Recently, a group of pastors asked me this question: “Should we rethink the 30-minute sermon lecture in light of the many different ways classroom teaching is currently conducted?” They are part of a year-long initiative by the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary to strengthen the quality of preaching. In an effort to answer this question, the group of pastors asked me to lead a preaching workshop centered on what we know about adult learning.
As I started to prepare, I asked myself, “What is underneath their question about sermon-as-lecture?”
Well, pastors want people to grow. Instead of having our carefully crafted words go in one ear and out the other, we hope for deep transformation. We hope that our communication shapes our listeners’ understanding of God, themselves, and the world so that their way of living would more closely reflect God and His Kingdom.
However, we know that just telling people what they should do is not enough. The old model of education believed that the teacher’s job was to deposit the information into the vessel of the student’s mind for future retrieval. Paulo Freire, who first used the term “banking” to describe this approach to learning, noted that teaching this way results in the facts becoming “lifeless and petrified…detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 2000, 71)
In other words, teaching that is not embodied by the teacher and experienced within the relational community is at risk of being nothing but empty words.
As Christians, we have a particularly clear insight into this difficulty. If just knowing what to do was sufficient to make us live as we should, then the revelation in the Old Testament would have been adequate: God telling the people how to live would result in the people living that way. If this had worked, we would not have needed the cross.
Instead, we have to encounter the Word of Christ within his Body so that the Spirit can work deep within us.
This group of pastors knew from their own experience that just talking for 30 minutes was not enough. So, they wondered, “Is the sermon lecture still effective? If just speaking cannot create transformation, why even do it at all?”
At the same time, they knew from Scripture that peaching is important! As Paul reminds us, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14).
So what to do? How could they preach in such a way that would invite life change and not turn God’s Word into hollow verbosity?
We started our workshop looking at two things we know from current adult learning theory. My comments draw on research that Ken Bain talks about in his book What the Best College Teachers Do.
First, the best teachers know their field really well.
They are deep thinkers, not just flashy presenters. While it is important to hold the attention of your audience, those who commit personal ongoing time to study have a unique ability to communicate complex concepts in ways that adult learners can understand.
Howard Gardner, the creator of the Multiple Intelligences theory, has said, “Coverage is the enemy of understanding.” When we try to cram in every tiny detail, we overwhelm the listeners so that they can no longer process the information. Younger preachers especially can be tempted to include everything they have learned on a particular Scripture passage.
Those who are more seasoned and have buried the Word in their hearts can more easily sift through the information and highlight the important messages of Scripture. Because they know their field deeply and personally, they know how God’s eternal truth can speak to the questions that will naturally come up for their particular congregation as they wrestle with Scripture. They have learned to embody the Word rather than try to dump all the information onto the listener.
A second important discovery in the research on the best teaching for adult learners is the importance of questions.
Every person walking into your sanctuary is already full of questions. They may be questions of eternal significance, but more likely, they are every day, run-of-the-mill questions.
“How do I survive the latest round of layoffs?”
“How do I deal with my moody teenager?”
“I haven’t had time alone with God in weeks! How can I be a faithful Christian when I barely have time to sleep?”
At this point in the workshop, one of the pastors asked, “Do you mean that our sermons should be topical?” This is a great question because it highlights the confusion that many pastors face. Should we start with the questions our congregants are asking in their everyday life or with the Scripture text?
The answer is both.
Again, we can glean from the field of adult learning here: A college professor teaching chemistry has the responsibility to make sure his/her students know the elements of the periodic table. That is the text for the class. An 8:00 AM chemistry class that just analyzed coffee, because the question on students’ minds was “Where can I get some coffee?” would not be a successful class. By the end of the semester, students need to be able to comprehend and apply their knowledge of the periodic table; no other outcome will do.
At the same time, the professor can begin with carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen – the four elements that make up coffee. In this case, the teacher is beginning with both the questions that come from everyday life and the course text of the periodic table.
As David Tuleen, an effective chemistry professor in Bain’s study says, “How could you not be interested in organic chemistry? It is the very basis of life itself.” He is an effective teacher because he can help his students make the connections between the life they live and the subject of chemistry.
We can echo that question, “How can you not be interested in the Word of God? It is the message and person who created all of life” (John 1:1). Including, I might add, all the elements that are listed on the periodic table.” If he created us, then the questions of our life matter to him; he will have something to say about those questions.
So back to our original question—is the lecture format for a sermon still helpful?
The answer: Yes!
Many impactful college professors use lectures to teach. The key to their impact is what happens before they start talking.
To begin, they are constant learners in their field, taking time to read and attend conferences to grow and sharpen their understanding. Being a learner of God’s Word and a student of the Life in Christ is crucial for pastors to be good preachers. This might seem obvious, but its importance cannot be overstated.
The demands of the ministry can easily crowd out personal study and growth. If you are a pastor, when is the last time you read God’s Word for your own formation beyond the text for next Sunday’s message?
Next, as they plan their classes, great professors place lectures within the context of a range of teaching methods so that the lessons can be embodied in the classroom community. It is here that pastors have a huge advantage. In a church community, our parishioners are participating in all different types of learning experiences: small groups, Sunday School, serving teams, tactile worship services with communion and music…and they do all this in community, that embodied place where the Spirit of Christ lives.
Plus, unlike the typical professor who might have a student for 10-15 weeks, we are usually teaching congregants for years, so there is time to develop deep learning.
A third action that great college professors do is to pay attention to the questions their students are asking. If you as a pastor have been investing in the lives of your congregants, getting to know them and caring for them, then you have a unique window into those questions. Don’t leave those questions at the door when you get back in the office; bring those into your study of God’s word.
If you would like to continue to grow in your preaching skills, then here is my encouragement to you: This week, as you close your office door or pop in your earbuds to get started writing that sermon, ask yourself, “How can I use both my knowledge of God’s Word (my field) and my knowledge of the lives of my listeners (their questions) to help me craft this sermon in a way that makes an eternal impact?”
Christina Walker is the Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Billy Graham Center.