Of course Jesus preached a lot of monologue sermons, but I have noticed that Jesus did not usually preach sermons like nearly every church does today. He never seems to have, or at least rarely preached a sermon, or even a mini sermon, or parable without opportunity for discussion and questions afterwards. Possibly the ‘sermon on the mount’ is an exception as it is almost the length of a short sermon by todays standards without anyone else responding.

Today most protestant churches have a one-way sermon where one person preaches a sermon then after the sermon the Lord's Supper, worship, announcements or some other activity follows without ever opening the floor for questions or limited challenges or discussion by the hearers. This simply can't be found in the gospels or in Acts.

It. seems clear to me that a more interactive method of preaching was adopted by Jesus which might be more similar to what we would today call teaching, interactive lecturing or a dialogue sermon.

I have read in the past that the synagogue at the time of Christ had a time of interactive discussion after a speaker finished. In the New Testament we find arguably a provision made for 'non clergy' members to take turns in standing up and speaking (1 Cor 14:29). Furthermore as early churches were house churches I can't imagine any speaker could then imagine that they could get away with an impersonal oratory followed by absolutely no discussion, debate or questions afterward. In Acts the gospel went out with much interaction. I also heard that martin Luther was famous for very gently and generously answering any question after a sermon.

So when did the monologue sermon become the norm?

Cultural differences seem to have a part in the answer. Street preaching was not abhorred by anyone back then and disciple teacher relationships were also more popular. Even when Jesus visited the temple as a child an they marveled at his wisdom indicates a provision in the strictest of ceremonies for accessible human interaction that seems less possible in our current culture. My question actually calls for serious historical and objective analysis.

  • Great question, I've been thinking of a similar question myself, "how did the one fixed (one location), paid, pastor idea start". Can you add some more about Jesus' sermons being a dialog? Do you mean the questions he asked? Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 10:35
  • I mean that if you watch a Jesus movie he is always interacting with people. Raising questions and answering questions, arguing with his enemies, making small monologues which then he explained, or applied to his friends or enemies. He never just said a single monologue and then took off. He exposed his truth to everybody and then handled everybody as required. Basically he was confident and communicated until understood, taking into account everyone else's opinon. He was a leader and teacher not just a sermon preacher. One way truth dictation was not his style.
    – Mike
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 10:58
  • 1
    Movies about Jesus are not necessarily a good source of historical accuracy. Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 14:39
  • 4
    Are we in danger of setting up a false dichotomy here? Jesus clearly sometimes preached 'monologue style', and also had dialogues. In the modern day a pastor might preach a monologue sermon, but also run a Sunday school class where questions are encouraged. Maybe the two things just happen (or happened) in different places? Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 15:45
  • 4
    I think you're conflating the traditional sermon, which is generally part of a service or mass, with accounts of Jesus' and the apostles' "street-preaching." A "proper" sermon fits into a ceremony that is intended to unite the community in a single act of worship. It's not intended to be a learning dialogue so much as it is a communal worship act. The officiator, thus, doesn't traditionally present his own opinions, but encourages and guides the community in the beliefs they already hold and presumably understand.
    – svidgen
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 16:47

4 Answers 4


The way the question is phrased means we must look at two historical developments:

  1. How preaching evolved in the early church, from Jesus through the pioneer stage of Acts to the early church fathers.

  2. How preaching evolved in the protestant church, from Luther into what we have today.

Also, one must note the context of the preaching: Small group, large amount of people; evangelistic setting, instruction in the faith for believers; etc.

In the Gospels, especially Matthew and John, we do hear Jesus delivering what one might called uninterrupted sermons. Matthew have five distinct sermons. However, Jesus interacts with followers, opponents and average people throughout the day. There is not really a pattern of distinct worship services, with distinct starts and stops. It's hard to see a model for preaching in a Sunday service in the Gospels.

In Acts we have a number of distinct sermons as well, but they are mostly ad hoc, in an evangelistic setting. They are very carefully crafted to the audience though. When appealing to Jews or "God fearers", the apostles used scripture, when appealing to unlearned gentiles, Paul used natural analogies and when appealing to learned Greeks, Paul used quotations from their own traditions. Once again, it is hard to see the kind of preaching we assume today, when the preacher starts with a text (or a few texts) from the Bible and tries to use them for exhortation and instruction.

We can see some sermons in Acts ending in dialogue, one ending in a murderous frenzy by the hearers (Stephen's) and some ending in an exhortation to be baptized.

Another factor: Most of the epistles of the New Testaments are in fact sermons. They were supposed to be read aloud. (A side note: Gather a small group, shut your Bibles and have one member read Galatians from start to finish. It will take 16-17 minutes. Do not interrupt and ask what a single verse might mean, but follow the train of thought. The experience is highly instructive!)

Since Paul (or the other authors) naturally could not be present when the epistles were read, this is very much a one way event. But in some letters Paul is addressing specific questions he has heard or specific problems he has heard of, providing a sense of a dialogue by mail or messenger

The early post-apostolic churches seem to have begun formalizing the worship service quite early on. While retaining many parts of the synagogue service, new elements were added. The preacher would sit and the congregation would stand. Sermons seem to be mostly one way. Questions and dialogue would be handled in smaller settings, like in the catechumenate.

From that era to the time of Luther, there seems to be precious few examples of dialogue being used in the sermons on Sunday services. Preachers like Chrysostomos (early 5th century) are clearly not expecting questions from the congregation. However, in evangelistic settings, like when Bonifatius talked with the heads of Frisia, dialogue occurred. One can also assume this was the case with the friar monks, preaching in public, during the middle ages.

Luther himself seem to have given himself license to do a few things he did not expect other preachers to do. In fact, he strongly admonished most of them to use written sermons, since he had a low opinion about their ability to produce sermons of sufficient quality of their own. To this end he wrote quite a number of postillas.

Luther also seemed to have preached mostly ex tempore, having worked with the texts in earnest when he prepared his lectures at the university, and a bit later, when he translated them into German. Most surviving sermons were written down by his hearers. Once again, it is clear that he expects other preachers to use a script for their sermons.

Given Luther's low opinion about the state of preachers' abilities, it would be surprising if he would encourage dialogue type sermons, even though I've not read anything myself that clearly says that he did or did not. He, and almost every other notable reformer, did however provide catechisms, that are structured in a question and answer format. In some ways these can be seen as FAQs, but in some ways they also are saying that this is a question one should ask.

Within a generation after Luther's death, Lutheran orthodoxy happened, clearly stifling innovation and providing a strong impetus for one way communication, regardless of the setting. "Cuius regio, eius religio" and that meant subjects were expected to conform. Any possible remnant of dialogue (if there ever were such a thing outside of Wittenberg) would probably have died now.

Still, all of this is an attempt to answer the question when. It says very little about the question how we should be preaching today. If anything, I think the lessons from early church age seem to be pick the format that works best in your particular setting.

  • +1 for a good stab at an answer. I suspect that as the church became Romanized, roman 'government-culture' may have been less democratic than Jewish and Greek at least in its decline. Also as the church merged into the state functions of authority, they became less and less flexible. I generally assume many things changed around the time of Constantine. The church expected uniformity once the emperor was backing its official role. I guess around 300AD then. The only things missing is a little more concrete references but these might be hard to find particularily on this subject. Cheers
    – Mike
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 14:57
  • Yep, I know I did not provide references. This answer is based on my memory. Digging up references would unfortunately take more time than I can afford...
    – itpastorn
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 15:11
  • 1
    @Mike "I generally assume many things changed around the time of Constantine. The church expected uniformity once the emperor was backing its official role. I guess around 300AD then." This seems way too late to me. Justin Martyr describes the typical Christian service of the early 100s: it is formal, it is ritualistic, it includes one-way preaching on the Scriptures, and it is structurally identical to the way Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and other liturgical denominations still worship today.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 23:46
  • 1
    @Mike I was referring to Chapter 67 of Justin's "First Apology", which you can read for yourself here: ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.lxvii.html -- I'm not under the impression that the authenticity or rough date of the text (around the year 150) is in any scholarly question. I don't think my answer is substantially different from the one you accepted; just wanted to point out that 300AD is quite a few generations after Justin.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 20:24
  • 1
    @BenDunlap - I checked out the brief article you linked and it was very interesting. Actually it has nothing in it that suggest monologue sermons from my understanding, actually it implies almost no sermon at all but that instead someone read the scriptures for what seems some longer length of time, then the president would make a small comment in summary for the group. During the reading of scripture it seems to imply no conversation and then does not indicate if there was or was not conversation after the president's brief comment. There probably was making this just like the synagogue.
    – Mike
    Commented Dec 2, 2012 at 10:07

I believe this format was already part of the Jewish Liturgy services that took place in the synagogue, which would have included prayer, scripture reading, and a homily. Remember that Jesus, the twelve, and most of the early Christians were Jews. Much of what we do in Christianity -- particularly in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the early Protestant branches -- is pretty darn Jewish.

And in fact, Jesus' ministry appears to start off in Luke 4:16-30 with a Jewish liturgy. After He reads the scripture and sits down, the author states that the crowd stares at Him intently (waiting for Him to speak). I don't think it's much of a leap to say they're waiting for a monologue (sermon).

The interactive preaching you're referring to isn't part of any worship service, bread-breaking, or religious tradition. It's just a preacher in his daily life, chatting with needy people. And I think the scriptures put this sort of interaction distinctly outside of any religious customs or structures.

ADDENDUM: The sermon, as part of a worship service, is part of a ceremony that is intended to unite a congregation in a singel act of worship. It is not, therefore, intended to teach the community so much as it is to unite, encourage, and guide the community in living The Word they have already been taught. An open dialogue in the midst of a service would distract from the purpose of focusing the congregation in a single act of worship. Hence, such dialogues simply take place outside the ceremony. And we (at least in most Catholic masses) are encouraged to seek more in depth spiritual direction and education outside the ceremony.

  • I do not think you understand the ancient synagogue practice. Alfred Edersheim explains that after the speaker spoke in the synagogue there was opportunity for dialogue and discussion. This does not answer the question because I find the synagogue community culture different from the average Protestant structure. I think their is something good about the Jewish structure at that time and am wondering when it was phased out.
    – Mike
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 15:49
  • 1
    Yes, after the speaker spoke in the synagogue there was opportunity for dialogue and discussion. It's clear that, even in Alfred Edersheim's mind, the officiator gave a monologue.
    – svidgen
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 16:02
  • I'm not sure what the Jewish take in this would be, but the Catholic Church assigns a great deal of importance on the strictly ceremonial aspect of the mass. The social engagement after mass is strongly encouraged, but not allowed as an injection into the mass itself. I sense the ancient Jewish tradition would have generally been the same.
    – svidgen
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 16:05

I have noticed that Jesus did not usually preach sermons like nearly every church does today. Possibly the ‘sermon on the mount’ is an exception.

I challenge that premise. How is it that the sermon on the mount came to make it into scripture, if the disciple relating it (Matthew) only heard it one time? Also, how do we account for the similarity to the Sermon on the Plain in Luke?

Part of the answer is that, in the days before radio, television, and now the internet, indeed, before most people were even literate, if you wanted to reach a large audience you had to travel and go to them in person. A public figure would travel from town to town, and at each stop he would give much the same speech, because it would be almost an entirely new audience each time. This was how to get your message out back then.

It is likely, then, that what we have recorded in Matthew and Luke are individual re-tellings of that same stump speech. Because they traveled with Jesus, the disciples who related these speeches would have heard them potentially hundreds of times, and were likely rehearsed on them in private (especially as they were members of the 70/72 from Luke 10).

In other words, the monologue sermon was likely exactly the pattern for teaching established by Jesus Himself.

  • Joel - I am not saying Jesus did not preach sermons, I mean there was at least time for discussion and questions after them. In a modern church sermon literally one voice is heard but in the gospels many voices are heard interactively. This is just a fact not a premise. I think you have not grasped my question but I may not have communicated it properly. Now you probably better understand. Luckily my question was not just a sermon without me being available to respond to you. Communication requires a conversation even when it is initiated by a prophet who hold the words of God.
    – Mike
    Commented Nov 12, 2012 at 15:47

Itpastorn have already well addressed preaching at the biblical times and in time of Luther. I will try to address the time in between.

In Antiquity, preaching (during liturgical ocasions, not in evangelist settings) was a monopoly of a bishop, the successor of the Twelve (who have ordained deacons to serve, so that apostles and episkopoi had time to preach - see Acts 6,1-6). Other preachers were allowed only to read sermons written by their bishop.

In Middle Ages, the bishop's role have somewhat changed to a political representant of the Church, so the bishops had fewer and fewer time to prepage sermons and preach. Thats why ordinary priests, especially from monastic background, have started to preach themselves. Around 800, stone ambons/pulpits were only in cathedrals (bishops' churches) and monastery churches. Recorded sermons from that times concern morale, preaching on doctrine was still a domain of bishops. The audience of regular sermons (which were in latin) were mostly monks and candidates for priesthood, laymen were taught outside liturgy and in their language - this "evangelist settings" preaching could have been quite interactive.

In High Middle Ages, sermons were more common during Holy Mass, and sermons in local languages occured. On the other hand, "learned sermons" with profound theological argumentation emerged. Most preachers at these times were priest from religious orders, who could preach on doctrine. Other priests lacked the formation to preach on anything more than basic morale. First new books of homilies were written, and homiliaries from antiquity authors (by st. Augustin, Gregor the Great etc.) were copied in big amounts.

Before 1200, anyone could preach (but in "evangelist setting" manner, not in a church). In late 12th century lay preachers gained popularity, but they were suspect of heresy, at least because lack of education (many of them didn't know that they teach something else than genuine doctrine of Catholic Church, some were deliberately preaching something different, like Kathars). A break occured when mendicant orders (dominicans or "preacher brothers" and franciscans) started to preach this way themselves, but on better theological basis. At the same time bishops started to regulate lay preaching. Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated that a preacher needs a licence from his bishop.

From 13th century on, wandering preachers (usually from a religious order giving necessary formation to preach well) were very popular. Ideal preacher must have been able to preach anytime, he must have traveled (no one would seem original if he stayed to long on the same place) and address different audiences (from uneducated peasants to university proffessors). While ordinary preachers (all priests were preachers these times, but they had no formal education for it) mostly read sermons prepared by someone else (with no room for interactivity), these exeptional preachers were ready for questions and other reactions.

Here we meet Luther - what itpastorn have written suit perfectly to this pattern of an elite preachers who both preaches and answer question, but doesn't overrate preaching skills of his ordinary colleagues.

To sum up, one-way monologue sermon was a norm from antiquity on, with ocasional exceptions.

  • +1. For adding a lot of good observations which I generally agree with, but my real question is not who could preach in formal settings, but rather if discussion and interaction was allowed during the preaching, or directly after, in the presence of all. I assume in very early antiquity preaching was more like our version of Sunday school, or even like a home bible study group where the elder, overseer or even Apostle was the clear leader who took great interest in those he spoke with, sharing his life, thoughts and responses to others, not just being a prophet but a friend.
    – Mike
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 4:58

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .