People are leaving their churches because they feel excluded. Excluded from participating in the communication of the message.

This is one of the unanticipated findings in sociologist Josh Packard’s research on the Dones–formerly active church members who have walked away from all institutional religion. These are people who have heard countless sermons. They tend to be quite biblically literate. But they grew weary, very weary, of sitting in pews, feeling muzzled, while the person on stage monopolizes every word.

In his new book Church Refugees, Packard describes Liam who left his lifelong church because he “wanted dialogue as opposed to lecture.” Rather than only passively listen to the pastor’s take on matters of faith, Liam wanted to participate somehow. He had questions. But the one-way communication format at his church would not allow for any interchange. “It was all authority and hierarchy,” he said. “And that was the final straw in getting us to leave.”

Liam, like many others in Packard’s research, found their spiritual growth stunted without the opportunity to engage in the conversation. Jill, another of Packard’s interviewees, said, “It’s in relationships and conversations that I find God.”

Many current church leaders would say their churches accommodate conversation and give-and-take in small groups and classes. They just prohibit it during the main Sunday services. “That’s my time to do all the talking,” a pastor told me. But it’s during this prime time when people want to engage.

In soon-to-be-released follow-up research, Packard found that 53 percent of the Dones agreed with the statement, “I didn’t like the lecture style of preaching.” (By the way, this new study also reveals the same sentiment in millions of current church members who say they’re about to join the Dones.)

Many church leaders can’t even imagine a sermon time that would accommodate congregational interaction. Even though Jesus frequently involved people in his teachings, and the early church likely involved everyone regularly, the current rendition of weekly church services is stuck in monologue mode.

Moving from monologue to dialogue

So what would a more interactive model look like? Let me give you a few actual examples.

In my home church, the pastor involves the congregation through thoughtful questions. Glen typically talks for a few minutes, then asks the congregants to turn to someone and discuss a question. Everyone participates. He then typically asks for a few people to share insights from their conversations with the whole congregation. Often, Glen then incorporates their responses and questions into the rest of his sermon.

At Steve Simms’ church in Tennessee, he opens up the message time for worshippers to share their insights, scriptures, words of encouragement, and prayers. “Most people share two to five minutes,” he says. “We allow it to continue until it stops.”

David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, wrote recently: “In church we love the 25- to 45-minute teaching monologue. Then, based on this logical discourse, lives are supposedly changed. Sometimes this method works. Most of the time it doesn’t–especially with men.” So now Murrow uses what he calls the 10-10 format. He speaks for 10 minutes, then stops and asks people to clump in groups of two, three or four, and talk for 10 minutes about a question he projects on the screen. Then he comes back for 10 minutes, and so on.

The conversational approach is also the hallmark of the Lifetree Cafe ministry in use in hundreds of locations across North America.

A well-known megachurch pastor told me that he knows this kind of interaction is far more effective than straight lecture-style preaching. “But you just can’t do that once you have more than 150 people,” he said. He’s wrong. He’s never seen it done. But I can tell you from personal experience. For decades I’ve spoken before crowds of thousands and successfully used these techniques, with powerful results.

Engaging with God and his word should not be a mere spectator sport. People engage more, learn more, and grow more when they participate. (That’s true with this blog as well. Chime in.)