Rotating Header Image

jonathan robinson: educational preaching?

I saw an interesting video the other day. Brian McLaren was discussing the life cycle of the modern congregation.  He suggested that pastors have usually operated on the principle that people will be at church their whole lives, and so they have plenty of time to teach the Christian faith.  While I’m not so sure about that, pastors certainly used to be able to rely on people having been through Sunday school (and a fairly standardised Sunday school curriculum) and some sort of membership catechesis.  Today, any given congregation will likely contain a great variety of experiences of church education, many not having had any systematic teaching on Christianity further than the Alpha course.   Brian’s suggestion is that, with the transience of today’s society, pastors should think of a congregational life cycle of four years, that every four years they should try and teach everything that they want their congregation to know about the Christian faith.

A few years ago I would have scoffed at such a suggestion, but seeing the way my church (the church I was going to last year) responded to the E100 Bible reading scheme was a revelation to me.  I was not so much surprised by how much people got out of the reading schedule and the discussion groups, how could that not be beneficial?   What I was surprised about was the way the sermons, which had decidedly got worse as they were often trying to cover the whole week’s readings, were actually appreciated and engaged with a whole lot more.  What I concluded was that people were engaging so much more with the sermons, not because the sermons were any better, but because their study in the week before and their aspiration to complete the program meant they approached the sermon significantly more motivated to learn.  I had always assumed the more like school you made church the more people would be put off.  It turns out that the reverse is true.

What I think is at the root of this is that for many the weekly sermon has become a little pointless.  With the intense focus on application and relevance we can make many sermons less relevant because not everyone can have a life changing challenge to respond to every week, you’d be exhausted within a month!  I have actually had correspondence with a church member on just this point.  He felt that the sermon was a kind of scattergun approach which might be God’s word to someone every week, but couldn’t be God’s word to everyone every week.  However, once you clearly place the sermon in a curriculum, with an endpoint and goals and resources for additional study, suddenly, even without a specific personal challenge that week, the sermon has more perceived relevance to the individual.

So perhaps Brian’s idea is worth thinking about?  I have a couple more thoughts about preaching as education and it comes from my recent experience as both a peripatetic music teacher and being briefly on faculty at Carey Baptist College.  First, in both arenas I found it pointless telling people what to do or explaining new concepts, if they did not then have opportunities to put those things into practice and normally they needed to practise them more than once.  Is there a place for preaching to go beyond talking about it to actually getting people doing it?  Second, as a teacher you can see if you are doing your job properly because grades are achieved and the things you have taught are performed by the students.   I wonder if putting a curriculum together, including learning outcomes, might keep us preachers more honest about how much difference our preaching is really making to the lives of those who hear it?

* * *

Jonathan Robinson is a lanky bearded Brit who has been preaching since 1999, in NZ since 2006, and blogging since 2008.  He is one of the pastors at Blockhouse Bay Baptist Church and blogs at


  1. […] Jonathan Robinson discusses preaching as an educational ministry. […]

  2. Hi Jonathan – I like your post. You put forward an interesting idea about learning outcomes: National Standards for preachers perhaps? I think integrating what is taught in the pulpit with what is discussed in Home Groups is a very good idea – if only because people can discuss and process what they heard/saw for 20 mins on a Sunday, and can therefore recall some of it (even if they’ve forgotten most of it!) And, in the same way, I think teaching series are good for the same reason – they may keep people coming back for me or, at least, will enable connections to be made from one Sunday to the next in the sermon.

    But I guess there are two other things which I would add. The first is that the sermon, while important, is only one part of the service and only one way in which people will be ‘educated’ (to use your analogy). Indeed, some people might not find they get ‘educated’ at all by the sermon but rather by the song lyrics or the liturgy or the children’s talk. And so we may contextualise the sermon not only in the context of other teaching, week by week or in Home Groups, but also within the service itself.

    The second thing I’d say is that while learning outcomes might have their place, not least in keeping a preacher sharp, they may too easily drive the preaching. Indeed, there are many outcomes from our preaching that we’ll never know and never see. How God uses what we preach in the lives of those who hear it may not become evident for days, weeks or years. If God reveals those outcomes to us then that is gratifying, but for what I think are very good reasons he often doesn’t. So perhaps it’s not National Standards, after all, that we need, but a contextualised understanding of preaching, good feedback mechanisms by other leadership and wise counsel in the church and outside it, and preachers who are both willing to hone their craft and keep humble in their appointed task.

  3. Mark Maffey says:

    Hi Jonathan

    What you are suggesting is a bit like having Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), which are commonly used in business environments. Whilst there are some management principles which can and should be adapted for church use. It is difficult to measure spiritual growth, but as seed sowers the ground preparation is essential, if we can get people in our congregations to a place where they are excited about and engaged in learning biblically and then integrate lively sermons with follow up discussions in home groups then we are a long way towards growth.

    E100 has been a worthwhile exercise for many congregations,like you I think the 6 sermons is to broad a sweep, It needs to be broken down into more manageable chunks.

    I believe that we do need to be more deliberate in developing a curriculum which provides a way to increase biblical literacy and understanding amongst those in our congregations. Good luck to you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *