[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]
A simple test of a good teacher is to ask what they teach. If their answer is Maths, English, Science, History or Geography, they probably don’t understand their role. If they say students, pupils, young people, or adults, there is a possibility that they know their trade. Of course, such a simple test is simplistic; word games are not reality. The answers would be different if the question was who they teach. Yet there is a truth in this little test; teaching is a relational activity.
Certainly teaching involves subject material; there is content to be conveyed. But the aim of the exercise involves conveying information from one person to another. The best teachers do more than convey information; they whet the appetite for learning, they develop the student’s capacity to understand, analyse, explore and discover other information. The well-taught student is not limited to the information their teacher has imparted to them. Good education is not really a curriculum matter but a teaching skill that relies heavily on the relationship the teacher can develop with the student.
Usually the teachers we remember and love the most did more than impart information to us. They were the ones who opened the world to us, taking us to places and ideas, understanding and critical thinking that we did not know even existed prior, to them taking an interest in us.
A pastor or minister is a teacher. Preaching is a particular form of teaching. Evangelism involves teaching. Paul described his ministry to the Ephesians as “teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). And he directs his protégé Timothy to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). In selecting elders both Timothy and Titus, are instructed to look for men who can teach (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:9) just as Christianity is learnt (Eph 4:21; Col 1:7).
There is an important difference between teaching the Bible and teaching people the Bible. It is easy to be so engaged in what we teach that we forget whom we are teaching. We can even be oblivious to the fact that we are not teaching anybody. This is particularly true of the sermon. The monologue engages the preacher’s mind but can completely miss the hearers’ thinking.
As a church we have to work hard on improving our sermons. It should involve at least two participants; the preacher and the congregation. When the Spirit of God opens the hearers mind and heart it involves a third more important person. However, when the preacher doesn’t speak to people and the congregation doesn’t listen to the preacher, we are simply beating the air. The preacher must do more than teach the Bible he has to teach people the Bible. The congregation must do more than wait patiently for him to finish, they need to prepare themselves to hear not only what he has to say but what God may be saying through him.
Congregation members help by reading the Scriptures before they come, by looking at the Bible passage the preacher is referring to, by taking notes during the sermon, by discussing what they have heard afterwards with other congregation members or later at home with their family, by reading the passage and notes that night as they go to bed. Preachers can help by knowing the congregation they are preaching to, by preparing to speak to people rather than write an essay to deliver orally, by opening up to a question and answer session afterwards.
Many people prefer small group Bible studies. Teaching is easier when we can focus on the participants and adjust to their particular needs. By judicious questioning and answering the group can discover the information in an active learning context. The questions and contributions from last week or last month can still be in the leader’s mind as they prepare the next study. There are great advantages in this form of teaching. But preaching versus small groups is not an either/or issue but a both/and concern. We will all get more from small groups and from sermons if we are engaged in both forms of education, just as we will learn more in both if we are also reading the Bible privately for ourselves.
However, preaching has other functions in church life. It engages and unites the congregation in our common discipleship. As we sit week by week together under the word of God we are being united in following Christ. The preacher trains the congregation not only in what to expect of the sermon, but also in the pattern of Christian thinking and respect for God’s word. The preacher pastors the congregation; just as the pastor pastors the congregation by preaching. When people talk of a minister as a good preacher but a poor pastor, or as a poor preacher but a good pastor, they are really contrasting his public speaking with his private counselling. For nobody can preach well without pastoring the sheep as nobody can pastor well without preaching to the flock.
So this year let’s seek to improve our church’s preaching by praying for our preachers, preparing ahead by reading our Bibles, learning the Scriptures in small groups, discussing the sermons after church. And as preachers let us not only prepare to teach the Bible but prepare to teach people the Bible, even engaging the congregations in questions and answers. For what greater treasures are there than God’s word and God’s people?