The Challenge of Teaching the Bible in an Academic (or church!) Setting

Teaching in a theological climate is a very lonely and sometimes daunting enterprise. Even with the most absorbed and friendly class, you are all alone there in front. What you say will inevitably be passed on—sometimes garbled and distorted. When you read the exams and one student after another gets it all wrong, there is really only one conclusion available: you, with all your preparation and good intentions, have deceived a whole class, and they will go on to deceive the waiting world. It is hard to be fearless and open to learning and willing to teach something new and important. It is easy to be safe and lazy.

Clair Davis, Chaplain and Professor of Church History, Redeemer Seminary, Dallas TX

Preachers, Know When to Quit!

There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes.  Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point.  There is no virtue in length for the sake of it.  I think I’ve heard two preachers in my entire life who could preach for an hour; and most preachers I know would be much better if they shaved at least five or ten minutes off their typical length.  Get up there, say what you’ve got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again.  That’s all that’s necessary.   As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.’   And, as usual, Luther got it right.

Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher, II”

The Value of Systematic Theology to Pastors

Pastors are busy. I know; I was one. They hardly have time to prepare their sermons every week while at the same time visiting, counseling, planning, fixing, etc. Ask most pastors what good theology books they’ve read recently and you’ll be greeted by blank stares. Been there, done that. I often felt that I hardly had time to read my Bible most days, let alone anything else.

Yet, looking back now, I realize I was a bit short-sighted. Most of my agony over the text I was going to preach each week came from a lack of input from great minds of the past and present. I was trying to reinvent the wheel with every sermon. Sure, I was reading commentaries, but I wasn’t reading much theology that would provide the substance and nourishment of better preaching. By not reading theology, I was making my sermon prep more difficult.

I am not advocating the reading of just any theology to nourish spiritual life and preaching. There is no virtue in reading dull or poorly-written theologies. Rather, directed reading of good theologies will provide fodder for thought, clarify difficulties in the text, and sometimes even offer a pertinent illustration of the truth the preacher is trying to communicate.

Cornelius Van Til recognized the value of a pastor reading theology:

What is beneficial for the individual believer [studying systematic theology] is also beneficial for the minister and in consequence for the church as a whole. It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But “Bible-trained” instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. They may mean ever so well and be ever so true to the gospel on certain points; nevertheless, they often preach error…

If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.

The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the minister has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. Edited by William Edgar (P&R, 2007), 22-23.

Pastors who study theology do their congregation a great service. Generally their preaching has more substance, and their ideas are drawn from a larger pool of knowledge and exposure than one who does not read. Pastors who do not study theology tend to preach atheological sermons. They may be able to atomistically expound a text, but they will have difficulty connecting the text to the grand redemptive truths that give the texts weighty significance.

Van Til saw a definite connection between the study of systematic theology and the ability to preach the whole counsel of God. If a pastor is not well-versed in theology, he may shy away from Scriptures that his flock needs for growth in grace. Or worse, he may shy away from Scriptures his flock needs for spiritual and doctrinal protection.

Nobody’s Perfect, But…, Part 1

In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul challenged his young protégé: “show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned …” (Titus 2:7-8a, ESV). Peter, likewise, exhorted the elders throughout Asia-Minor to “be examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:3, ESV).   God’s Word is eminently clear that the life of the minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ must emulate the message of that very gospel.

In preparation for a workshop entitled “Who Me, Blameless?” that I will be presenting at our Feb 22-25 Advancing the Church Conference (ATC), I recently read a deeply challenging book entitled Nobody’s Perfect, But You Have to Be (Baker, 2005). Author Dean Shriver’s central proposition is well summarized in the book’s subtitle – “The Power of Personal Integrity in Effective Preaching.”  Shriver rightly argues that while all believers’ lives are to be characterized by integrity, for pastors integrity is everything. Acknowledging that there has only ever been One truly perfect Preacher, Shriver underscores the importance of integrity in preaching.  He introduces the all-important topic by defining integrity as “the state of being whole or undivided,” noting that we as preachers demonstrate integrity when unity exists between the truth we proclaim and the lives we live. He rightly asserts [pg. 16]:

Integrity is crucial to our preaching. Integrity is more crucial than a well-crafted introduction. It’s more crucial than smooth delivery. In preaching, integrity is always more crucial than technique because all the oratory skills on earth can never transfuse spiritual power into a sermon bled dry by a preacher’s own contradictory life.

Shriver, of course, is not negating the importance of sermon preparation and delivery, but rather putting them in the larger context which includes the oft-overlooked condition of the delivery vessel.  Or as appropriately asserted by noted author E. M. Bounds [Power Through Prayer, 69], “We are not saying that men are not to think and use their intellect. But he who cultivates his heart the most will use his intellect the best.”

Through examining specific areas of the preacher’s integrity, Shriver provides practical and challenging insights by which to evaluate one’s own life and ministry.  The areas addressed (with a chapter devoted to each) include: above reproach (or blameless), humility, contentment, fidelity to God’s Word, courage, purity of life, purity of mind, and temperance.  As an aside, I will argue at next month’s ATC workshop that the clear scriptural directive for pastoral leadership begins and ends with one non-negotiable – the aspiring pastor must be “blameless.”  While the workshop will unpack the numerous qualifications for pastoral leadership as detailed in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1, I will argue that “blamelessness” is not one among equals but is, in fact, the governing lens through which all the other qualifications are to be read.

In the next part of this post I will document some of the great voices in church history on this issue of integrity.

Advancing the Church: February 22-25, 2011

Leading and serving a local church is no simple task.The challenges are exhausting. The joys are exhilarating. Both are difficult to exaggerate.

Introducing a bi-annual conference series focused on providing resources to pastors for growing healthy local churches.

We believe God’s servant-leaders need time away to recharge, to refresh, to reconnect . . . and to be reminded they are not alone in the battle.

We’ve designed our new “ATC” conference series to be strategically helpful for people like you. You love your ministry, even on the days it’s making you crazy. You just want to get better at what you do. You want your church to be spiritually healthy. Ultimately, you want a good grade at the final exam before the Chief Shepherd.

We think you’ll find ATC 2011 to be full of helpful resources to that end. Together, we’ll get our faces back into the Book, our knees back on the floor, and our hearts warmed to the One who died for the world we are sent to in His name.

Tim Jordan & Sam Harbin
ATC Conference Hosts

Making Preaching Memorable

Why do heretics make such a big splash with their ideas? One reason seems to be that historically, many heretics have possessed an uncanny ability to communicate their ideas in popular vernacular. Two examples will suffice to make the point–Arius and Tetzel.

In his theological contest with Arius regarding the nature of the Son, Athanasius was fighting an uphill battle with the heretic’s memorable articulation of his message. Shelley notes,

Arius’ views were all the more popular because he combined an eloquent preaching style with a flair for public relations. In the opening stages of the conflict, he put ideas into jingles, which set to simple tunes like a radio commercial, were soon being sung by the dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the school children of the city. (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 100-101)

Over one thousand years later, another preacher was blazing a trail through Germany, with a simple and memorable message: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” The Dominican priest, John Tetzel was so effective in his papal fund-raising campaign through the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther’s ire was aroused and he responded with his 95 theses.

Two observations arise from these examples, one negative and one positive. Negatively, the propensity of the human heart toward ideas that entertain the mind and require no intellectual effort is a proclivity that is all too familiar today. Why wrestle with difficult concepts of the Trinity when Arius’ jingle can be learned in a matter of minutes? A similar attitude in evangelical Christianity eschews serious doctrinal preaching and teaching in favor for a simplistic faith that can be learned in a matter of weeks. This watered-down version of Christianity teaches catchphrases and talking points that never scratch the surface of biblical faith. In our sound-byte culture, this intellectual laziness seems so much easier than the kind of devotion to which Timothy was urged for Scripture reading, teaching and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13).

Positively, the truth is not averse to being articulated in memorable terms. Too often the adherents of orthodox theology are adroit at articulating sound doctrine in a manner that preserves and advances the faith, but they fail to understand what makes a message unforgettable. This is not a plug for alliterated sermons, for a series of five characteristics of Paul’s life beginning with the letter “P” is hardly a model for making one’s message memorable. Rather, what preachers and teachers need is an understanding of the limits of the average individual’s attention and memory, and a concerted effort to simplify one’s message and main points. We also need to understand that many factors contribute to a sermon being memorable— simplicity of expression, repetition in delivery, imagination in structure, passion in the preacher, and more. The most basic, simplicity of expression, is a challenge in itself.

The master of memorable sermon titles is Haddon Robinson, whose messages on the Good Samaritan (“A Case Study of a Mugging”) and Mary and Martha (“Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There”) are hard to forget. But what about memorable content? Making one’s proposition and main points memorable takes hard work. It requires deep thought and multiple revisions, sometimes leading to the scrapping of earlier work in order to retain wording that aids memory. It requires analogies, similes and metaphors. It requires vivid illustrations and pointed applications. There have been many times when my sermon preparation has ended short of this final step, and I have no doubt that those occasions have undermined the long-term effectiveness of a message.

Recently I was given a Sunday evening in my church to preach the entire book of Numbers in about 35 minutes. After multiple revisions, rewording and rewriting, I boiled down my proposition to six words that I believe accurately reflect the message of Numbers, especially the core of the book, chapter 14. The message of Numbers, I told the congregation, is this: God’s sovereignty triumphs over our stubbornness. Of all the preaching I have done over the past few years, my guess is that this sermon was the most memorable. Yet, the time it took to distill my thoughts into those six words was an investment that I have not always been careful to make.

If heresy can be made memorable through catchy phrases and slick marketing techniques, how much more should we be investing the time and effort to express the truth in ways that will make a lasting impression on our hearers? How many unforgettable statements in Scripture are so because of their distillation of poignant ideas into simple statements? “You must be born again.” “Judge not that you be not judged.” The Lord is my shepherd.” In light of the media-savvy times in which we live, we should seek, not to compete, but to outshine all competing ideas with the profound simplicity that we find in Scripture.

Haddon Robinson sums it up well:

You want to leave something lasting in the minds of the congregation when a sermon is over. The truth is, people don’t remember outlines. They may not [ever] refer to them again…What they do live for, what they do die for, is an idea, some great truth that has gripped them. I can’t expect that every congregation is going to remember every idea I try to get across, but there’s a better chance they’ll take something away and remember it for a week or two or even a month or two later if I can stamp that central thrust on their minds. The rest of the sermon is often like the scaffolding: It’s important, but the major thing is for people to get hold of an idea or have an idea get hold of them that can in some way shape the way they respond to life. (“Better Big Ideas,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, 353).


Preaching and Sacred Music

Haddon Robinson writes of preaching, “A preacher can proclaim anything in a stained-glass voice, at 11:30 on a Sunday morning, following the singing of hymns. Yet when a preacher fails to preach the Scriptures, he abandons his authority.”

With these words Robinson places a filter on preaching. He is not suggesting that the only acceptable words in a sermon are the actual words of Scripture. For Robinson, preaching includes the reading of Scripture, but also includes much more: explanation, application, and even illustration.  The central issue is that each of the words spoken serve the task of bringing the Scriptures to light.

I believe a similar filter can be applied to sacred music. This is not to suggest that sacred music must be limited to the songs contained in Scripture, though these songs have too long been ignored. It is, however, to suggest that a central purpose of music in the church is to communicate God’s truth.

So, sacred music must communicate the truth accurately. Not unlike preaching, if sacred music is to move beyond the transient power of sentimentality, is must fully engage the power of God’s eternal truth.

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