Preaching or Teaching?

“What is this babbler trying to say?”(Acts 17:18)

“In public he never taught without using parables; but afterward, when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them” (Mark 4:34).

“Let your house be a gathering place for sages; And wallow in the dust of their feet; and drink in their words with gusto.” (Rabbi Yoeser, m. Avot. 1.4) 

While the casual church attender doesn’t think about it, there are many different approaches and styles of teaching a pastor can employ in her ministry. Many pastors are probably not even aware of why they have chosen their particular style and approach.

I want to differentiate between preaching, teaching and discipleship. Each has its own goal and style, as well as inherent limitations. While there are many ways to parse this out, I want to share how I view them. A congregation should be aware of what their pastor is trying to accomplish when they step into the pulpit, lead a Adult Sunday school class, or lead a small group Bible study in a living room. 

PREACHING. Preaching is the bold proclamation of Scripture (we currently follow the Common Lectionary) with a heavy emphasis on the challenge of the gospel and a summons to Kingdom allegiance. This tends to be a one-way message, and a bit more authoritative and unapologetic in its delivery. The image behind my own view of preaching is Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. The sower, or preacher, is called to toss the seed of the gospel and Kingdom indiscriminately upon the entire crowd, and trust the Holy Spirit to bring forth fruit from receptive soil. The sower doesn’t get into detailed teaching of fine points, presenting a logical argument, and trying to persuade everyone. The sower doesn’t worry about crossing every “T” and dotting every theological “I” in hopes of avoiding the chance of misunderstanding or offense. The preacher hides behind the authority of the text, and acknowledges the real possibility that not everyone in the crowd will “have ears to hear” this word. In fact, the preacher expects that some sermons will land on hard and rocky soil and produce nothing. But “Let all who have ears to hear, listen” (Jesus).

The preacher trusts that Jesus meant it when he said the kingdom is like a man who “scatters seed on the ground” and irregardless of his performance and role—“whether he sleeps or gets up—the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain” (Mark 4:26-28). This promise lifts the burden many pastors feel every Monday morning as they ponder the previous day’s impact. The preacher provokes and comforts, challenges and summons people to a response—favorable or not. The preacher expects mixed results. The power is in the seed, not the sower.

TEACHING. For me anyways, teaching is more classroom style lecture and discussion. The Bible teacher often takes a topical approach, moving more slowly, systematically building an argument, introducing and explaining key terms and concepts, and encouraging questions and discussion along the way. The goal of teaching is growth in knowledge and perspective, digging into historical, biblical and theological issues, explaining different paradigms at work, and so on. Whereas the Sower in the parable above is content to let the kingdom seed expose the soil of the listeners, leaving some puzzled and resistant, the teacher follows Jesus’ practice of explaining the meaning of things in private with his “classroom” of disciples. Mark 4:10-11 puts it like this: “When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.” Jesus preaches to the crowds but teaches to a smaller circle of committed learners who trust the teacher. These are two different styles with two different goals. Unlike preaching, when it comes to teaching, the power is in the teacher to be effective in his or her craft. 

Today, churches can be divided into two groups based on what happens from the pulpit each Sunday: teaching or preaching. Each has its challenges and advantages, but most pastors will lean one way or the other—though certainly most sermons have a mixture of both. I currently “preach” on Sunday and engage in “teaching” in my Three Taverns class. We also provide more practical life-application teaching opportunities video curriculum in Lifegroups, etc. 

DISCIPLESHIP (or Christian formation). Finally, churches and pastors are charged with the task of catechizing or training up individuals in Christian doctrine and a Jesus-styled life. I’m not sure which label I prefer these days, but this process of discipleship or spiritual formation tends to be the most intimate and intentional, as well as the least practiced. This might take the form of a Confirmation program for youth, catechesis in preparation for baptism, or small group Bible studies, or spiritual accountability huddles, or one-on-one conversations with the pastor. While discovering or creating a viable pathway for training up disciples has been my greatest ambition as a pastor, it remains the area of ministry where I feel I have made the least progress.

My doctoral research has be exploring whether or not the ancient rabbinic model or the approach of the ancient moral philosophers may hold the secret to more effective discipleship in the church today. These models entail bringing oneself under the tutelage of a wiser sage and eagerly “receiving” from them everything they have to teach and show us. This is the time-tested formational approach used for centuries, if not millennia, across most civilizations including the Jewish wisdom tradition—from the courts of King Solomon to the synagogues of the first century. This was the approach of Jesus himself and all the apostles, the brilliant Paul who studied under the great Rabbi Gamaliel and his own disciple Timothy. The Jewish sages passed the baton to the early church fathers, many whom adopted the style of the Greco-Roman philosophers in their teaching. The nascent movement turned to these great men for their wisdom, expertise and leadership in the task of preserving and passing down the received tradition and training up the next generation. They were following the deeply engrained pedagogical pattern Pastor Paul did when he said, “For what I received I passed on to you” (1 Cor. 15:3). 


Scot McKnight, an Anglican Anabaptist! (Try to figure that one out.)

I, myself, have chosen to embrace this mindset in my doctoral studies, privileged to study under my own current-day biblical sage, Scot McKnight. I made a personal decision to not only do the assigned reading for my classes, but to try to read and devour every book he has written, to try to understand and wrestle with his views on every issue he has weighed in on. This doesn’t mean accepting all of his conclusions indiscriminately, but it does mean reverently considering his arguments with a critical yet charitable mind, cherishing his seasoned wisdom and superior knowledge. In the rabbinic terms, I am taking McKnight’s “yoke” upon me during my time with him. On a personal note, I am amazed at his commitment to making himself available to his students. Despite his heavy teaching, speaking and writing load, and all the people vying for his time, he responds to my emails or texts usually within minutes!

I am not sure how to implement anything like this in the local church, especially in with our already jammed schedules and desire for quick and efficient spiritual tools at our fingertips (e.g., iPhone devotions). But I’m ready and willing to share what wisdom and knowledge I have with anyone willing to carve out the time. The closest I get to this is my monthly “Jesus Chats” with our 5 youth at Jason’s House. Ah, yes… “And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

In future posts, I will consider some of the challenges facing each of these tasks and approaches. 

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