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are we training our preachers all wrong? – jonathan robinson


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



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?

why I don’t do (much) application – jonathan robinson


The post is a response to Steve Worsley’s post last month. Steve’s post made me feel a bit defensive (I don’t know Steve personally so assume he wasn’t aiming it at me) but I am very lazy when it comes to application and so I thought I would take Steve’s provocation to explain why. I deliberately take a polemical tone to encourage debate, not because I believe Steve to be guilty of the extremes I warn against.

1. Everyone benefits from getting to know the bible better; application can seldom be universal – meaning more weight on exegesis benefits more of the congregation.

2. Application that is too direct can create defensiveness and resistance to the message, however get people to accept the principle and then when the penny drops and the spirit convicts it has more force to change their actions as well.

3. The sermon is not for telling people what to do but to lead them into a new way of thinking in the possibilities of the new creation. Transformation of the mind is the goal not information. We are shepherds who lead people to the green pastures of biblical imagination not dictators who control every step. Over-emphasis on application creates a sense of legalism – doing what the preacher says, rather than transformation as the mind is renewed by the Spirit.

4. The more time spent on application (i.e. considering how individuals in the congregation ought to respond to the sermon) means people are more likely to feel got at. I think it is important to avoid using the privileged knowledge of a pastor to preach into situations you know are happening in the church. If you’ve got something to say to someone you need to say it to their face not in front of x number of people. That way the sermon is for God to speak, not for the pastor.

5. Leaving work for the listener encourages engagement with the message and principles; spoon feeding them makes them rely on your insight into their lives to make application. You will not intend it but they will take it as exhaustive. Leaving it open ended allows for application far beyond the preacher’s limited insight and imagination. At a previous church we would leave application for the weekly small groups, so the preacher could lay out the Bible passage and its message but leave it to the small groups to discuss what that should look like in their own lives – I think that is a good way to do it in theory at least.


Example 1 In Steve’s account in his post he (internally) screamed at the preacher for not applying the sermon to his own life, but surely the good teacher is interested in getting the learners to work things out for themselves. Steve is still thinking about how to apply the sermon now, but with a selection of answers provided at the end he may well have been happy to close the book on that sermon and not think of it again. I’d say the sermon was a success.

Example 2 Recently while I was preaching on the Ten Lepers (Luke 17) I made reference to the prejudices that can blind us to what God is doing (e.g. with a Samaritan). I know that some in the church hold strong prejudice against, for example, homosexuals, the Roman Catholic Church and political Maori. If I named those groups in application I would have been mistaken for advocating for those groups and immediately had my point rejected. By allowing them to accept the point in abstract without attacking their personal views they may come to their own conclusions which will be far more powerful than having my conclusions thrust upon them.

Sometimes the text has to be applied specifically and directly and I am not an absolutist by any stretch. I also have to admit that people do appreciate direct and forceful application when I do it and I do get criticised from time to time for not doing enough of it. But you’ve heard my reasoning for doing it not much, what do you think?

jonathan robinson – preaching under fire

I am a cynic.  I am naturally prone to doubt everything, not because I have an especially strong bent to rationalism but because I don’t trust other people to be rational, or even myself for that matter.  For example as a young associate pastor in London I remember a visiting team of young missionaries getting very excited about the spiritual attack that they were under whilst camping in our church.  As they recounted to me the battle they were fighting I sat there thinking what a load of rubbish they were talking, they just needed to go outside and get some fresh air and sunshine instead of stewing in an admittedly dark and stuffy church basement.

However, since I started sharing my life with my better half, and life with my better half accounts for about half my years of preaching at present, we have begun to notice that before I preach an especially good sermon (especially good by my standards anyway) we generally have a pretty rough time of it, sleepless nights, bad dreams, children refusing to settle, neighbours or their cats causing trouble, etc.  I would be tempted to blame this on nervous tension but I usually have no idea which sermons are going to go well or not and the ones that really go with a bang usually take me by as much surprise as they do the congregation.

I’d hate to be thought of as superstitious, but is it possible that I am resistant to the idea of my preaching placing me in the line of fire, making me liable to spiritual attack, because I haven’t actually grasped the spiritual significance of what I am doing?  If I am truly sowing the word of God in people’s hearts surely I am bound to suffer from flocks of pesky birds?  If I am seeking to advance God’s kingdom surely the kingdom that is losing ground will resist?  If I hold up the shield of faith doesn’t its very presence suggest the reality and danger of flaming arrows?

My question is, because I am a pretty secularised cynical fella who hasn’t given this a great deal of thought, how do you think about and deal with the spiritual battle aspect of your preaching ministry?  Is it enough just to turn our eyes upon Jesus, or do we need one eye out for prowling devouring lions?  What do you think?  What do you do?

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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

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?

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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

jonathan robinson: doubtful preaching

I don’t know about you, but I regularly lose my faith.  At least once or twice a year, sometimes more, doubts gather in my mind and heart, grow and nearly overwhelm me.  In those times I have learned to keep moving, to keep behaving as if I still believed.  This isn’t me being fake.  I long since worked out that my believing in God has very little to do with whether he actually exists or not.  Continuing to try to be faithful even when faith is gone is really the only practical thing to do.  Even when my faith is weak or lost, God’s faithfulness can be relied on, and, sooner or later, God always comes through, gives me a fresh glimpse of his grace or reminds me of an old truth, and “faith” returns.  Each time my faith comes back to me it is a little different, a little more complicated, a little less self-confident, but perhaps a little deeper and more real. (more…)

jonathan robinson: don’t take the sting out of the tail

Nearly two years ago I was reading a book by John Wright, Telling God’s Story. One of the book’s valuable observations is that as preachers we tend towards comic rather than tragic sermons.  This has nothing to do with being funny or not, but is rather the tendency to resolve our sermons on good notes rather than leaving the listeners hanging and feeling bad.  So, for example, we might preach on the story of the rich young ruler, but we will make sure by the end of it the congregation doesn’t feel the need to sell everything they possess.  For Wright this has the effect of letting the listeners off the hook. Scripture confronts them with a harsh challenge but the preacher does his or her best to soften the blow so that the congregation can end the sermon feeling good, rather than convicted.  The comic sermon has a happy ending, and so it seldom provokes a response.  The tragic sermon leaves the listener unsettled and thus provokes transformation (in theory at least). (more…)