Much good comes from preaching in large churches (such as done by Charles Spurgeon). However, in smaller congregations the opportunity cost of monologue presentations should be considered. What teaching method does the New Testament offer for effectively making disciples in fellowships under 100?

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PARTICIPATORY PEDAGOGY

For the first several centuries of its existence, Christianity was an illegal religion. Churches had to meet secretly, usually in private homes. Perhaps as many as one hundred people might squeeze into a Roman villa, but not hundreds and certainly not thousands. In such small congregations, was the preaching of one-way, monologue sermons de rigeur?

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Paul Talked With Them

Consider the words Luke used to describe how Paul taught when visiting the church in Troas (Acts 20:7ff). First, Luke recorded that “Paul talked with them” (20:7), from dielegeto, the lexical form of which is dialégomai (transliterated “dialogue”). It’s primary meaning is “to conduct a discussion.”[1] In other places, dialégomai is rendered as “reasoned” and “reasoning.”[2]

How To Punctuate Dialogue (With Examples) | Indeed.com

Next, Luke noted that Paul “prolonged his speech until midnight” (20:7). “Speech” is from logos, a very broad term. Although it certainly can refer to a speech, logos can also simply mean speaking as in talking.[3]

Luke further described Paul’s method of communication by writing that Paul “conversed with them a long while.” (20:11). In English, the word converse is obviously related to conversation. The underlying Greek is homileo, “to speak with someone.”[4] In this passage, homileo is a virtual synonym with dialégomai. Paul doubtless had much to say, but based on Acts 20:7-11, it appears that he did not deliver the information in the form of a lecture. Paul’s teaching method was clearly more of a discussion than a monologue. It certainly was not an uninterruptible message as if broadcast on the radio.

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One Another

Early church meetings were quite intimate, allowing for great emphasis on “one another” ministry. For example, Hebrews 10:24-25 exhorts ordinary believers not to forsake the assembly, but instead to “stir one another up to love and good works … encouraging one another.” Colossians 3:16 states that believers are to be “teaching and admonishing one another.” Paul was satisfied that Christians in Rome were “able to instruct one another” (Ro 15:14). A more interactive style of teaching would seem more fitting in the context of a “one another” approach to church meetings.

Participation

It is obvious from 1 Corinthians 14 that spontaneity, informality, and the freedom for ordinary, non-ordained members to speak was the norm in New Testament church meetings: “when you come together, each one has …” (14:26, italics mine). The guidelines were that only one at a time could speak, and that anything said had to be intended to build up the church. All of this orderly participation was declared to be “a command of the Lord” (14:37). In this “each one has” context, Paul also referenced a “lesson” (ESV; from didaché; transliterated “didactic,” 14:26). The NIV here has “a word of instruction” and the NASV has “teaching”—none of the three translated it as “preaching.” With such an open format, how likely was it that the congregation was required to sit mutely and passively listen to a one-way lecture?

Learn Quietly

Paul prohibited women from teaching or having authority over a man. Instead, women were to learn “quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim 2:11). The Greek for “quietly” (heschuia) primarily means quiet in the sense of not causing trouble, not wrangling with the teacher. It was used earlier in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 wherein prayers were urged for kings so that Christians “may lead a peaceful and quiet (heschuia) life.” It was also used in 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12 with reference to idle busybodies who were encouraged “to do their work quietly (heschuia) and to earn their own living.” Thus, during teaching times, women were to be settled down, not disputing with the teacher—a requirement that need not have been stated unless it was common for congregants to interact with the speaker.

A study of early Christian historical writings confirms that the lessons in church meetings were of such a nature that there was considerable frankness and openness between teacher and the congregation. Speakers were interrupted by such things as clapping, the foot stomping, suggestions to the speaker, the public congregational quoting of Scripture, crying, laughing, and dialogue between speaker and the audience.[5] It was far from the situation today where congregants sit quietly, and passively listen to a high-powered Bible lecture.

It's good to talk: Moving towards dialogic teaching

PROFESSORS

One skill that many educators continue to find difficult to teach is critical thinking. The philosopher Socrates noticed positively that his disciples often lost the ability to justify their own preconceived beliefs after facing a series of specific, targeted questions. Therefore, using further appropriate questioning, Socrates discovered that these same students eventually developed self-generated knowledge and the ability to regulate their own thoughts.[6]

Why Did Jesus Ask So Many Questions? Five Reasons — The Exalted Christ

Teaching for critical thinking is a rational and intentional act. It simply cannot be taught in a church where the pastor always lectures. According to D.A. Blight, an expert on teaching methods, “… if students are to learn to think, they must be placed in situations where they have to do so. The situations in which they are obliged to think are those in which they have to answer questions because questions demand an active response….”[7] Thus, it should not come as a surprise that asking questions made up the core of Jesus’ teaching method in smaller settings. There are over 100 recorded questions asked by Jesus in the Gospels. He was constantly asking questions (and it wasn’t because He didn’t know the answer!). It has been said that Jesus “came not to answer questions, but to ask them; not to settle men’s souls, but to provoke them.”[8]

 

Habits of students who do not use critical thinking skills include: (a) Disorganization in thought processing, preparation, and behaviors; (b) Overly simplistic thinking (“I have enough information. There is no need to seek additional information.”); (c) Use of unreasonable criteria (“I prayed about it, and my belief is sincere; evidence to the contrary is irrelevant.”). Educator Robert Ennis summarized that critical thinkers tend to: (1) Be capable of both adopting and changing a position as evidence dictates; (2) Can remain relevant to the point; (3) Seek information; (4) Remain open minded; (5) Take the entire situation into account; (6) Be able to keep the original problem in mind; (7) Search for reasons; (8) Deal with the components of a complex problem in an orderly manner; (9) Seek a clear statement of the problem; (10) Look for options; (11) Exhibit sensitivity to others’ feelings and depth of knowledge; (12) Use credible sources.[2]

An Inferior Teaching Method

A monologue presentation is, frankly, an inferior method for causing learning, particularly in smaller congregations. This is because many listeners have a limited concentration span (typically twenty minutes). Consequently, they tune in and out, only grasping fragments of a lecture, and quickly forget the rest.[9] Worst yet, a weekly diet of sermons, “apes one of the worst features of modern industrial society—the creation of a dependent, unreflective, semi-literate, relatively skill-less population, almost devoid of creativity. Far from realizing that the stimulation of other minds is one of the chief duties of a teacher, most preachers often do the exact opposite.”[10]

We are theologians because of R. C. Sproul (Matthew Barrett) - Credo Magazine

PREACHING vs. TEACHING

One major difference between preaching and teaching is that a teaching can more naturally be interrupted. Questions can be asked, insights added, and disagreements stated. Jesus commissioned the apostles with the making of disciples, a process that He said required “teaching” (didasko) people to do all that He commanded—not preaching about doing it.[11] Acts 2:42 makes it clear that the disciples were devoted to the Apostles’ “teaching” (didaché)—not their preaching. In sync with this, in the two passages that cite qualifications for a church leader, one states that he must be “able to teach (didatikos)” (1Ti 3:2), and the other, “able to give instruction (didaskalia)” (Titus 1:9). The ability to preach was not a requirement. In 2 Timothy 2:24-25a, we learn that the Lord’s servant must be “able to teach … correcting his opponents with gentleness” (this gentle teaching approach would seem to be the opposite of one way, performance-style preaching).

Virtuoso Skill Set

Compounding the problem is the fact that few church leaders have the considerable virtuoso skill set necessary to effectively craft and deliver an interesting lecture. Perhaps worst yet, one-way communication too often blunts curiosity, causes passivity, creates an unhealthy dependence on the preacher, and does not effectively equip people for independent study. Lecturing is an unnatural, inappropriate, less-effective, overly-formal method of communicating in small churches.

May be an image of text that says '"Rhetoric is One Great Art Comprised of Five Lesser Arts," (Cicero) M2'

PREACHING’S PEDIGREE

In secular Greek and Roman society an oratorical style known as rhetoric was a popular form of entertainment. It was very similar to what we today think of as preaching. It was an interesting, persuasive, emotionally-moving, monologue performance. It was even regarded as an art form.[12]

Huge Buildings, Large Numbers

Historians inform us that it was not until centuries after the New Testament era that monologue rhetoric was regularly incorporated into church meetings.[13] Its introduction was due in part to the sudden influx of large numbers of nominal believers into the church after Christianity was made the Empire’s official religion. Furthermore, congregations moved from the intimacy of privately-owned Roman villas into large, impersonal buildings that could accommodate hundreds.

The “one another,” discussion-type teaching modeled by Paul in Troas thus became impractical, not only due to the large numbers in attendance, but also because of the nominal nature of these new “disciples.” Furthermore, since many early church Fathers had been rhetoricians before their conversion (Tertullian, Arnobius, Cyprian, Lactantius, Augustine, etc.), it is not surprising that they would readily employ this form of communication.[14]

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Follow Paul’s Example

Corinth was a city full of Sophists who were masters of the persuasive art of rhetoric. They were eloquent, well respected, and had large followings.[15] It is interesting that Paul seems to have been decidedly against copying the performance-type rhetoric that was so popular in His day. Sadly, the church in Corinth had splintered into factions following various popular Christian leaders (Apollos, Peter, Paul, and even Christ). Worst yet, they had even fallen under the charm of various false, golden-tongued “super-apostles” (2Co 11:5). From his letter to the Church in Corinth, we learn that Paul spoke “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1Co 1:17), and that he “did not come … with lofty speech or wisdom” (1Co 2:1). Contrasting himself with the super apostles, Paul conceded that he was “unskilled in speaking” (2Co 11:6). Paul evidently wanted to be like the donkey that carried Jesus on Palm Sunday; the crowds hardly noticed the donkey—they looked at Jesus. They cheered Jesus, not the donkey.[16]

Jesus' Triumphal Entry - 8 Things About Palm Sunday You Probably Didn't Know

Reject Rhetoric

So, what’s the point? Today, in a small, Roman-villa sized church, composed of genuine believers, the continued use of ancient Roman rhetoric should be seriously questioned. Don’t simply copy what big churches are forced to do because of their size. Presenting messages wherein the congregation passively listens in silence is not the best way to cause learning, and is wholly inappropriate in a smaller setting.

 

PREACHING

The word “preach” has, frankly, been overworked in our English Bibles. Over thirty different Greek words were all translated as “preach” in the King James Version, heavily influencing most subsequent English translations.[17] It would be a mistake to assume that the New Testament activity referred to as preaching is similar to that undertaken weekly by modern preachers in their pulpits.[18]

euangellizo

One common Greek word typically translated as “preach” is euangellizo (transliterated “evangelize”).[19] As might be expected, it refers to evangelism. For example, Paul wrote that Christ sent him to “preach the gospel” (translated from a single word, euangellizo, 1Co 1:17). This activity happened in synagogues, markets, and places like Mars Hill. Since New Testament church meetings were designed for the edification of believers (1Co 14:26), not the evangelization of unbelievers, this type of preaching was not typical in a weekly gathering of the church. R.H. Mounce commented that as used in the New Testament, preaching “is not religious discourse to a closed group of initiates….”[20]

kérusso

Another common Greek word historically rendered as “preach” is kérusso. It, too, is usually associated with evangelism.[21] For example, “how are they to preach (kérusso) unless they are sent?” (Ro 10:15). In classical Greek, it indicated a public, authoritative announcement that demanded compliance.[22] kérusso, in the first century, meant “announce, make known” (historically by a herald).[23] However, we should not limit our thinking to only one method of heralding, such as the open-air gospel preaching done by Whitefield and Wesley. kérusso can also simply have the sense of giving notice or informing.[24] For example, if someone quietly shared the gospel with the person he was sitting next to, he has “preached” to him (without ever raising his voice). New Testament gospel heralding, however it was done, was directed primarily to the lost, not the assembled church. C.H. Dodd defined New Testament preaching as “the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world.” [25]

Preach the Word

What about the few texts that seem to support preaching (kérusso) the Bible to Christians in church meetings? For example, Paul charged Timothy to “preach (kérusso) the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2Ti 4:2). Paul’s reference to the “word” (logos) likely refers to the Scriptures referenced two verses earlier in 3:16 (All Scripture is breathed out by God”). It is noteworthy that Paul’s command to “preach the word” was to be characterized by “complete patience and teaching” (4:2). As previously stated, kérusso fundamentally means to “make known.” Part of the way in which Timothy was charged to make known the Word of God was clearly through “teaching.” There are many ways to make the Scriptures known besides the modern concept of preaching a sermon.

katangello

A less common word that could be translated as “preach” is katangello. However, in the New Testament it does not refer to any particular form of proclamation.[26] How these proclamations were carried out has been lost to history. To envision katangello to be the same as a preacher preaching a sermon would be to assume too much. My goal is not to prove that there never were lectures in early church meetings, but rather that there was another way that was more common and more effective—dialogue teaching.

Are all teachers?

With all the emphasis today on the “centrality of preaching,”[27] it is worth noting that in 1 Corinthians 11-14—a lengthy section on ecclesiology—neither preachers nor preaching are ever mentioned. In this section, when emphasizing the great diversity of spiritual gifts given to build up the church, Paul did not ask, “Are all preachers?” Instead, he asked, “Are all teachers?” (1Co 12:29). The Romans 12 directory of spiritual gifts lists “teaching” (didaskalia), but not preaching (kérusso, 12:7).

Prophets = Preachers?

Some have speculated that the prophets referenced in 1 Corinthians 14 were the equivalent to modern preachers. Let’s assume that it is the case. The text makes it obvious that on any given Lord’s Day, two or three preached (not only one as is common today). Furthermore, the preacher could be interrupted and stopped mid-sermon: “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent” (14:30). Even more interesting, each sermon was to be judged right there, on the spot: “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment” (14:29, NASV). That would certainly make for an interesting church meeting! However, Thomas Schreiner has pointed out that the prophets were not like modern preachers. Prophets, unlike preachers, did not exposit Scripture based on their own prior careful study. Rather, they spoke spontaneously when they got messages directly from God (1Co 14:29-30).[28]

Labour in the Word and Doctrine

1 Timothy 5:17 refers to elders who were involved with both “preaching and teaching” (ESV). The Greek underneath “preach” is logos, which fundamentally simply refers to a literal “word” uttered when talking.[29] It could also refer to a speech, but is not the typical Greek word used for what we consider today to be preaching (kérusso). And, whatever its meaning, it is clearly different from the teaching (didaskalia) mentioned in the same text. Since logos can also refer to God’s written Word, [30] Scripture may be what Paul had in mind, not preaching. That is, church leaders who labor hard studying the Scriptures and subsequently in teaching them are worthy of double honor. Thus, the KJV has: “… they who labour in the word and doctrine.” Again, the point is not that preaching a sermon absolutely never could have occurred in a church meeting. The point is that unlike teaching, preaching a sermon was not a regular weekly occurrence.

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PRESCRIPTION

A friend asked ChatGPT, “What are the overall opportunity costs of monologue presentations?” This was the response: “The overall opportunity costs of monologue presentations include the time and resources spent preparing for the presentation, the potential for a lack of audience engagement, and the inability to benefit from feedback or collaboration. Additionally, monologue presentations can be less effective than interactive presentations in terms of conveying information and inspiring action.”

We should evaluate the opportunity cost of the weekly preaching of sermons in smaller churches. The communication styles we see in the New Testament were simply not the same as a Western-styled pulpit ministry. Though much good comes from preaching, discussion-type teaching is more effective, and arguably more biblical.

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Challenging Questions

How can we as church leaders best serve the Church in the way we teach so as to most effectively make disciples? Custom has been described as the fiercest tyrant of them all. Let us not unwittingly be like those Jesus confronted who set aside the Word of God for the sake of their tradition. It is far better to follow the New Testament example and stop lecturing in smaller churches. Ask challenging questions that will cause people to think and to discover truth for themselves. Adopt the discussion-style teaching modeled by both Jesus and Paul.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[31]

Free: How to Lead a Bible Discussion

Stephen E. Atkerson

Revised 11/27/2023

 

[1] Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1979), 185.

[2] Acts 18:4 and 19:8

[3] Bauer, Lexicon, 477.

[4] Bauer, Lexicon, 565.

[5] David C Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach? (Omaha: Ekklesia Press, 1996), 35.

[6] Douglas Oyler & Frank Romanelli, The Fact of Ignorance: Revisiting the Socratic Method as a Tool for Teaching Critical Thinking. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed 09/07/2023.

[7] Norrington, Preach, 124.

[8] HH Horne, Jesus the Master Teacher (New York: Association Press, 1920), 51.

[9] Norrington, Preach, 125.

[10] Norrington, Preach, 125.

[11] Matthew 28:19-20.

[12] Norrington, Preach, 44.

[13] Norrington, Preach, 46ff.

[14] Norrington, Preach, 46.

[15] The Bible Effect, “1 and 2 Corinthians Historical Background”, YouTube.com. Accessed August 08, 2023.

[16] Adrianism: The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Adrian Rogers (Collierville, Innovo Publishing: 2016), 319.

[17] Norrington, Preach, 27.

[18] Norrington, Preach, 27.

[19] The noun form, euangelion, means “good news”—the gospel.

[20] RH Mounce, “Preaching”, New Bible Dictionary, 2nd edition, JD Douglas, ed., (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1982), 961.

[21] Norrington, Preach, 32.

[22] U. Becker, D. Muller, “Proclamation, Preach, Kerygma”, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed., Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 45.

[23] Bauer, Lexicon, 431.

[24] Becker & Muller, “Proclaimation”, 47.

[25] Mounce, “Preaching”, 961.

[26] Becker & Muller, “Proclamation”, 45.

[27] For example: “Mohler cites preaching’s centrality in ‘Power in the Pulpit’ seminar”, BaptistPress.org.

[28] Thomas Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2018), chapter 6.

[29] Bauer, Lexicon, 477.

[30] Bauer, Lexicon, 478.

[31] Matthew 28:19-20