended a church with a SS class after the worship service called "Your Turn!". The pastor gave members of the class notes to follow in the sermon then we discussed the sermon, i.e., it was now "our" turn. Worked very well.

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