Training Better Preachers

In honour of John Stott’s passing, a question: What one thing (okay, you can allow yourself more than one) would you make sure preachers were trained to be or to do better–as preachers?

(Preachers, like the rest of us, likely need to pray better, and tithe better, and rest better, and so on. But what specifically pertinent to sermon-giving needs to change?)

Would it be analyzing contemporary culture at large or your neighbourhood in particular so that sermons don’t hang in the air but actually touch down in the real world? Would it be connecting with life outside the church in order to know where the keenly felt issues are for people in the pew? Would it be giving us concrete actions to lead out from the sermon to the rest of life?

Would it be reflecting something other than the particular demographic categories represented by the pastor himself or herself, or the main mass of the congregation? Would it be showing sensitivity to this or that group of people so that references to them were more accurate and empathetic? Would it be engaging us with the needs of the poor and oppressed, here and elsewhere?

Would it be going deeper so that it’s not “Alpha, Alpha, Alpha” all the time? Would it be making the sermons more concise and focused–or giving us more material? Would it be adding more illustrative stories–or cutting back on them to make way for more ideas, whether concepts, doctrines, propositions, commands, promises, blessings, or warnings?

Would it be understanding theology so well that sermons didn’t stray into heresy or sheer incoherence? Would it be offering good reasons for why this teaching or story should be taken as true, rather than just assuming we’ll all automatically take it on board?

What comes to mind? What do preachers need to be or do better?

0 Responses to “Training Better Preachers”

  1. Ed Gentry

    Preachers need to be more meta-cognitive. By this I mean that preachers should be more aware of who they are and how they are gifted and also who they are not and what the don’t do well. I agree with you John, that much preaching needs be improved in many if not all of the categories that you list. But the good preaching and teaching, for me (and I’m following Palmer here) comes fundamentally out of who we are. All of the things you mentioned are critically important of course, but only serve to sharpen the gift that is the person.

    This works both ways. So a rarity among preachers and teachers is the recognizing and valuing of gifts and perspectives that this teacher does not possess. If I could pick just one thing for this generation of preachers and teachers to learn it would be: to learn what you are not, and do not do well and yet to value it non-the-less.

    I am tired of being in congregations and listening to preachers or teachers who dismisses this or that perspective because it is not their strength. Its like eating a meal without one of the food groups.

  2. D.J. Brown

    Yes, to everything you mentioned, John, but after 60 years in the pew, I’ll choose this one: preachers need to surprise.
    Is there a worse preaching sin than boring your hearers, when you are given the privilege of speaking about the most astonishing, hopeful and upside-down Mystery of all?
    One reaction we don’t find in scripture to prophets and teachers is a yawn.
    I suggest that such creativity would arise from following the advice above in Ed Gentry’s comment, i.e. self-knowledge and a brave spiritual seeking outside of what is familiar will result in words and ways that are unique to each preacher.

    • Jeff Loach

      I echo this comment. A sin is a sin is a sin, but it’s a *sin* to make the gospel boring. And too many of my fellow preachers have made an art form of it.

  3. Barnabas Aspray

    1. Incorporation of multiple teaching styles (visuals, illustrations) to reach a demographic who may not learn well by listening for 40 minutes straight.

    2. If at all possible: *interactivity*. Admittedly, this is harder the larger the congregation, but is becoming essential to keep people engaged in today’s information culture. If there’s any way they can come down from the pulpit and incorporate the audience into the sermon, they will make it ten times more memorable.

    Experiment with interactive methods. Krish Kandiah, for example, gave his audience two minutes to text him their questions half way through his talk. This stimulated them to talk to each other about what he was saying, which helps processing of the material.

  4. Keith Shields

    As a preacher who has given many poor sermons, I feel eminently qualified to respond to this blog. My biggest mistake over the years has been to spend too much time thinking up great illustrations and ways to connect with the audience. I know that such things are important, it is just that I have often done this at the expense of spending time soaking in the the text. I find the essential piece for me is to allow the passage to truly affect me. This often takes about a week of reading and re-reading the text, translating the text (I use lots of helps), reading about the historical context of the text, reading about four or five commentaries on the text, praying the text, meditating upon the text, and discussing the text with others.

    After I have done all of this, then I start to look for illustrations and things that will connect it to my audience. This is a process that takes very little time once I understand the text and have incorporated it into my life. In this way, I also seek to model the text and the medium becomes the message.

    Some of the best sermons I have heard have been from people who knew the text so well that the life of that text oozed out of their words and their lives. Most of what they did was explain very well the text in its original context and then add a few comments for clarification and application.

  5. Chris

    North American preachers, at least, need to learn to use the Old Testament more effectively. There are countless sermons to be mined from the narrative sections of the Old Testament if one takes the trouble to understand the cultural context and how the stories can be applied to today’s adult world. My current (Korean) pastor has just spent 2 years preaching on the book of Judges alone and rarely have his sermons lacked in interest or spiritual nourishment. Too often these stories are left solely to the Sunday School teachers of the elementary school set.

  6. JLBetts

    All good comments. The primary deficiency in my own seminary training for the pastorate, diagnosed years later with help from the insights of Eugene Peterson, I think pastors-to-be need to be taught better how to consistently remain “attentive to God.” From the depth of this active relationship with Him we have the resources to teach the people how to be, and help them to be, attentive to God.

    Otherwise, the (important) stuff of sermon study, writing, and creative presentation becomes clutter that gets *between* us and God way too easily.

    A similar metaphor is used by Gordon MacDonald in speaking of the need for pastors to “build below the waterline” adequate spiritual pillars to support the structure that’s above the waterline (he uses the Brooklyn Bridge example).

    Regent’s curriculum may correct this. My own seminary classes in the deep South of the U.S. did nothing to help me understand the importance of this, nor to cultivate practices or techniques for ensuring it (“spiritual discipline” to them was limited to having a quiet time every morning). If anything, the classes and administration added to the noise and busyness and grace was seldom evident. Where do they think you’ll learn this?

    I don’t mean to judge the staff, or be unkind, but looking back, the lack of attention given to this makes me wonder now just how thin their own spiritual lives might have been, because I see now that spiritual depth in a person SHOWS. Mostly what I saw in them was just the same busyness they put on us students.

    I know you can’t force spiritual depth on people, but I think the absence of such basic training in pastoral studies is a primary reason so many pastors operate in their own power, until they burn out or break down, or move from church to church taking their “baptized” but worldly attitudes and behavior with them to the next place, or spend a career just holding down the “job” of pastor.

    But, thank God for E.Peterson especially, he’s helped greatly with this attentiveness thing. And thanks, too, to G. MacDonald for his insights in this regard.

  7. Linda Wightman

    Speaking as one who knows nothing about preaching except on the receiving end, I have two suggestions:

    (1) Keep it short, and stop telling us the same thing three times in one sermon. I’ve heard many a sermon that would have been great had the preacher stopped after the first third, but became forgettable because someone once taught him that 20 minutes was too short for a sermon. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve sat rivetted through some hour-long lectures in my time, but worship isn’t the place for them, and no preacher can be that good every week.

    (2) Stop using sports analogies and examples from popular culture. Some of us haven’t a clue what you’re talking about, and I, for one, am not going to waste my time trying to figure out what “Lost” is just so I can understand your sermons. I don’t mind sermons that stretch me culturally as well as spiritually — one of my favorites introduced me to Shakespeare’s Henry V via the St. Crispin’s Day speech — but please let it be culture worth learning about. I also like to be able to respect the person who is preaching to me, and if your sermons reveal that you spend much of your time watching television, that will be very hard for me to do.


  8. Kickatthedarkness

    I am not a pastor, and so I don’t wish to add an unnecessary burden to their already heavy workload, nor do I want to seem as though I am unappreciative of their fine work week after week. With that disclaimer in place, however, I have to say I wish pastors kept more abreast of trends and developments among academic theologians. Sometimes it has seemed as though my pastors have become stuck in a theological rut, which can result in every (or most) passages being boiled down to have the same message. Whether that be that we all need Jesus, that Church is important, or that humans are all sinners, after a few years of very similar sermons from all over the Bible, it begins to wear thin.

    I realize that the job of the pastor and the academic are different. Perhaps my desire to see greater integration is a symptom of my university student’s bias, but I would love to hear sermons in which two (or several) different credible positions were presented, which would allow congregations to think more creatively about the texts preached on. Constant interaction with the world of academic theology would also keep pastors thinking creatively and serve to challenge cherished assumptions.

    From my experience, it seems that pastors’ readings in theology are guided more by what a particular pastor feels like reading, and not necessarily by what is current, provocative, or highly regarded. Perhaps there are ways to encourage change: Christian schools and organizations could create something similar to the JSTOR and A&HCI databases, which churches could then subscribe to, giving staff access to current research and debates. A publication could be founded designed specifically to bring current research to pastors. Academics could be more often invited to speak before congregations or to conferences of pastors, which would both expose congregations (directly or indirectly) to academic ideas, and forge links between pastors and academics. Academics could perhaps find time once every few years or so to write short, popular-level books which boil their research down into something readable at an early undergraduate level (many do this already). Ultimately, though, it must start with congregations expressing a desire for more creative and diverse exegesis, which encourages pastors not to rest content with the same interpretive strategies, or at least to consistently explore alternatives.

  9. James

    ha ha…wow the gamut of comments here is a good illustration of the challenges of preaching.
    In my own context I have conservative folks in my church who want some old school theology with some good boundary maintenance insider language and content, i also have some thoughtful more pomo types who want reflective, contemplative type content. Another person prefers garrison keiler type homey wisdom, another wants doctrine straight up. I think part of the challenge for pastors is that their is a glut of styles and approaches and only limited time to prepare ourselves.
    I think Ed is right to say we need to be ourselves and preach out of our own personalities and callings. However, i think ignoring or sidestepping the techniques that help our people to connect with us is irresponsible.
    For me, i have been trying to connect my community to historical resources, significant theological themes, and some reflective pieces. I think that i probably need to spend more time thinking through the differing learning styles of my congregation and adapting sermons to these styles.

  10. Matt McCoy

    These are great comments. As a middle-aged Regent student who is in the MDiv program and contemplating pastoral ministry, I love hearing these ideas in the beginning of this career change. I did a fair amount of public speaking in my last job, but the setting, purpose and audience is so completely different than preaching, so I love hearing the variety of critiques on this blog post.

    By all means, if you are not a preacher, please post your ideas, because I’m writing these all down and filing them away for when I start preaching. This is good stuff here.

    And, if I may be so bold, I would similarly find it fascinating (perhaps in another blog post if Dr. Stackhouse though it wise) to include an opportunity to cast a similar spotlight on the congregation. What makes for an attentive congregation? What about preaching does the pastor wish the congregation understood? I would love to hear people comment on this, if they could do so without descending into the frustrating rants that sometimes occupy cyberspace discussions, following in the fantastic example the comments on this post have provided.

  11. James Allaway

    The answers to this question are inevitably going to be shaped by the context of the person answering. So from the part of the world I presently call home and also to reiterate what others have already said: the one thing I would make sure preachers were trained to do better would be how to handle the biblical text well. To quote a guy who I did a preaching class with once a upon a time, “the [biblical] text should be the water we swim in rather than the springboard we jump off of.” Too often I here well intentioned people proof texting, or interpreting texts badly (a particular dislike of mine that is too common is to use OT narrative texts as metaphors “what are the walls of Jericho that need to be brought down in your life?”), or not even bothering with the bible at all. Confidence and familiarity with the bible seem to be lower than before; I asked 50 undergrad students if they had read much of the OT and less than 8 had. They do not know the biblical story that they are part of (or at best they know disconnected snip-its) and as a result some give up on it rather than being informed and transformed by it. Somewhere along the line we lost sight (for some it was a conscious choice for various reasons, others not so) of the fact that if we want to take the bible seriously then we have to take studying it seriously, even be taught some skills in how to study it. We stopped taking the study of the bible seriously and as a result we stopped taking the bible seriously. And I strongly suspect that this began in the pulpit, so if we can correct it and model it well in the pulpit then maybe it will spread from there into the congregation too.

  12. Jeff Bjorgan

    If I could start my pastoral training all over again, I would pay more attention in my languages and hermeneutic classes. It’s pretty easy to come up with illustrations and stories that engage the congregation, but what keeps me up at night is whether or not I got the text “right” and whether I strayed from a good application because of a lazy approach to exegesis. During a busy work week, it is easier to bypass the hard-work of getting to know the text in favor of figuring out something that will capture the congregation’s attention. The temptation for many of us is to build a sermon around a great idea, rather than beginning with the text and letting it assume the direction.

  13. Dan Och

    What one thing? To avoid cliché. Granted this might say something about my own lack of graciousness rather than the speaker’s lack of ability, but I have often stopped paying attention after hearing such expressions as ‘getting out of your comfort zone’, ‘praying for breakthrough’, ‘it’s not politically correct to say this, but …’.

  14. Mac

    A love of the word and a willingness to let Scripture shape the content of more of the sermons that are preached.

  15. Jeffrey N. Murphy

    Here is a composite collection of my advice to sermon-givers derived from my experiences, both enjoyed and disdained, in a number of different pews:

    1. Incorporate congregational examples, whenever possible, connecting the life inside the church to the life outside the church. One pastor/preacher that blessed me immensely would bring up various members of the congregation to share parts of their stories. It made challenge and change both individual (not everyone is will do good in the same way) and accessible (hey, I can do something like that too).

    2. Inception memes aside, “We need to go deeper”. Pew-dwellers are not stupid, and lowering the level of the discourse only helps to decrease the spiritual and intellectual depth of the crowd. Challenge them, raise the level of the discourse, and the congregation will eventually meet you at that level.

    3. Don’t just go through one book in a sermon series: certain topics need to be addressed more regularly, and while good exegesis is important, the selection of text does not have to be in such a linear fashion. This also means that addressing current topics via the Biblical text would be encouraged. I converse daily with my colleagues around the lab bench about current topics and germane wisdom would be a godsend.

    4. Encourage people to listen to the Bible when it is read, rather than to “read along” in their own Bibles (of various translations). That radically changes how one perceives a story.

    5. Use fewer “amusing” anecdotes and stories to introduce the text or the topic. Sometimes it feels like reading forwarded emails. You know the ones a certain, unnamed relative of little restraint forwards to you, far too frequently, and which you delete immediately.

    6. Be concise. When the pastor could have said in twenty minutes what he said in forty five, my attention wanders, and I start using my time more productively (read: mobile devices). Often it seems that preachers confuse going longer with going deeper. If there is need for more time for more material which adds substantively to the discussion, by all means, an hour-long sermon would be excellent! But alas, I have, on occasion, had the suspicion that the preacher feared a pay cut if his sermon ran less than 40 minutes despite having only 20 minutes real material.

    7. Preachers, use your voices appropriately. Convey enthusiasm, sorrow, gladness, etc… but don’t yell as if you were angry throughout an entire sermon. A preacher’s voice should not be a substitute for Sominex.

    8. I would have stopped at seven, but reading ill-informed, pseudo-scientific comments on the effects of Wi-Fi by a Canadian parliamentarian this past week gave me lucid flashbacks pointing to an eighth issue: Preachers should not lecture on topics which they do not understand sufficiently or which they have not fact-checked with multiple sources. This might include: science, economics, history, politics, current music, horticulture, archaeology, and film, among the many topics of which a BA/Sc/Eng major in the subject would possess a more fully informed understanding.

  16. Linda Wightman

    Amen, amen, and amen to what Jeffrey N. Murphy said! Especially 2, 4, 5, and 6. Life must have been easier for preachers before the Internet made all their jokes common knowledge. And I, for one, am sick of being made to feel a poor Christian because I like to listen to the Scripture being read rather than reading along with it. Preachers, if you insist on “open your Bibles to…” you have lost me. It’s a rare sermon that can compete with an open book.

  17. dan fairholm

    Easily, be passionate. If u don’t care about your message and can’t deliver it with passion, don’t bother sharing your message. It’ll bore us to tears.

  18. Gavinsta Lau

    John, so far all the comments I’ve read have been (for a lack of better words) accurate, expressing my “concerns” and wishes, one way or another. However I doubt anything will be missed (besides the time I put into writing this which could range from 5 to 20 min.), if I just objectify what I have in my mind could improve the quality of sermons, and thus, in an indirect way, improve the quality of the listeners in the audience. The perfect sermon… to be direct and truthful, cannot be obtained. Don’t believe me? To have a maximum amount of information and receptability (my own word meaning the amount the audience can understand within a given time), to be infinitely concise, accurate and truthful, while keeping from offending or hurting people’s feelings or consciences… is impossible. It simply CANNOT be done. The perfect sermon would be to before a breath of air came out, before you even sucked air into your lungs to speak… the audience would have to understand you, repent, feel sorrow, be interested, be engaged, be eye-opened and full to the brim with more knowledge than the pastor/preacher has given them as input (since perfect clearly also means 100%+ efficiency) all in an infinitely small amount of time. NOW you see why it’s impossible. But rather… if we all had the ability to absorb (and I use absorb in the context of a sponge soaking water) that much information, and then the ability to make others absorb just as much. Every single person… would no longer be a person. We’d be… super-computers that function at an infinitely fast speed. But we are humans. We don’t have incredibly fast minds and incredibly informative tongues. We do things that don’t make sense, but just seem right. And we do them because God has given us free will. A will that can be bound by nothing. Our actions and our bodies are bound by law (whether of nature or judicial), but our spirits and will roam free. Not law, not books, not even LOGIC can dictate the actions of our spirit and that’s what makes us… us. Therefore (and to make a REALLY REALLY long paragraph come to a point) the only perfect sermons that can be made on this world are ones that can honestly reach our souls. One’s that can actually make us want to understand why our crimes are wrong (and I have another HUGE can of words for that topic), makes us actually want to donate, to help, to care. So take this as you will John/reader, but I think that the point of a sermon is to convey one perspective, out of many many, to the audience, so that the audience may take one more perspective, not as doctrine, but as… another set of guidelines (sounds like some cheesy quote from Star Trek). So in conclusion: A sermon needs to passionately convey the views and beliefs of the speaker to the audience, with enough passion that THEY might take it into account and add to their own arsenal of paths in Christ.
    Didn’t help much I guess, but I feel better having vented that all out
    -Your Hommie G

    • Enoch Chee

      Gavin, may I introduce you to the blog community here? Community: Gavin was my Sunday school student last year, when I taught him grade 8 Sunday school. He is now in grade 9, and I think he is probably one of the most intelligent and thoughtful grade 9’s I have ever met. He has officially been a Christian for one year, and he and other junior high guys have been discussing with me lately why sermons are boring and otherwise wanting–which is quite a concern nowadays even for junior high’s.

  19. Susan

    Sermon illustrations ought to be chosen for their ability to actually illustrate the sermon. Upwards of 80% of sermon illustrations seem to have been chosen with other criteria in mind (usually trying to get a laugh, which infallibly makes me feel manipulated). I love and value preachers who illustrate a life of Christian discipleship by exposing their own vulnerabilities in a exemplary, confessional manner. Doing this, they demonstrate their own vital connection to the living Word of God and forge a vital connection to the communities they shepherd.

    On a similar note, regarding “multi-media” techniques: I literally cannot recall a single instance where something projected on a screen enhanced the sermon it accompanied. Distracted from a sermon? Yes. Filled time? Yes. Enhanced? Never.


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