Life’s transitional seasons are opportune moments to reflect on where we’ve come from and to consider where we are going. I’m in such a season right now—the moment between full-time preaching in a ministry context and full-time teaching in a university context.
After four years of preaching and teaching in a local church, here are some thoughts on my (limited) experience. They are not profound—likely mundane and unremarkable to the few who will read this—but, like holding a cat by the tail, some things are impossible to learn without experience. Here is what I’ve learned from holding the cat by the tail.
There is a difference between preaching and teaching. The words ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’ are not synonyms to describe the same thing. There is a reason that the New Testament writers call these two by different names. Teaching is didaskō, ‘to instruct,’ and preaching is euaggelizō, literally ‘declaring good news.’
According to Luke, the opponents of Jesus challenged his authority when he was teaching (didaskō) in the temple and preaching (euaggelizō) the gospel (Luke 20:1). In Acts, the disciples refused to quit teaching (didaskō) and preaching (euaggelizō) that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 5:42). Later, Paul proposed that elders who do a good job are deserving of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching (euaggelizō) and teaching (didaskō).
Although they are closely related, there are significant differences between preaching and teaching. Sure, both preaching and teaching outwardly constitute a person standing before an audience and talking about God, but I believe that preaching and teaching take aim at different targets within the audience. And while the telos of both preaching and teaching are the same—the destination is, after all, an exposure to God’s holiness, love, and glory—they take slightly different routes to get there.
The goal of preaching (euaggelizō), I believe, is to affect gospel-driven change in the person by engaging the heart. It is the call of God’s people into his kingdom through regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Euaggelizō is the medium by which God enacts his promise to give us a new heart (Ezk 36:26). The gospel pierces the heart of people with the reality of their sin and then immediately liberates them from despair with the hope of God’s grace through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of his Son. Expanding and extrapolating on this most precious and beautiful story is preaching. We so often forget this message that we need to experience euaggelizō all throughout our lives. We need our hearts redirected to the truth of the gospel and retuned to the melody of God’s love.
The goal of teaching is to affect gospel-driven change in a person by engaging the mind. It is the call to God’s people in his kingdom to embark on the journey of discipleship through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Didaskō is the medium by which God reveals himself to us through scripture, rebuke, correction, doctrine, and training in righteousness. It is worshiping God with all one’s mind, sharpening it against his objective truth and bringing every contrary thought captive to his overwhelmingly beautiful word (2 Co 10:5). Teaching forms the intellect and character of a heart renewed. It redirects our minds away from distractions and refocuses our intellect on truth.
The competent pastor can both preach and teach. In fact, he must.
Preaching and teaching are labors. Preparing a sermon or a teaching session is time-consuming and laborious. It’s meant to be this way. Why should it be any other way? There is a stark difference between a machine-manufactured trinket from Home Goods and a handcrafted statue from the art market. The former took only a few minutes to automatically produce; the latter demanded hours of patience, endurance, and skill from the craftsman. What are you crafting to give those whom God has entrusted to you? Trinkets or works of art?
That question only gets at part of why preaching and teaching is labor-intensive. The work is also meant to shape and form the preacher and teacher. I am convinced that preaching, especially, and teaching, in general, are processes that are meant to transform the speaker before they can inform their audience. If you have not been changed by scripture or doctrine, then why are you preaching or teaching them?
Faithfully preaching and teaching is a marathon. It is not difficult at the start immediately after the gun bangs to begin the race, but, after the excitement of a new passage or topic fades, preaching and teaching demand the kind of dedication that is required to place your feet on every square inch of the course stride-by-stride until the end. This demand is one of the most satisfying, life-changing, and character-forming labors you will ever perform.
The most important studying you can do is your own. Listening to other sermons on a passage or topic is wise if you are doing so to check your own study. If you are listening to other preachers to incorporate whole portions of their sermon into yours, then, essentially, you are plagiarizing. Remember that some of the most important facets of preaching is reputation, trust, and confidence. Lose one or more of these and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to regain.
That said, commentaries are an invaluable resource. I’ve not preached a single sermon without at least referencing a trusted commentator. The Holy Spirit speaks to the entire church across space and time. He did not simply speak to the early, medieval, or reformation-era churches and then fall silent in the twentieth century. He speaks to us today the same as he spoke to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine. Listen to Him as you listen to them. Listen and learn from those who have gone before you. There is wisdom in the company of godly counselors.
You don’t need to know all the answers. You just need to be competent enough to know where to find them. You also need to be responsible enough to know where to point people. Preachers and teachers are stewards of hearts and minds.
You will need to let some sermons go. There are so many things I wish I could take back in my sermons. Sometimes, I said things out of arrogance and youthful bravado. Other times, I said wrong things out of ignorance, only to learn of my error after more study. At all times, they haunt me in both memories and, because its the twenty-first century, digitally. (More on that in a moment.)
But, remember that you are not perfect. If the gospel depending on our perfection, then we would all be in serious trouble. It is the Holy Spirit who moves and works with your preaching and teaching. Sometimes, he also moves and works in spite of your preaching and teaching. The goal is to join the Holy Spirit in his work of moving in the hearts and minds of those to whom you are preaching and teaching.
Take into deep consideration the digital permanence and global availability of your sermons. We live in an age when what we say online is instant, permanent, and global. This is both good and bad. I’ve been humbled to see that episodes of the podcast I host have been downloaded all over the world, from China and Pakistan to New York and Salt Lake City. Humanity has never been so globally dispersed and yet simultaneously connected as it has been in our lifetime. Surely, this is a gift meant to be stewarded.
Yet, global availability of your sermons and teaching sessions do not come without a downside. After successfully landing a full passenger airplane with twin-engine failure in the Hudson River, U.S. Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger famously said; “I’ve flown millions of hours during the forty years of my career. But I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.” The same could be said of online content. You might have sixty hours of quality sermon and teaching content available online, but it will be the one or two minutes of political ranting, insensitivity to serious cultural issues, or other such nonsense that could damage your reputation with outsiders.
I believe that digital archives and availability of sermon content is a sobering foreshadow of the Apostle James’s warning, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).” Assume that what you preach and teach will be made available online. Know that what you preach and teach will be a witness for or against your stewardship before the throne.
Ensure that you could preach the core of your sermon in any culture. If you cannot preach the core message—not contextual specifics—of your sermon in any cultural context, then something’s wrong. You should be able to board an international flight, strip your sermon of all its cultural references, and preach the same core message in another country with ease. If you can, then that’s a sure sign that its core message speaks to what really matters.
The Spirit speaks to you in your studying and your preaching. Do not let someone criticize you for “over-studying” or relying on your notes too much. They may argue, implicitly or explicitly, that you risk muzzling the Holy Spirit (as if it were possible) if you resist his presence while preaching by anchoring yourself to your notes. This assumes, of course, that the Holy Spirit was not present with you in the ordinary hours of reading, researching, and praying over your sermon preparation. The argument is naive. It is driven by either the incessant and juvenile desire to be entertained or the pragmatic gimmickry of emotionally manipulating someone into faith, which is impossible anyhow. Sometimes the Spirit will give you a word while studying the word. Sometimes the Spirit will give you a word while preaching the word. Be receptive to both.
Pray. I’m not a legalistic guy. In fact, admittedly, I struggle more with the libertarian side of Christian liberties. However, I do have a very strict rule for myself: never preach before praying on your knees. Logistically, this played out awkwardly sometimes. It meant I prayed in my office, the office of someone else, or even in the restroom. I would pray four things in specific. First, for forgiveness of my sins. Second, that the Holy Spirit would fill me. Third, that God would use me as his mouthpiece. Fourth, that the sermon would be to God’s glory alone. Before preaching, I would also review the entire message page by page. When I read through a page, if happy with everything, I would write S.D.G. (soli Deo gloria) at the bottom left corner to remind me of the last part of my prayer (see the picture above). Pray, pray, and then pray some more.