Christian Youth

Fear Not: Double Your Teaching Results

Here’s a guaranteed way to dramatically power-up your teaching and preaching. It works. But many teachers and preachers will reject it–before ever trying it.

I’ve used this approach–with great effectiveness–for 40 years. It’s simple. It costs nothing. It’s described in our new book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore.

Here it is: Dialog. Occasionally engage your people in person-to-person interaction. Rather than clenching the microphone for 30 minutes straight, intersperse a few moments of guided conversation. Your people will learn more, grow more, be more involved, and will actually listen to you more attentively when they’ve been given opportunities to engage with your content.

It works. With any age group. With any size crowd. But I’m saddened by preachers and teachers who angrily resist anything that differs from “the way we’ve always done it.” I was reminded of this again recently when Joani, my wife and co-author, led a session on effective speaking for a large room of pastors and leaders.

After describing what we call “fearless conversation,” she invited the people in the audience to turn to someone next to them and respond to this question: “How would you say your life is different because of Jesus?” Everyone turned to a partner. The room filled with the buzz of engaging conversation. Everyone was fully involved. Everyone, that is, except for one. A young pastor in the back of the room.

There he sat with his arms folded and his face pinched into a wad. Finally he began to grumble to his puzzled partner. He articulated what we sometimes hear from ministry leaders who will not relinquish their microphone for even a moment. I’ll share his objections, and share a few of my thoughts.

“This will never work.”
I’ve heard this before. But never before from someone sitting in a sea of people who are thoroughly engaged in the very thing “that will never work.” This guy’s pessimism and stubborn resistance to change overruled his own eyes and ears. He, and many other ministry people, become paralyzed because they fear even imagining something they have never tried. Guided conversation–within a sermon or talk–works with great effectiveness. In fact, several people in this man’s group later said that this brief conversation was the most impactful moment of the entire conference.

“You can do this in a small group, but not during my sermon.
Yes, people who find their way into a small group may experience the many benefits of spiritual conversation. But why banish something from your sermon time that will help you more effectively reach your entire congregation? Yes, I get it that you feel called to preach, that you like to preach, that you were trained to preach, that you may feel uncomfortable allowing anyone else to share their thoughts or questions during your message time. I’m not suggesting you stop speaking. I’m suggesting you add an effective element to your speaking. The interplay between teaching and guided conversation leads to heightened understanding and personal application.

“How does she know if we’re on topic or not? She has no control over us right now.
Yes, during guided conversation time some people may wander off your topic. But here’s the brutal truth. Even when you’re preaching you are not controlling your audience. Many of their minds wander off shortly after you turn on your microphone. It’s a fantasy to believe everyone in any audience is tracking with the speaker. But asking people to answer a good question offers each person the opportunity to individually engage. And it offers the Holy Spirit some space to act, perhaps leading some people to engage on a topic that you never planned. If someone needs to be in control, let it be God.

“Letting everyone talk is cutting into my time to connect with my people.”
Actually, using a little of your sermon time to let people dialog enhances your connection time. Since even adult attention spans last only seven to ten minutes, providing a brief guided conversation time helps to refocus your people and restart their attention clock when you resume after the dialog. Devoting a few minutes for conversation within your oratory time is a wise investment. Besides, Sunday morning is not “my time to connect with my people.” It’s not about you. It’s not your show.

If you’re ready to consider leading your people to deeper spiritual discovery and life application, here are a few tips for using guided conversation within a talk or sermon.


1. Prepare great open-ended questions–questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” or a pat answer. Great questions will spark different, thoughtful answers from all in the room. Study the questions that Jesus asked. His questions made people think and search their souls.

2. Prior to posing a question, tell your people why you’re doing this. Let them know you want to give them a chance to participate, and to listen to others, and to dig into the subject in an individual way. They’ll gain from the experience, even though it may seem a little unusual at first. Reassure them that you’ve already observed that they’re good conversationalists.

3. At a key point in your talk or scripture reading, ask your people to turn to someone near them. (Talking in pairs is quicker and easier than talking with more people.) Pose your question. Let them know they’ll have a minute or two or three. Then let them go.

4. After the allotted time, ask everyone to refocus their attention back to the front. Then it’s often effective to ask if some within your earshot would be willing to share something from their conversation. You may take two or three responses. Summarize each person’s response so everyone in the room can hear and benefit from everyone’s contributions.

5. Move on to your next segment, perhaps incorporating some of what you just heard from the people.

Keep the goal in mind. The purpose of your sermon or lesson is not to merely deliver a soliloquy. The purpose is to help people grow closer to the Lord. When you find a way to double the effectiveness of your teaching time, do what works.

16 Responses to “Fear Not: Double Your Teaching Results”

  1. Great Thom! I use this form of dialogue often. It is so common place with us that it is not unusual for someone to raise their hand to ask a question during one of my ‘prepared diatribes’, (oops! I meant sermon). We keep a wireless mic ready to respond to questions from those in attendance. It is challenging, but extremely rewarding. I have also learned how to be honest with those I am teaching. Whenever a person changes the subject at hand, I acknowledge the comment but reiterate the topic we are discussing. I believe this may be the reason some shy away from this form of open dialogue. They fear offending someone in the audience. NEWS FLASH! It happens anyway. I challenge those I teach to express themselves freely, but be able to support their beliefs with sound scriptural support. Trust God. As a teacher, you should always be more concerned with what your students learn, than you are about revealing all that you know! I look forward to reading your book. Be Blessed!

  2. Looooooove it. I’m not a pastor; I’m a pew-sitter. And I’ll tell you what you probably already know, Pastors: I’m not taking notes. All that writing I’m doing is me jotting a note to a friend, making a list of what needs to happen in the next week, anything to help me make it through the sermon. And the sermons I hear are, consistently, week after week, excellent. Even with that high recommendation they’re…boring. Or at least they become boring. Why? Because I’m not allowed to respond. It’s a lecture, pure and simple. I’m supposed to listen to it, remember it, ponder it, and let it sink into my heart to build my faith. Okay, but if you actually involved me in the process we could shorten that journey to impacting my life.

    An impassioned plea to preachers: please, please, please try this dialog suggestion…it’ll take a few Sundays for your people to trust that it’s actually safe to respond, but I guarantee you’ll see fewer people “taking notes” and more people actively engaged…and growing.

  3. This is my teaching style because I’m a big believer in dialogue and that we all learn from one another. As for things getting out of hand, yes, that is a possibility, but there are techniques for dealing with those who would hijack a conversation. Those techniques, like anything else, can be learned and utilized, usually very effectively.

  4. One other fear – what about those who have come to church alone? If everyone around them pairs up, who will they talk to? Thus, we’re afraid to try a dialogue because it might cause someone to feel rejected and unloved. How do we address this concern?

    • Thanks, David. First of all, people often like to pair up with someone they did NOT come with. Single attendees can also pair up with the third person from another family. And, the teacher/preacher should encourage everyone to find or welcome a partner.

      We’ve found that this technique is especially significant to single attendees, who otherwise often complain that no one ever reaches out to them at church.

      • Personally I love the concept. I’m just anticipating some negative reactions you may hear. And as you wrote, the discussion must be well led, with a great open question that gets people talking. Thanks for all you do.

  5. I do like this concept. I know that it doesn’t work with children’s sermons! ;-)

    • Carrie, this works very well with children, and with children’s sermons. Been doing for decades–with great results. Again, you must ask good questions. Don’t ask closed-ended questions, such as, “Where was Jesus born?” But ask open-ended questions, such as, “Why do you suppose God allowed his Son to be born in a stable?”

    • I’ve also seen it done with the regular sermon with the pastor asking questions of the congregation and dialoguing, even briefly about the responses as a lead-in to his sermon. And David Murrow, yes there were negative reactions, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in ministry is that you just have to push past negative reactions particularly if the objections are fairly baseless.

  6. Wonderful, Thom! One of the seminal books in my life (out of print, I’m sure): The Miracle of Dialogue by Reuel Howe.

  7. Love it! My Dad has used this style in his pastorates since the 1950s. It was always a shock to a new congregation when he asked a question and really expected conversation. He was told by many fellow preachers that this was not what he was supposed. He was quick to mention Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus and the centurion, Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, etc… and how all of these included conversation, not lecture. Thanks for all you do.

  8. Whilst I agree with using dialogue effectively, I think it needs to come from a solid foundation of our theology of preaching. Too often what I see is churches succumbing to different methods because they see preaching as purely the dissemination of information, and thus it has become some sort of exegetical lecture, which _is_ ineffective.

  9. Nor are these kinds of conversations limited to ministers, though that is today’s focus. As Christians, we all feel a “burden” to minister to our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. We don’t always do it well. In particular, we don’t always listen well, and we tend to jump in with “answers” when it is not appropriate. Perhaps this case study can help us all relate to others with more grace and sensitivity.

  10. Nor are these kinds of conversations limited to ministers, though that is today’s focus. As Christians, we all feel a “burden” to minister to our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. We don’t always do it well. In particular, we don’t always listen well, and we tend to jump in with “answers” when it is not appropriate. Perhaps this case study can help us all relate to others with more grace and sensitivity.

  11. In education teachers have been using a book called “Total Participation Techniques” also known as “TPT’s”. The authors, Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele, explain both the why and the how of Total Participation Techniques. Excellent activities that could fit in with the articles point.

  12. Excellent article. Many are unaware that this is a style used by Jesus himself, the apostles and is found in Jewish tradition even to this day. Rather that being a quiet place of learning, a Jewish religious school is a hive of chatter and discussion. They believe it’s vital to learning.

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