Interaction Flops

For the past two days I have been blogging about a type of interactive preaching, or participative preaching if you prefer.  This is not the same as preacher and listeners together discovering the meaning of a text (I’m not convinced about that in a preaching setting).  It is the preacher having a specific destination, but allowing the listeners to participate in a significant stage of that journey.  In the case of my message on Tuesday, I invited them to imagine what Peter and John might have thought back to during their years with Jesus as they anticipated a trial before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4.  They shaped the message in respect to which aspects of the apostles’ experience we imagined together, but I still controlled how the message would end.  Anyway, there are numerous approaches to inviting participation from the listeners while preaching.  I’d like to wave a red flag at some approaches that seem to flop.

As I mentioned in the previous two-part post, all good preaching should feel somewhat participative, even if the listeners never vocally participate.  But problems come when the preacher decides that getting noise out of the listeners’ mouths equates to a higher level of preaching or an automatically more engaged listener.  This is too simplistic by half.  For instance:

Cultural/Personality Differences – Last year I sat under the preaching of Dr Joe Stowell at Keswick, a preacher I appreciate very much.  Joe is an American preacher who invites vocal response and vocal affirmation and audience participation, etc.  I don’t know if it is the American versus British difference, or just the warmth of Joe’s personality, but his preaching really was very effective.  I’ve seen British preachers doing the same thing in Britain and it fell very flat.  Many British listeners aren’t readily participative like other cultures.  “Can I hear an amen?” can grate deeply on some congregations.  What would naturally and spontaneously stimulate hearty amens and approval in some settings might barely get a low level grunt in others.  Trying to whip up a congregation into a non-natural vocal response is generally unwise.  They will make some effort to do what you ask, but their discomfort will override their external compliance and have a net negative effect.

Cross-Cultural Issues – When speaking of audience participation, naturally the subject of African-American preaching comes up.  There is something very compelling about the rhythmic, call and response, high energy type of preaching popular in some settings (cultural and denominational).  But it takes a whole congregation and preacher combination for it to work.  Two examples stand out in my memory.

1) I was in Nigeria some years ago and noticed how the believers at this conference responded to the closing prayers of the African preachers – very physical, high movement, verbal agreement, etc.  And I noticed how the white preachers couldn’t get the same response when they prayed – congregation standing stock still with hands folded in front of them.  Something was different in the mix.

2) I’ll never forget the white preacher preaching in the chapel service of the Bible school where I was a visiting lecturer in Kenya.  These listeners did respond vocally, and he couldn’t contain himself.  He got swept away on the wave of energy and ended up giving an appalling example of show-off preaching.  I think it takes a consistency of preacher and listeners for patricipative preaching to work.  Either preacher and listeners are coming from the same tradition, or the listeners are responsive rather than resistant when the preacher is different to them (and the preacher also needs to be understanding when the listeners are different to him in some way!)

This has become a long post, so I’ll spill over to tomorrow . . .

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