The evidence mounts. The lecture style of teaching produces inferior results.

A study reported in Scientific American exposes, again, how academia’s hardened use of the lecture method is stifling learning and growth. The journal’s writer put in bluntly: “If you’re going to college and you’re going to a whole bunch of lecture classes that require you to sit there and listen passively, you’re getting a bad education.”

Learners who are subjected to the one-way mode of lecture-based teaching have a 1.5 times higher failure rate than those who are allowed more participative methods, according to the study.

Though a growing number of those in academia are recognizing the sobering limitations of the lecture method, many teachers and preachers in the church are loath to loosen their exclusive grip on the microphone, even for a moment. This clutching is one of the predominant reasons people today are avoiding the church in record numbers.

“It’s not evil; they just want a voice,” says American Church magazine publisher Steve Hewitt in our new documentary When God Left the Building. People want to participate. They no longer want to be simply lectured.

It’s not enough to say that people have a chance to participate in small groups or Bible studies. Most people who really need the message never make it that far. We need to provide times of interaction whenever we can, including during sermons and other main teaching times.

I’ve shared these thoughts with John Sanders, a pastor friend of mine. He recently experienced a bit of a preaching epiphany. Here’s what he said:

“Recently, while attending a Lifetree Café session, the host instructed us to find a partner and answer a question based on the day’s topic—and I experienced the life-changing value of participant interaction.

“It wasn’t until several days later that it hit me: I remembered almost everything we talked about at Lifetree Café. Then I allowed myself to enter into painful territory. Was I able to remember the salient details from my most recent sermon? Perhaps my brain doesn’t fire on every cylinder, but I couldn’t recall very much, and I was the one doing the preaching! Uh-oh. Maybe there’s something to the participatory model that I experienced in Lifetree Café. Could such an approach work during my sermons?

“So I gave it a shot. During my message, I asked our folks to find a partner and share their response to a non-threatening question. Initially, my inquiry was met with blank stares, but slowly everyone began to partner up. Faces that had been somber moments before broke out in smiles as they engaged in conversation. I let them share for a couple of minutes and then resumed my sermon.

“After the service people kept talking, many of them finishing the conversations they’d started during my sermon. Also, several people thanked me for preaching the best sermon they said they’d ever heard. Many talked about the steps they were going to take to live out what I had talked about. Woo hoo!”

John took a risk. He relinquished his lecture microphone for a few minutes to help his people grow. Now he finds ways to involve his people in the message each week.

After advocating for more engaging forms of ministry communication for many years, I’ve heard hundreds of excuses and defenses for the pure-lecture method of teaching and preaching. But I keep returning to the defining question: What’s your goal? If it’s merely to send your message to a passive audience, pure lecture will do that. But if you care about better results, about people receiving and acting upon the message, they must be involved. They must participate in the process.