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are we training our preachers all wrong? – jonathan robinson

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I have a question about the way we train preachers. I’m not just talking about the individual courses and seminars designated for preachers but about the whole system of Bible college or seminary. Think for a minute about a really good sermon you just preached – the likelihood is that in preparation and delivery you completed more than a few of the following tasks:

Exegesis of scripture

Theological interpretation of scripture

Poetic prose writing

Story telling

Illustrative parable construction

Contemplative listening prayer

Public prayer

Making an argument

Telling a joke

Delivery of a prepared speech

Extemporizing on a theme

Create dramatic contrast in tone and pitch of voice

Connect with a congregation/audience

Appeal winsomely for a response to the Word

Contemporising and colloquialising complex theological concepts

Creating helpful visual aids

Inspire people

Research

Etc.

I’m sure you could add to that list. Now here is the question. How well does writing academic essays prepare a preacher for those tasks? And how significant to the task of preaching are those tasks which we especially focus upon in college? And even those tasks we do focus on academically, e.g. exegesis, how well does the way we do it in college prepare us for real preaching ministry, e.g. taking 2 weeks to write an exegetical essay versus having one morning (if you are lucky/disciplined) to do your biblical work? To me, while Bible and theology are essential and vital for preaching (or else what would we be preaching?!) writing academic essays about Bible and theology does not equip people to preach well because the gulf between what your lecturer wants to read and what a congregation need to hear is too vast. Not only that but the amount of time a student spends preparing essays compared to practicing preaching is so disproportionate that only among the unusually gifted does the essay writing not hinder and undermine the preaching. Perhaps those who succeed despite the system mask the ineffectiveness of the system for others. I have often heard the remark that it takes preachers a couple of years to “get over their education”. So should we rethink pastoral training to be more focused on the tasks we actually perform and the way we really perform them?

9 Comments

  1. Interesting post.

    I don’t think there’s a need to ‘get over’ one’s theological training, but working out how to pitch things for a local congregation can take a good while to work out – a few years even. In a similar way, when a pastor moves from one church to another he/she can find a need to rethink the kinds of illustrations that are used; the proportion of ‘teaching’ to application that they’ll cope with; what their touch points are; how politically correct they are; are they younger, older, white collar, blue collar, mono cultural, bi cultural, multicultural etc. Knowing how to preach well in a church can take time regardless of where you just came from.

    Having been seduced away by this KMP blog I had better get back to my sermon prep!

  2. Kevin Nichol says:

    I still remember my preaching class from my college training days. We had to preach 3x during the year and each time I and my sermon were “raked over the coals” and evaluated by both my peers and my prof. One thing I remember was the class on 1 Cor. 1:21, the part about the “foolishness of preaching” actually pleasing God. Truly it has got to be one of the worst forms of communication out there! I stand, I yak for 40 min. (if the audience is lucky!), I through in a few passionate gestures, I raise and lower my voice for effect, tell an illustration or personal story to emphasis and clarify, while several in the crowd slowly close their eyes, or look at their cell phones (pretending to read the bible on them) or compete with a fussing baby or squirming child. Yet, somehow, miraculously, people are fed the Word of God, and almost in spite of the messenger the truth of it is setting people free and the Holy Spirit ignites flames of faith in people hearts and minds, and his people find courage for their lives and/or conviction that leads to repentance and change. But what really astonishes me is that these same people for the most part return next week for more, some even bring friends. I remember a quote that has inspired me from time to time and if my memory serves me correctly it came from Spurgeon, “If God calls you to be a preacher do not stoop to be a king.” I think the college or Bible school does all it can do to prepare the preacher but I suppose in the end all the training in the world, all the polish and all the luster cannot substitute for the heart and mind of the messenger that has been first transformed by the message. Preparation and training are good but it is the one who encounters the Living God in the Scriptures and then turns to proclaim Him to his/her flock through the foolishness of preaching that gets to see lives changed. My constant prayer is that those who come to a service have an encounter with God and walk away different, changed by His glory as they leave and enter their mission field. It truly is the foolishness of preaching he has called us to and he is delighted in and with it. Cheers

  3. Roger Driver-Burgess says:

    Hey, Jonathan, Good post. Challenging, and stimulating, and, I think, wrong.
    Because theological education isn’t mostly about teaching preaching, but preparing a preacher. I could learn to preach ‘effectively’ in a dozen hours of public speaking lessons (and I’m glad that those came with my theological education), but that would be insufficient. My preaching needs to be not just effective, but true. And the depth of that truth has to be ground into me through four years of disciplined effort. I needed that time to learn how to differentiate between the superficial and the essential in our faith; to know which bells to ring the loudest.
    Writing a sermon is a completely different task to writing an essay, and students should be (I was!) taught the difference. If students come through bible college thinking that they’re still writing for their lecturers, they just haven’t been listening! But I needed four years to learn the skills of exegesis, and to gain that basic familiarity with the whole of God’s word, so that I can now apply those skills quickly, and effectively when doing the research for my weekly sermon. I can quickly and accurately asses conflicting commentaries, and I have learned to recognise some of the deepest channels in the braided river of the scripture story, so I can help my people to see how any one passage is contributes to other passages, and how to drink more deeply from the well-spring of the word.
    Four years of theological education made me a preacher; they made me much more passionate about the truth of the scriptures, the depth of what God has revealed, and the task of proclamation with which we are entrusted. After that, I had to practice using those skills in the real world – but I had the skills. My congregation can trust that when we embark on a voyage into (for instance) Revelation, the weight of my education will keep us from being overturned in some freak storm, and the rigorous testing of my steering gear will keep us pointed straight for our harbour.
    That’s worth it.

    1. Peter Benzie says:

      I agree Roger. Almost word for word what I would have written. Taking those days / weeks to exegete scripture in preparation for essays was a training ground for me. Like all things when we exegete scripture for the first few times we take longer than when we do it later. That time at college has given me the confidence to be able to know that even though I don’t take days to exegete Scripture etc in preparation for preaching nevertheless I can be confident in what I have done.

      That said I think assignment deadlines (where more than one assignment seemed to fall in the same week) DO help prepare us for the pressure of preparing a sermon in under a week – at least in my experience. I remember getting one of my highest marks for a Level 7 exegetical assignment that I did in less than 3 days from start to finish.

      I believe we can do more to prepare our preachers / pastors but that will only serve to improve and add to what is already done and which is done well.

      So on balance I answer “No” to your question “are we training our preachers all wrong?” – Jonathan

  4. Tim Bulkeley says:

    Naturally (given I’m an INFP) I agree with everyone, Roger is right, training is about more than preaching, and ought not to be reduced to a set of simple “skills”, but Jonathan is still right, half the skills on his list are not developed in the formal curriculum. In the old days I got them from living in college and interaction with fellow students and staff, and from preaching an average of more than once a week (in my student pastorate or as a visitor). The curriculum at Carey/Laidlaw/YouNameIt College is shaped too much by tradition and not enough by the real needs of the job. BUT in any reshaping do not fail to give students Roger and Peter’s solid intellectual foundation. Without that they’ll be good for only a few months.

    When I was a student I cried out for more “practical” subjects, when I became a pastor (preaching twice a week and leading a Bible Study as well) I relied on the Bible and Theology I had been encouraged to learn.

    PS the most useful “preaching” class I had was the voice training I’ve used that every day since.

    1. Roger Driver-Burgess says:

      Fair point, Tim. I know that voice training was offered while I was in college, but because I had a reasonable amount of theatre in my background, I was ok for it. I tend to take it for granted, but drama training can go a long way in preaching (just ask Isaiah!)

  5. Joseph says:

    A good set of questions and responses. I agree with all on that note. Another comment to add on my own comments; I do have difficulty understanding how a graduate shares an under prepared, non-exegetical wishy washy sermon. I have heard them and the comment during or during discussion after a sermon, “oh i just grabbed something off the net and put a personal story on it“ type of answer. I stopped attending one particular church for that frequent answer. I do sometimes attend for more than the rewarding tasty coffee-conversations. Why don’t they have someone else research for them or preach? Or delegate others to some of their overwhelming pastoral work?
    *I’m not a preacher.

  6. Hi all, thanks for the comments and interaction.

    Kevin, I disagree that a monologue is necessarily a poor form of communication, just look at the success the TED talks have ben having in the last couple of years. An engaging speaker with something interesting to say is a very good form of communication.

    Joseph makes my point, that someone can write essays and pass a degree but not necessarily have internalised and committed to the exegetical and theological standards and techniques that they gave lip service to in order to pass their degree. You can take a horse to water but you cannot make them drink. However, my experience would be that the horses want to drink but writing essays hasn’t actually developed the skills they need. This is because essays are an external way of processing information and skills, whereas preaching relies on an internalisation, good exegesis, theological insight and engaging presentation should be a matter of reflex for a preacher, if they have to refer back to their notes it wont happen because they don’t do it.

    There is no dichotomy between learning to preach well and doing theology and exegesis well, in fact if students had to preach on a doctrine instead of write an essay on it I would guarantee you a better comprehension and grasp of the subject.

    Roger and Peter, don’t allow my attention grabbing headline (read- hyperbole) to suggest I was arguing there is no value in the present system – i too benefited greatly from my years of study, but could we be doing it better for the purpose of training preachers? Can’t we have rigorous theological training without an over reliance on essays – which suit the needs of an academic context but not the practical application?

    🙂

  7. Mark C says:

    Interesting debate…it caught my attention.
    Just finished reading ‘What shall we build?’ “Going out looking , coming back seeing.” A Ministers memoir.
    Of the late Rev Alton Cressman….his wife Erma was best friends and college room mate with Ruth Bell who went on to marry some guy called Billy Graham. Anyway Alton spent time as a missionary in the Kentucky mountains many decades ago. He says agreeing with a national Christian leader ‘If God told me I had only ten years to live , I would spend 9 years in preparation.’
    Lets not forget 2 Tim 2: 15.

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