Bad preaching

I’m listening to Ryan Adam’s Prisoner album tonight. I don’t know why, I’m just in the mood for some moody rock and technical musicianship. That can happen after lesson planning for the week after being in traffic for a few hours. 

The title may lead the reader to think I’m about to dunk on some specific bad preachers. I’ve made a habit of such practices in that past, but not tonight. I’m not in that bad of a mood. What I do want to talk about is the nature of bad preaching, and the practice of noticing it, assessing it as such, and doing something about it. At root is really the challenge of coming up with a consistent definition of what preaching is, and what makes it bad and/or good. My dad is a full time preacher and I’ve grown up around it all my live long days. After swearing off public speaking when I was 10 years old, I have preached at least monthly since I was in high school, in some format at least. I was a total boss at 10. Something else I grew up around was opinions on preaching. I got one sermon per week, but I got endless opinions on said sermon. Likewise, regarding my own preaching, I give one but the opinions are many. And these opinions take all the many shapes in like manner to the blogesphere’s eruption of opinions on all things foodie, political, and cultural. That is to say, they are endless. When I was little my parents listened to one other pastor on the radio other than the sermon my dad gave every week. That was about the only variety in homiletic consumption they had. Today however, it’s easy and common to inundate oneself with an ever flowing sermonic fountain. There are worse things to listen to, for sure, but it begs the questions regarding not only the quality, but the assessment of the quality by it’s hearers.

I’ve been thinking that the same thing I think is wrong with bad preaching is also what is wrong with bad opinions about preaching. Weak theological education, which is an extension of weak discipleship. There is a bit of a vicious circle when it comes to this. The ill-formed disciple hears a bad sermon and thinks it’s good, or thinks it bad but for the wrong reasons, and then times this cycle of possibilities across a given congregation, and now multiply that by the internet. The exponential disaster that is the aforementioned scenario aside, what really bothers me is the preaching that comes out of untold thousands of dollars of theological education and still doesn’t even come close to the mark of being good, but yet gets popularized and then bolstered as legitimate because of the paper that hangs on the preacher’s office wall. So what is good preaching anyway?

I had a simple formula come to me from several teachers in my life. Without going into detail the basic idea is that true Christian preaching proclaims the central message of the Christian Bible, which itself is the core teaching of the creator God, and his primary act was sending his son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of mankind to save them for himself, such that good preaching proclaims the whole of the Bible through the lens of this central, divine, act of salvation, and making clear all it’s depth and all it’s ramifications. The proclaiming act for the Christian preacher involves both clear and cogent teaching on relevant subject matters related to any given text from the Bible one is preaching from, but also, very importantly, to be emphatic and passionate (at some level in line with one’s personality, not fake) in the declaring of the truth of the good news of God’s kind rescue of mankind. The ditches that bad preaching finds itself in, now and through history, is related to either not teaching the whole counsel of scripture, or not proclaiming it’s central theme, usually favoring secondary themes that obscure Christ’s work in favor of man’s. There a listing effect that occurs when preachers, churches, or denominations decide something other than all of Scripture is really where the power of good preaching, and by extension the Christian life, is. Furthermore, even where all of the Bible is taken seriously, there can be an aversion to center the preaching and therefore the life of the church on the finished work of Christ. This may all seem dogmatic for a late night blog. At the least I will lean on one of our agreed upon intellectual betters, dear reader. The good chap Chesterton said the following, and I know we’ll both agree. “A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.”1 I’m a teacher, and I intend to teach something here if for no other reason that you will know precisely what it is you are disagreeing with. However, at the best, what I’m really saying is this.

If the Bible is God’s word, and if Christ is central to it, and if central to Christ is his work on the cross, then what is it in one of his preachers that drives them away from it? Can it be said to be anything good in the end? And yet today our sermons are often filled with anything but. Why? Why self help? Why prosperity? Why moralism? Why not the cross? These questions have book length responses elsewhere, but tonight I reflect on where asking these questions lead, and it’s to some dark truths about the health of today’s churches in many cases. And as a bit of preacher myself, I look inward to where it’s darkest, and the only light there is Christ. And he’s enough. And he’s who I’m going to share.

That’s it dear reader. My Monday starts tomorrow where I am. Wherever you are I hope the light of Christ is there, and that you get a better glimpse at it from what happens on your Sunday. 

  1. Chesterton, G. K. (1910). What’s wrong with the world. (p. 246). New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.
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A few of the burdens of being a Bible teacher at a Christian school

When I say Bible teacher, I don’t mean a preacher or even a seminary professor. I also don’t mean a Sunday school teacher. I mean a Bible teacher at a Christian school. Most folks have a hard time categorizing what you do. To some, you’re a pastor, which isn’t the worst thing unless that’s all they see you as, because when you give them a bad grade on an assignment now you’re evil for grading their spirituality because they forgot you were a teacher assessing their academic skills in a range of academic disciplines related to the Bible. Some will view you as a professor. But then, when you do happen to give spiritual advice, they will tell you about their pastor’s contrary opinion to yours expecting to shut you down, or a book they read, or a podcast they listened to, or Youtube video they watched, or their own freshly formed opinion. It’s to be expected in any field every once and awhile, but something about being a Bible teacher makes people project all their opinions on Christian spirituality on to you such that they expect you to say what they are already thinking, even students, but not view your opinion as important as a pastor of a church. I know this happens in other ministry capacities too, but there are fewer category errors because the lines are more clearly drawn. The fact is, depending on how a school is structured, a Bible teacher has a foot in a pastor realm, an academic realm and a counseling realm. I believe doing the job well means owning this and clarifying what you are aiming to achieve in each setting you’re in as you are in them. It’s just part of the job, and it can take a long time for a new Bible teacher to establish as a practice and policy school wide, but it’s worth it.

Something I have been thinking about a lot is that while there is much attention given to training preachers, and Bible teachers in a church setting, there is very little to no training on teaching Bible in Christian schools. There’s becoming a pastor, a missionary, or a professor, but not an emphasis on primary or secondary schools. The markets of Christian higher education admissions and primary/secondary school Bible teaching jobs both reflect this neglect. Most Bible teacher jobs, and there are a sad few of those, have odd or few requirements, often low pay, and I cannot find a single Christian University or seminary that has a program specializing in Bible teaching to elementary or secondary school youth in a Christian school. Maybe churches and families have got it covered, but from my experience and what data I’ve been exposed to I think not, definitely not to the level needed in our secular age. Furthermore, even if they were, the majority of Christians want Christian education for their kids if they can get it, and a big part of that is because they want solid Bible education. Yet, what Bible education is is often thought of in truly nebulous and unhelpfully varied ways. Hence, many of the jobs are strange hybrids with coaching or other subject and those hired into them are either given too much administrative authority or no authority at all. In my case, my leadership takes it seriously and has given my colleague and I a lot of room to navigate the best practice in our context. Even with a green light to figure it out it is still an uphill battle, and that’s just our world, not to mention the battles inherent to any school., and a Christian one at that, topped off by the fact that we are an international school. That battles are endless. Yet, it’s worth it.

Why is all this worth it? Because of what the Bible is and what is says. If the Bible is the word of God, and I like all Christians believe that it is, and if it tells us to train up in children in the way they should go, with countless examples of that being training them in God’s word, then formally teaching youth in modern Christian schools as best we can is worth it. We also need to remember that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I say there’s a lot we can do to that end.

Beyond requirement in theological education: a reflection on longing

Though I’ve tried to change this about myself many times, my singular passion is for theological education. I wish I could switch, I’ve tried, but it stays with me.

One of the frustrations with theological education is that for many Christian traditions it is required in order to officially lead in any capacity. Many jobs within Christian institutions are reserved for those with official training of some kind, with official documentation. I’m certainly not against training, merely the result of taking a movement built by the unschooled and ordinary and putting them through a system to make them, at least seemingly, schooled and extraordinary. Many Christian leaders in the making have a passion for a great number of things, all filtered through the singular belief that Jesus Christ and his gospel will bring about his kingdom of peace, joy, love and truth. When that passion is pushed through the sieve of  institutionalized theological education the result is often varied, and too often with unfettered passion diminished under the weight of canned knowledge.

One of my primary theses regarding theological education is that it doesn’t have to be like this. We can acquire the necessary and helpful knowledge without losing passion, and even have them serve one anther. Even as a middle and high school Bible teacher, this is my goal (albeit a bloody challenge, no doubt).

I was reflecting on issues related to this this morning, and contemplating moments in my own formal training that were positively transcendent. For instance, in an otherwise dry Hebrew class when the professor sang “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” before exegeting  Isaiah 53, pausing to explain what each detail had meant to him personally over the years, and the entire class had done more than learned about Hebrew Grammar, Jewish history, prophetic imagery, Old Testament Christology and Biblical theology, we were worshiping Christ through all of it.

In this brief reflection I just want to share an idea. Theological education happens in and out of formal training, and in all contexts I believe it transcends mere knowledge acquisition with at least one key ingredient, a deep sense of longing. And this, while always a challenge, is most helped by a pastoral teacher whose heart is heavy with gospel saturation so that with everything they do the blood of Christ is dripping everywhere.

More on this later…