(On Mondays, The Preacher considers the vitally important subject of The Call – how God calls a man into a pastoral and preaching ministry. Each week we look at some scriptural principles and some practical considerations, as well as learn from a wide range of individual testimonies.)
In preparing for this study I was struck as I went through the sizable pile of books on Pastoral Theology books that currently live on my desk, that there is barely a mention in any of them offering advice to the man or church who is seeking to know God’s will as to whether he is called to be their pastor or when he feels it may be the right time to move from one church to another. Perhaps the scenarios are so numerous and varied that they feel they can’t address the subject, but advice needs to be given for this is one of the most important questions that an individual or a church will ever consider.
Let me be so bold as to venture where others fear to go.
First, and I cannot stress this to strongly, from both perspectives – that of the individual and that of the church – limit your considerations to one man and one church. The man who considers more than one church, and the church that considers more than one man at any one time, will find themselves in great difficulties in making the right decision for the right reasons.
In both cases, the danger is that decisions will be made based, for example, on personal preferences or financial considerations rather than on what is God clearly saying to everyone in this situation. The decision to call a man or to choose a church becomes something of a ‘beauty contest’ where comparisons are made between different options.
I was once deceived by a congregation that I was in conversation with about being their pastor at the very beginning of my ministry. In fact I was spending a long weekend with the church, speaking at various meetings and getting to know the church as well as possible. During the Sunday morning service at which I was preaching, it was announced that on the following weekend a second candidate for the pastorate would be doing precisely what I was doing at that moment in time, and after his visit a vote would be taken to come to a decision. As soon as the service was finished, I spoke to the church leadership team and withdrew from their considerations.
Apart from anything else, if, as is the normal situation, a vote is taken on which of two, or perhaps more, men is to be invited to serve as pastor; and if, as is the norm, a majority of perhaps two-thirds, or 80% is required, if one man can get that the other candidate(s) must be of such poor quality to only get perhaps 20-30%, in which case why were they even being considered at all?
Where more than one man is being considered, the danger is that a decision will be made on the basis of personal preferences about style or appearance or personality rather than on the Spirit’s anointing and confirmation.
When more than one church is being considered, the danger is that a decision will be made on the basis of the financial package offered, the accommodation that goes with the job, the size of the congregation etc, rather than on the witness of the Spirit within.
Getting to know you
I cannot stress too emphatically the importance of taking time, as much as is possible, to get to know the prospective congregation. This process must not be rushed, for whatever reason. It is more important for a church to get the ‘right man’ at what appears to be the ‘wrong time’, than to get the ‘wrong man’ at what appears to be ‘right time’.
This needs to be a period of familiarisation and examination on both sides. Opportunities need to be given to both church and candidate to get to know the other as much as is possible.
In this day and age, even before any serious conversations take place, there are opportunities for church and candidate to become acquainted with one another. The prospective pastor can find out a great deal about the church by visiting their website and listening to the sort of ministry they are used to.
The seeking church can listen to sermons preached by the candidate, even before inviting them to preach for the first time. In the past, it was often the case that a church would call a pastor based on perhaps only hearing him preach two or three times; hardly a good basis for making such an important decision and the candidate may be tempted to pull out of their file their ‘best’ sermon, in order to impress.
When there are face to face meetings there will be different levels of conversations
Between the prospective pastor and the spiritual leadership of the church
In my opinion this conversation needs to happen early on in the process because the outcome of this may determine where there is any future in the process. There needs to be a frank, honest, open and far-reaching discussion – a two-way conversation – about doctrinal matters and personal convictions.
It is important that nothing be assumed, simply because of the individual’s reputation or church background, or current ministry. Nothing should be ‘off limits’.
The following are the sort of questions that should be asked of the church leaders by the prospective pastor:[ii]
Theological and Ecclesiological
What is the church’s statement of faith and how did the church devise it?
What has been the most vexed theological question the church has faced?
Has there ever been a church split over theology or practice, and, if so, why?
On the wider scene, what theological trends and strands of false teaching would the spiritual leaders be particularly concerned about at the moment?
What are the leadership structure of the church and how does it work in practice?
If there is a plurality of elders, what is the relationship of the elders to the pastor?
What are the primary and secondary issues for this church?
What is the church’s position on the role of women – complementarian or egalitarian?
What is the church’s position on the function of the charismatic gifts and other contentious issues?
What is the process of being baptised and becoming a church member?
How is baptism and membership encouraged?
How is communion practiced and it the table ‘guarded’?
What are the expectations laid upon church members?
How does the church practice church discipline?
What examples are there of church discipline being practiced in the past?
What is the vision of the church leaders for the future; do they have one?
What, if anything, would the elders want to see change or develop in the future?
Do the church members generally, and happily, follow the lead of the eldership?
What is the church’s current commitment to world mission?
What are the views about worship, use of modern hymns, instruments etc?
What is the church’s preferred Bible translation and how fervently is that position held?
Can the elders give evidence of an openness to growing in their role? (by eg. reading resources on eldership, attending conferences, having a weekend away with pastor, etc)
How would you sum up the spiritual health of the congregation in qualitative terms (against measurements like prayer, heart for evangelism, love for one another)?
Pardoning the expression, are there any ‘sacred cows’ in the church?
Who are the ‘power brokers’ and problem people in the church?
What is the church’s view of the role of the pastor’s wife?
What are the congregational/eldership expectations (these two may be different) regarding pastoral visitation?
Is the church open to change?
What relationships does the church have with other churches and what are the criteria on which those relationships are based?
What accommodation, if any, is provided by the church?
How easy might it be to buy an affordable house in the area?
What is the view of the elders related to the pastor developing his gifts and feeding his own soul through reading, conferences, sabbaticals etc? Are there any expenses for these things?
resourcing himself? (conferences; the odd retreat to read & plan, etc)
What is the ‘rule’ regarding days off and holidays?
What is the ‘rule’ for releasing the pastor to preach elsewhere on occasions?
What are the schools like in the area?
What would be the minimum and maximum expectations be of the frequency of the pastor’s preaching?
What items in the current services are non-negotiable?
What other items are deemed acceptable and have been featured in the past?
Is the pastor responsible for putting together all orders of service?
How often are business meetings conducted? Does the pastor moderate this? Are they productive and generally positive? What is typically discussed?
You may notice that there is one issue that is intentionally omitted from this list of issues to be discussed – finances.
My own personal view and practice is that I have never and never would discuss the matter of salary/stipend/allowance etc until after I am resolved in my mind as to the rightness of accepting a call should it come. I don’t want to allow for even the possibility of being tempted or deterred on the basis of money. As the old saying puts it, ‘Where God leads, God feeds’. (Philippians 4:19)
“In my many years in the pastorate I have never established a dollar amount as the basis for my coming to a church. When church leaders have asked what I thought I should receive, I have asked them to make a comparison between the salaries of other men in churches of similar size, take into consideration the cost of living in that particular community, and then compare the figure they have arrived at with the dollar amount the church believes it can raise. If I felt that I was genuinely called of God to that group of people, I knew that God would be faithful in meeting my needs. He never has let me down. Through the years, never have we lived lavishly, but God nevertheless has consistently supplied more than our needs.
“I have used this personal illustration because I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of young men graduating from the seminary who have exaggerated ideas of their own worth to a church as a professional. Often these men state a minimum figure they believe is necessary for them to receive before they will agree to serve the church. Even though they are still an untested product, many demand a salary that exceeds by several thousands of dollars the salary received by many of their seminary professors. I am not Opposed to God’s servants living comfortably What I am concerned about are those who make salary a major consideration and never seem happy no matter how much money comes their way. That, to me is an unworthy motive to seek the pastorate.” [iii]
Between the prospective pastor and the membership of the church
There should be the opportunity for the individual to spend some time with some of the members and families of the church, in order to get the ‘view from the pew’, which is often very different from that which he will gain from meeting with the leadership. These could be individual families and individuals or small groups meetings with an ‘open microphone’ type facility.
“During the candidating week, the prospective pastor should visit as many homes of the congregation as possible to get a cross-sampling of the people he and his wife will be serving. He should meet with as many groups of people as possible, and he should encourage them to ask questions of him just as he, in turn, will ask questions of them concerning what they expect from a pastor.
“As the candidating week progresses, he should do his best to penetrate the power structure and learn where the real power of the church lies. Especially should he try to learn who the tribal leader—or leaders—are. When he does so he should then arrange to meet with that person or group of persons. Such meetings may have to be arranged discreetly, because many times the real leaders of the church do not occupy any official office. If the candidate feels comfortable working with the power bloc of the church he may want to pursue further meetings with the pulpit committee and the board of the church.” [iv]
Between the church and the home church of the prospective pastor
Since it is – or at least ought to be – the home church that has, over a period of time, evaluated and examined the character and gifting of the man under consideration, it is important that there is some interaction between the leadership of the two churches so that, as was true in the case of Timothy, it can be said that “he was well spoken of by the brothers at…..” (Acts 16:2).
“It should be standard procedure that a church considering a person to be their pastor go into the community where the man is presently living and talk to the non-Christians with whom he has contact to see what kind of a reputation he has among them. What sort of a neighbour has he been? Has he exemplified the Lord Jesus Christ among those in his neighbourhood? How has he reacted when a neighbour’s child beat up his child? What about those people with whom he has carried on business? Was he always looking for a special ‘deal’ because he was a clergyman? Did he pay his debts promptly? Was he honest and straightforward in his business dealings with members of the community? If he was in a business other than pastoring, what kind of a business reputation did he enjoy? Did he treat people honestly and squarely? Did he back up the product he was representing with service to his customers? If he was employed, what did his boss and, his fellow workers think of him? By now the reader is discovering on, the basis of this list of characteristics that many people already in the pastorate should not be there.” [v]
This last stage is probably not possible in most cases where a pastor is moving from one church to another, but is important when a man is entering pastoral ministry for the first time
Let me suggest one more conversation that could be had, at least in certain circumstances, that between the prospective pastor and the former pastor of the church. In my own situation, as a young first-time pastor fresh out of College and, as they say, very ‘wet behind the ears’, that was an invaluable and truly providential blessing.
“Books giving advice to new pastors used to warn the pastor that under no circumstances should he discuss his new church with his predecessor lest it color his opinions and thus his actions toward the people whom he serves. Such advice may be in order if the new pastor is easily impressed and incapable of making up his own mind, but usually it is not. In the last two churches I served, before agreeing to become pastor I made it a point to sit down with my predecessor and try to get an objective view of the congregation. Rather than flavoring my view prejudicially, his comments gave me rich insights into the congregation. They enabled me to tread softly in certain areas and avoid making some of the mistakes my predecessors made. It also gave me a better picture of the power structure of the church so that I knew from the start that was really in charge. I was thus able to spare the time it would have taken me to learn the power bloc. I could begin to work immediately with those who determined what would or wouldn’t move in that church.” [vi]
For the church seeking a pastor:
There is a need to be explicit with the candidate about the process that is being followed, the rough length of time that it is envisaged to take and how the matter will ultimately be resolved.
For instance, will the leadership make a recommendation to the church membership, and will that recommendation be a majority or unanimous decision? I, for one, would not want to go to a church where the elders were not completely of one mind as to my call.
What percentage is required from a vote by church members? In my experiences, churches generally require a two-thirds or 80% majority, and I would not want to settle for less than 80%.
For the pastor seeking a church:
It is important that even before serious conversations are held you identify what for you are ‘red lines’ and ‘deal breakers’.
Although not explicitly mentioned, all of the above is saturated with and accompanied by fervent and relentless prayer for the clearest of divine guidance. There is much, almost unceasing, prayer by the men at the centre of all of this, but also prayer involving his wife and family, his church leadership and friends. Perhaps a season, a retreat, of earnest prayer would also be appropriate and necessary.
One closing, but immensely important aspect I would stress; one which, in many ways, is covered by all the above – for the prospective pastor it is vitally important and critical that he gets to know the culture of the church that he is considering to the best of his God-given ability. Every church has its own culture, its own way of doing things, its own values etc. These are deeply ingrained, often unconsciously, until they are challenged. As you get to know the church, its leadership, people and history, cry to the Lord to enable you to discover its culture and how cherished it is and whether in any way it would become a hinderance to you in ministry there. Some church cultures are stubbornly resistant to change and may be best avoided altogether.
[i] Martin, A. N. (2018). The Man of God Vol. 1 Pastoral Theology. Montville: Trinity Pulpit Press. p208
That’s what Dr. Kent Hughes, esteemed preacher, professor, and editor of the Preaching the Word Commentary Series discusses in the excerpt below.
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word
There are times when I am preaching that I have especially sensed the pleasure of God. I usually become aware of it through the unnatural silence. The ever-present coughing ceases, and the pews stop creaking, bringing an almost physical quiet to the sanctuary—through which my words sail like arrows. I experience a heightened eloquence, so that the cadence and volume of my voice intensify the truth I am preaching.
There is nothing quite like it—the Holy Spirit filling one’s sails, the sense of his pleasure, and the awareness that something is happening among one’s hearers. This experience is, of course, not unique, for thousands of preachers have similar experiences, even greater ones.
What has happened when this takes place? How do we account for this sense of his smile? The answer for me has come from the ancient rhetorical categories of logos, ethos, and pathos.
The first reason for his smile is the logos—in terms of preaching, God’s Word. This means that as we stand before God’s people to proclaim his Word, we have done our homework. We have exegeted the passage, mined the significance of its words in their context, and applied sound hermeneutical principles in interpreting the text so that we understand what its words meant to its hearers. And it means that we have labored long until we can express in a sentence what the theme of the text is—so that our outline springs from the text. Then our preparation will be such that as we preach, we will not be preaching our own thoughts about God’s Word, but God’s actual Word, his logos. This is fundamental to pleasing him in preaching.
The second element in knowing God’s smile in preaching is ethos—what you are as a person. There is a danger endemic to preaching, which is having your hands and heart cauterized by holy things. Phillips Brooks illustrated it by the analogy of a train conductor who comes to believe that he has been to the places he announces because of his long and loud heralding of them. And that is why Brooks insisted that preaching must be “the bringing of truth through personality.” Though we can never perfectly embody the truth we preach, we must be subject to it, long for it, and make it as much a part of our ethos as possible. As the Puritan William Ames said, “Next to the Scriptures, nothing makes a sermon more to pierce, than when it comes out of the inward affection of the heart without any affectation.” When a preacher’s ethos backs up his logos, there will be the pleasure of God.
Last, there is pathos—personal passion and conviction. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, was once challenged as he was seen going to hear George Whitefield preach: “I thought you do not believe in the gospel.” Hume replied, “I don’t, but he does.” Just so! When a preacher believes what he preaches, there will be passion. And this belief and requisite passion will know the smile of God.
The pleasure of God is a matter of logos (the Word), ethos (what you are), and pathos (your passion). As you preach the Word may you experience his smile—the Holy Spirit in your sails!
A good outline can strengthen a sermon, providing clarity, progression and climax for those who hear it. Speaking personally, however, I find outlining an extremely exacting discipline. As a result, it has been profitable for me to study men who are most adept in this area – men like Charles Spurgeon, John Stott and Warren Wiersbe.
Emerging from that study, here is a list which I have compiled and that I sometimes refer to. It helps me think creatively about my sermon structure. Please note that most of the specific examples are borrowed from some of the above preachers.
1. Quote directly from text
‘To live is Christ’. ‘To die is gain’
2. Single word headings of similar length, or sound
I preach over 100 sermons annually. That amounts to more hours of preparation than I can hope to quantify, and around 250,000 words of written material produced for the pulpit each year. This is one of the main activities that I have been trained, commissioned, and employed for by the local church. This is what I believe the Lord has called me to do vocationally, created me to do temperamentally, and shaped me to do experientially. I am a preacher.
Fulfilling this responsibility entails asking and answering key questions every single week: Where am I preaching from? How will I structure this sermon? How will I phrase this section? How do I apply this doctrine or narrative? Are there illustrations I can use which could make this message clearer? It is impossible to preach effectively without asking the right questions.
One question that is easy to overlook, however, is who in the world am I preaching to? The clarity of my speech will matter, the integrity of my exegesis will count for a lot, the fervency of my prayers is crucial, but self-consciously thinking through who I am addressing can easily slip from the list of priorities. In this post I want to suggest that this is a key mistake, and one which can act as barrier to effective communication from the pulpit. In order to explore ‘who in the world I preach to’ I will list a series of negations accompanied by an affirmation, hopefully clarifying for myself and for other preachers what exactly it is that we do when we open God’s word in a local church.
Not to an audience, but to a gathering
The global pandemic from which we are hopefully beginning to emerge has affected some significant changes in how we think about communicating in our preaching. The earliest days of 2020 saw many pastors and preachers being forced to resort to recording messages to stream later, or preaching live into a camera or smartphone. As the pandemic has dragged its feet in leaving our communities many of our churches have installed permanent technology to make broadcasting possible. This has been a positive thing for many local churches, providing vital ministry and connection to those who remain isolated, or are suffering from long term conditions which preclude their attending church in person. It has also served to open the door to honest enquirers about the gospel, who can ‘sample’ what church is like before taking the step of crossing any physical threshold.
With all of these benefits, there are certain factors which could threaten the identity of local church preaching. Many of us have become so accustomed to camera technology that we have forgotten about its presence in our buildings. This is an entirely good thing, but we must be careful that vestiges of the period of our ministry when we were speaking to an invisible world don’t subtly affect how we minister. Preaching takes place, primarily, in the gathering of God’s people. It is a corporate activity rather than a solitary performance. Preaching is not a sanctified TED talk, or a weekly presentation, but is a particular group of Christians meeting with one another in the presence of the living Christ to hear what he has said, and to mutually worship him in that activity. Preaching, when it is properly undertaken, is participative and responsive; it is an exercise in mutual edification and mutual submission to God himself.
This means that my preaching must be among the congregation of God’s people as well as before them. I am a member of the church that I preach in. I am seeking to live in submission to the Lord of the church, and to the godly care of those whom he has called to lead the church. I am a sinner among sinners, a learner among learners, a new creation in union with Christ and his people joining our hearts to exalt him and own him as our Lord. This is entirely different that merely imparting information: it is sharing in the common currency of Christian worship and discipleship among a group of people known to me, and by whom I am known.
Not to the nation, but to my neighbour
Audience and gathering have an influence on how I perceive my voice in the pulpit. Social media has raised a megaphone to the lips of every person signed up for it, allowing our opinions and passions to have a ready platform to the world. Much of what we say during the week has the capacity to reach thousands of people, either via our own social media life, or through others reflecting publicly on our relationship to them. This is a strange and unsettling reality that I am not entirely sure we were made for, nor that we manage well.
That amplified environment can fool us into thinking that preaching in the local church is louder in volume or wider in reach than it really is. We read biblical biographies such as that of John the Baptist, or historical biographies of John Knox, George Whitefield and others, and imagine that the pulpit can affect the nation directly. The perception of nascent persecution in the Western world has fed this feeling, with the idea of one’s messages being surveilled or ultimately suppressed feeling possible. This is largely a trick of the light.
I am not, in reality, preaching to the nation – nor should I wish to. Most of our ministries are local and parochial, our influence limited to a very small subset of the very small communities in which we live. Our ‘reach’ in terms of how many people hear us is, mercifully, limited. People in the corridors of power don’t know my name nor the nature of my work, individuals in positions of civic influence have no awareness of me, and the policies which govern the shape of our lives will not be influenced directly by anything I say or do in the local church.
This should affect how we preach. I cannot leverage the nation in my preaching, but I ought to love my neighbour. Preaching is ministerial in nature, it is designed by God to work in the hearts of those with whom we are intimately acquainted, whose eccentricities and proclivities are not hidden from us. We are called to preach into the micro-culture of where we have been placed, allowing contextual issues to shape and shield our words and our way of ministering. We are called to be conduit through whom the ascended Jesus will equip this group of people for these works of ministry in this precise location. Our preaching is colloquial and provincial, it should use the language and imagery, the common currency, of the community in which it is exercised.
The goal of such preaching is measured, but it is not modest. I preach to my neighbour in the hope that they might in turn have a formative effect on their neighbours, in leading them to the Saviour or closer to their Lord. I do so in the prayer that my neighbours neighbour might likewise minister to and shape their neighbour. In that way alone might the nation be reached through my preaching, not through direct influence but by the wonderful aggregate of disciples discipling others.
This is hugely important. It means that my application to national issues will be concerned with local living. Addressing the ‘big issues’ which light up social media around sexuality, class, race, cultural identity, postmodernism etc are not brought to the pulpit as a kind of bulletin board, but are addressed expositionally from the passage before me, and pastorally to the people before me. I am not righting the wrongs of the world, or fighting on the front of the culture war when I preach – I am loving and teaching my neighbours from Scripture with an earnest desire that Spirit-born understanding might revolutionise their lives, and the spheres within which they move.
Not to the faculty, but to the fellowship
Finally, it is important that we don’t allow the input to our preparation to directly become the output of our preaching. The preacher lives in a strange twilight between academic treatments of what God’s word and Christian doctrine mean, and the real lives of those we are called to minister to. Most preaching will entail some form of academic study, ranging across commentaries and theological texts which can shape and sharpen our understanding of the passage or theme we are preaching on. This is vital graft.
The difficulty, however, is that such a cerebral environment is not reflective of the local church, and the local lives it touches. Welsh preacher Geoff Thomas once said to me in conversation that his job was to understand the details of the Scripture text and the complexities that the commentaries can make us aware of, and then to translate those elements into a message which is accessible and spiritually beneficial to the local church he pastored. This might sound elementary, but it is all too easily lost.
You might need to know the case of a noun, the nature of a preposition, the internal workings of a doctrine, but only so that you might preach more clearly and lucidly. Our sermons are not addressed to the faculty but to the fellowship. Quoting Greek words, employing theological jargon, introducing weighty conceptual terms, is nothing of the business of the preacher. Such things might gain marks in an essay, but they lose ground in the hearts of individuals.
This means that my language must be transparent, and my understanding so keen that I can make complex things simple without reducing or diluting them. I have the privilege of teaching in an academic environment as a lecturer and preaching in a non-academic context as a pastor. The latter is infinitely more challenging than the former. In an academic setting the familiar shorthand of theological discourse can abbreviate conversation, and can also mask insecurities and unfamiliarity with the inner working of doctrines I am handling. The pulpit is much less forgiving. If I haven’t thought clearly I won’t speak clearly, and lapsing into doctrinal jargon is normally the measure of an individual who is insecure about their basic understanding of what they are seeking to impart.
Answering the ‘who in the world am I preaching to?’ question is of central importance to the task of ministering God’s word. It delivers us from formalism, foolishness pride, and pretended expertise. It levels us back into the life of the local church, into the experiences of those in common covenant with gathering of God’s people in our area, and challenges us to preach in such a way that we love our neighbour and speak with the goal of gaining hearts through the gateway of the mind.
Ah, preaching and teaching. Words we all use, but nobody’s quite sure what the difference between them is (if there even is one at all), or what we might be supposed to do about it. Why, just the other day, Mark Driscoll wrote a post with exactly this question as his title, but from my perspective did not really answer it clearly; he simply commented that the audiences, evangelistic focus, language, motivation and form of speech would vary between them. There was little or no biblical reflection on what the difference might be, and some of the apparent variances were just bizarre (apparently you can use Christian jargon when you’re teaching but not when you’re preaching, for example). So telling the difference is obviously more tricky than it looks.
I’ll give you my answer in a minute, but first, here are a few answers I often hear that I don’t think stack up.
1. Preaching is fiery and shouty, whereas teaching is meticulous and dry. I’ve yet to meet a leader who defends this one, thank goodness, but it’s amazing how many people in your life group would come up with something like it.
2. Teaching is based on the Bible, whereas preaching is more prophetic or personal. Worryingly, I have heard this one defended. All I can say is that if our preaching is not based on the Bible, we have bigger problems than working out how to tell the difference between preaching and teaching.
3. Preaching aims at the heart, and teaching at the head. There’s a grain of truth in this one – preachers are, of course, trying to reach the heart – but only a grain. After all, if preaching does not aim at the mind and the will and the emotions, an awful lot of people are simply not going to be affected by it. My guess is that this statement, when it appears, emerges from traditions that are pietist/revivalist as opposed to confessionalist.
4. Preaching is topical, whereas teaching is systematic. Needless to say, there is no such distinction made in Scripture.
5. Preaching has to be simple, whereas teaching is often more complex. Well, it depends who you’re talking to, doesn’t it? If you’re teaching people with a very low level of biblical literacy, then you need to be extremely simple; if you’re preaching to people with a very high level of biblical literacy, it might well be more complex. Jesus’s teaching to Galilean peasants seems to have been pretty simple.
6. Teaching aims at information, whereas preaching aims at revelation. Bunk. Superspiritual, Gnostic bunk.
So I don’t think it’s any of those. In fact, I think the answer is more straightforward than any of them, and rests in the meanings of the words themselves. A kerux (the usual word for “preacher” in the New Testament) in the ancient world was simply a herald: a guy who rode into town to deliver significant news. A didaskalos (the usual word for “teacher”) was an instructor: someone who explained or taught something to someone else. There, it seems to me, is the difference. Preaching is proclaiming, heralding and announcing news to people – the gospel – especially (but not exclusively) to those who haven’t heard it before. Teaching is explaining things about the gospel that people don’t understand, and instructing them on how to live in light of it.
The most helpful illustration of this comes from John Piper. He pictures a herald riding into town, shouting from high atop his horse, “Hear ye! Hear ye! The Emperor has declared an amnesty to all slaves!” That, Piper says, is preaching: proclaiming good news, announcing something that has happened, that completely changes the situation of the listeners. But he then imagines people approaching the herald with questions. What does amnesty mean? When does this announcement take effect? Does that mean I can leave my slavemaster now? Will compensation be paid to masters? And so on. At that point, Piper says, you have to start teaching: explaining the implications of the news, helping people with concepts and ideas they don’t understand, and telling people what they need to do in response, given their various situations.
In other words, the difference between preaching and teaching is not shouting versus whispering, or illuminating versus bamboozling, or revealing versus informing. In a nutshell, it’s the difference between heralding and explaining. (That may mean that an awful lot of our Sunday “preaching slots” don’t contain any “preaching” at all, of course – but that’s another story.)
We all know how powerful questions can be. A carefully chosen question can often unlock a situation in a way that a simple statement just couldn’t. The right question can help someone to understand themselves better or lead them to a vital moment of realisation. Questions are powerful, and for those of us who get the privilege of preaching and teaching they can be particularly helpful.1 Here are three ways that I have found questions to be helpful.
A hook question
How can you grab the attention of your listeners? I’m sure that’s something we all wrestle with. Those first few moments of speaking are so important. We all want to know how best to use them. How can we draw people in so that they want to listen to what we’ve got to say?
Because let’s be honest, we can never take for granted that everyone in the room (or watching the livestream) comes with the assumption that what we’re going to say will be worth listening to, and so one of our first priorities has to be helping people see why they should want to listen to us. To achieve that, I’ll often use a hook question.
A hook question both hooks people in and gives something on which to hang the rest of what will be said. Ideally, the answer to the hook question will be the main point of the sermon or talk. That means, if you can get people to understand your hook question, they’re already part of the way to understanding your key message.
To make the best use of a hook question, we want not only to help people understand the question but also to understand why they should care about answering it. Sometimes this is easy – for example, sometimes you can pick a question that many people will already be asking. Showing that what you’re going to say connects with what people are already interested in is a great way of drawing them in. Sometimes you have to do a little more work to show people why it is a question they should care about. If this goes well, you’ve ‘hooked’ your listeners and got them interested and you’ve got something you can often use to hold the rest of your message together.
Structure and Scripture questions
That’s great to get us going, but how do we keep people engaged as we move further through our talk or preach? Here too, questions can be helpful.
The three-point structure is a classic, and for good reason. But throwing three – or more – separate points at people, isn’t always the most effective way of communicating. Better, is a series of three interlinked points. It’s like a journey – you want to take people by the hand through the hook question and then guide them from there through your main points all the way to your conclusion.
And one of the best ways of interlinking your points is to use questions. One point begs a question which you can highlight as you bring that point to a close and then use to introduce the next point, and so on. If our points are a progression that unfolds naturally, they’ll be easier to follow and we’re more likely to keep the understanding and attention of those listening.
And these structure questions can often also be Scripture questions. Asking questions of the biblical text is one of the best ways to wrestle with it in order to understand its message. These questions can sometimes be a good way of structuring what we’re saying. And this has the added bonus that we’re also showing people how to read the Bible well.
All this is helpful, but it still leaves things open-ended. How can we end our preaches and talks well? How can we help people to put into practice what we’ve said?
If you’ve got this far, you won’t be surprised by my answer: questions are also a great way to end a sermon or talk. As preachers and teachers, we’re not just trying to communicate information; we’re trying to encourage a response. We could just tell people what their response should be, but it’s far better to help people to think about it themselves.
Posing questions about how listeners are going to respond gets them involved before you’ve even finished talking. Hearing someone else tell you how to respond is easy; it requires nothing from you. Thinking about what your personal response will be, engaging with some helpful questions from the speaker, requires some involvement, some buy-in. It actually starts the process of responding right there are then before you’ve even finished speaking. Encouraging people to think about their answers and to settle on their response before they even leave helps them to go on and put that response into action.
So, how could questions help you? What type of question’s can you employ when you are preaching or teaching? You may find there’s some real power in them.
“If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have the least to say. A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in. Attend to these minor things and they will help retain attention.”
Charles Spurgeon Lectures to My Students Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008 p156
The New Testament uses around 60 different images and more than 30 verbs to describe the great task of preaching and communicating the truth. In a series of posts over the comings weeks, we will consider some of them, but it’s important to underline the fact that the one thing common in all of the many words and images is, as MacArthur says, “a focus on the things of God and Scripture as exclusively central in the preacher’s message.” [i]
didasko – διδάσκο
There is another word frequently used by the New Testament writers to describe the Gospel ministry of the Apostles and Christ. The word ‘didasko’ means ‘I teach’ and focuses on the purpose and content of the message being communicated. The content of what is taught clearly focuses on the Word of God.
The disciples recognised that Jesus taught (‘didasko’) “the way of God truthfully” (Matthew 22:16), and Paul spent 18 months in Corinth teaching (‘didasko’) “the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). Teaching (‘didasko’) is part of the work of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20), and is what Timothy was exhorted to do in his work as a Pastor (1 Timothy 6:2; 2 Timothy 2:2).
The emphasis of this word is surely on the careful explanation and application of the truth being proclaimed. It is, as Stuart Olyott puts it, “spelling out in concrete terms what the message means as far as the living are concerned.” [ii]
There has been a tendency over the years, largely due to the influence of writers like C H Dodd, to drive something of a ‘coach and horses’ between the activities of kerusso and didasko, but we must take great care not to over-emphasise the difference between those two terms.
As we read of the ministries of the New Testament church, again and again we read of them “teaching and preaching” (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 11:1; Luke 20:1; Acts 4;1,2; 5:42; 15:35; 28:30,31). Apparently, the two activities are inseparable, and the different passages clearly show that teaching was not restricted to believers but was aimed at any one who listened in the various places where teaching took place. Even in describing the missionary activity of the disciples and apostles both words are used. They are apparently used interchangeably.
Al Martin suggests that the distinction between teaching and preaching lies in “the dominant focus of each mode of communicating the Word of God…In teaching, the primary, if not exclusive, focus is on imparting Bible truths to the minds of our hearers. However, in preaching, the primary focus is on “reproving, rebuking, and exhorting” (2 Tim 4:2) and eliciting a response that translates into personal action. Teaching focuses primarily on the mind of the hearer, whereas preaching focuses primarily on the affection and the will of the hearer. Both are necessary and often work in tandem.” [iii]
But even here I fear the distinction drawn is too great. Surely, effective, Spirit anointed, preaching does not in any way bypass the affection and will of the hearer. One of the goals of faithful preaching is to teach the mind; indeed the Scriptural pattern is that the Word of God reaches the affection and will of the hearer through informing the mind. Martin is absolutely correct when he says that the two “often work in tandem”. Indeed, I would say that so closely do they work in tandem that they are virtually indistinguishable.
If anything, the distinction I would make between the two would be in the form or mode of communication rather than in the content. Let me express it in this way – you can teach without preaching, but you can’t preach without teaching. Preaching should be more than teaching, but it must always include teaching.
I am in agreement here with Ridderbos who says that “What is specific and unique about ‘teaching’ and ‘doctrine’, in distinction to kerygma, does not lie so much in the content, as in the form. While kerygma is the work of the herald, the didache belongs to another sphere, that of religious instruction…The message of redemption is not only ‘announced’, but it also demands the unfolding, the exposition of its meaning. In this sense ‘teaching’ and ‘preaching’ belong together, whereby ‘teaching’ is the necessary consequence and follow-up of ‘preaching’. But it does not supersede preaching. It not only presupposes it, but also takes up the elements that constituted the contents of the preaching.” [iv]
[i] MacArthur, J F Charismatic Chaos Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992 p9
[ii] Olyott, S. (2005). Preaching Pure and Simple Bridgend: Bryntirion Press p15
[iii] Martin, A N (2018), Pastoral Theology (Vol.2) Montville: Trinity Pulpit Press p316
[iv] Ridderbos, H N (1963) The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures Baker, Grand Rapids p67