Archive | Teaching

Are Sermons Too Few or Too Many?


Say the word “sermon” and the average person doesn’t get too thrilled. In fact for a lot of people the word is only used as a pejorative (as in, “You can spare me the sermon, OK?”). But consider the sermon in its true sense – the message or homily or whatever you choose to call that which is taught aloud on a regular basis to a corporate church gathering. It’s not a popular word, and it’s not a popular concept. Maybe that’s not entirely bad. If it were, then by now we’d have had to witness a nauseating reality show competition in which young preachers go one at a time & America texts in its vote for the best sermon.


But to the degree that the sermon has a bad rap, whose fault is it? The sermon is one thing that is definitely not in short supply. America in particular is a land of 10,000 sermons, in just about any given week, and with a vast array of differences between them. A 72 hour trip around the internet would show you an endless matrix of church and other websites with all the sermons you could sample in every bit of free time you have. If I were Dr. Seuss my title for this would be “Oh the Sermons You’ll Hear.”


While a number of people in the present secularized society have only heard snippets of sermons, or have only a distant memory of sermons they heard as children, those with particular interest in the thinking and doing of churches realize that there are more species of sermon than of insect living in your backyard. Below is my own catalog of many (maybe most?) of the different kinds or types of sermons preached on a regular basis somewhere not too far from any of us. It is a homiletical parade of the good, the bad, and the ugly. As you move down the list you will see that I begin with more standard fare but then later I get to some of the more bizarre and even obnoxious kinds of sermons, where I include some links to examples that you will find entertaining and/or disturbing.


On to the Carnival of Sermons …


The Expository Sermon: Verse-by-Verse

I begin with the ancient standard, the time honored, the historically preeminent, and the unfortunately not nearly as popular as it once was: verse-by-verse exposition. It is still the sermon of choice for a great many of the most serious and devout. It’s a harder sell, though, for the masses today, since it demands more of the listener, moves more slowly and carefully, seeming to the short attention spans of today like a boring and tedious study of words and ideas that requires too much detailed concentration on the text and its meaning.


The Expository Sermon: Passages & Narratives

Not every expository sermon is necessarily of the verse-by-verse variety, so I thought this deserving of its own category. Sermons can still be very text-based but with a wider view. Some of the “books within the book” do not lend themselves as much to verse-by-verse, like Old Testament narratives, wisdom literature and exotic apocalyptic visions. Much as in the case of the difference between literal word-for-word translations vs. thought for thought (“dynamic equivalence”) translations, sometimes an exegesis and exposition that is not merely one-word-at-a-time (or even one-verse-at-a-time) is more appropriate and effective in communication of what is in those words (and verses).


The Theological / Doctrinal Sermon

Sure to shrink a crowd these days, sermons of this kind would hardly even be understood by a lot of modern church-goers. The language would at best seem vaguely familiar while arcane, and at worst completely foreign. A friend of mine said he once used the word “supralapsarian” in a sermon on salvation and the Fall, and afterward someone asked him, “What was that ‘super-cali-fragilistic’ thing you talked about?” The fact is you’ll be hard pressed to hear a sermon that even includes much overt theology, let alone one that emphasizes or prioritizes it.

Continue Reading →

How to Preach a Sermon Even When You Are Not Sure What the Passage Means

Convictionless churches are empty churches. Sure, it may be cool these days to be noncommittal. Sure, backing off and saying that you “could be wrong” is transparent and will gain you some respect among a skeptical audience. Of course, giving all the possible interpretations of a passage of Scripture or a theological position is educational and disarming. But there is something different about preaching that requires the preacher to present a more anchoring hope. Standing behind the pulpit meant something to the Reformers. It mean much more than, “I am going to stand behind this block of wood and give you some options about what to believe.” Simply put, that lacks conviction. And even if you are a diehard pragmatist who is only about getting the numbers in your pews to go up, this is not the way to go about it. Because, frankly, if you have little or  no definite convictions, then you are neither a preacher nor a pastor.

“Give them something to believe.” I am told that every time Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, ended his theology classes, he would say, “Men, give them something to believe.” People are looking for something to believe. They want to rest the weight of their anxiety upon something stable. They have enough instability in their lives. They don’t want to go to church to hear the preacher teach. They want him to preach. What do I mean by that? Well, teaching and preaching are not the same thing. They share quite a bit in the semantic domain of discipleship, but they also are very distinct and need to be used very intentionally. How are they distinct? Let me give you a few ways:

Preaching is exhortation; teaching is education.

Preaching is the discharge of the Gospel of hope; teaching is discipleship of the Gospel of hope.

Preaching puts wind in the sails; teaching put an anchor in the ground.

Preaching raises our eyes to the things we know with great conviction; teaching helps us to understand what things we can have legitimate conviction about.

Preaching tells you which option is correct; teaching gives you all the options.

Of course, there is overlap, but it is important to see the distinction so that you can follow what I am about to say.

If this is true and preaching is about giving people something to believe, rather than giving them the options of what they can believe, what do you do when you come to a passage of Scripture and you are unsure about what it means? And, let’s be honest here – this happens quite often. You are preaching through a book of the Bible and you come to a place where the commentaries are not in agreement, there seem to be multiple legitimate options concerning its interpretation, and you are left scratching your head.  You don’t know how to preach this passage. You don’t want to be dishonest and just choose an option. And you don’t want to turn this into a drawn-out sermon on, “This is what the Calvinists believe, and why”…”This is what the Methodists believe, and why”… “This is what Lutherans believe, and why.” “In the end folks, you are going to have to make up your own minds. Now let us pray. Dear God thanks for this lesson, whatever it was . . .” This does not really make for a good sermon and it does not give your hearers anything to believe. Continue Reading →

7 Reasons I Think Pastors Should Preach Through Books of the Bible

(Lisa Robinson)

I’ve been exposed to a variety of preaching, from the very topical where a new subject is introduced each week, to series on a topic or on a series of going through an entire book of the bible.   I’m sure every pastor has their preference but if the goal is to equip the body for the work of ministry, I think going through whole books of the bible is the best way.  I’m sure there are other lists out there, but here are my reasons;

1)  It connects the narrative or letter to the whole meta-narrative of scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  This is really what we should want people to understand anyway.  No matter what book it is, the pastor will be forced to make correlations to give a fair and honest treatment to the book.  A good systematized topical study may be able provide this treatment, when done thoughtfully and that does require several sessions regardless of the topic.  It would be most difficult to do this in a topical, week-by-week sermon.

2)  It anchors the congregation in one theme of thought for an extended period of time.   The biblical writers had a particular theme when writing in a particular genre to a particular audience.  Going from start to finish through one book is able to better capture the author’s purpose and give an appreciation for a fuller development of understanding.  As stated, in #1, making to connections to the biblical meta-narrative is key and necessary.  This is in contrast to the new-topic-every-week.  A steady diet of this keeps people bouncing around and grasping for whatever they can to help them out, and ultimately does a disservice.

3)  It treats the bible as it should be treated as a complete revelation of God instead of a self-help guide or manual for living.  In this day and age, where contemporary Evangelicalism has been drawn to pragmatism with instantaneous results, people are already prone to grab for verses that will help out their life concerns.   Application is important, but not without an understanding of the foundation.

4)  It teaches people how to approach scripture on their own.  It’s a case of monkey-see-monkey-do.  When people are exposed to methodically going through a whole book, this is what they will most likely emulate.  If they are exposed to explanation of what the author is communicating and how that connects to the complete meta-narrative, it will influence how they approach scripture.  On the other hand, if people are exposed to finding a topic, then finding supporting passages, it teaches them to go home and do the same, most likely ignoring the context. Continue Reading →

The Benefit of Many “Teachers” and Why Diversity is Important

(by Lisa Robinson)

I have read John 11 many times and have been immensely ministered by it.  It seems each time I do, there is something fresh to be gleaned in the text.  So as I listened to this radio broadcast the other day whereby the preacher was identifying three reasons why Jesus wept, I got a little stuck on one point – because of sin.   It was through a discourse about the topic on Theologica, that I realized what I had missed as one of the members pointed out to me.  For whatever reason, I was not drawing that out of the text even though it was quite obvious, especially when correlated with the complete witness of scripture.

In reality, this happens to all of us.  There is something we miss.  We will read our Bible and draw out certain conclusions that may or may not be consistent with what is actually being communicated.   We may understand or we may draw erroneous conclusions.  To be sure, whatever conclusions we draw will impact how we think about God and how we live out our faith.

Needless to say, this is why teachers in the body of Christ are important, to help us understand the Bible better in order to live out a fruitful, Christian life.  It is one of the reasons I believe those charged with the pastoring and teaching task should have training that encourages a comprehensive evaluation of the Biblical text accompanied by spiritual maturity and accountability.

But what happens if the teacher is missing something or drawing conclusions that are not consistent with what God is actually communicating through the text?  What happens if that teacher is relying exclusively on teachers that agree with him and dismissing those who don’t?  What happens if the teacher insists that he believes his illumination of the text is correct because of what he believes the Holy Spirit has communicated to him?  What happens if we only listen to one teacher or teachers that teach everything alike? Continue Reading →


A few weeks ago we were trying to sell our SUV. It was a great car we just could not afford it anymore. I like the heavy cars for the wife and kids. It puts my mind at ease. However, it had some problems. Nothing big, just “cracks,” bumps, and bruises here and there. Since we did not have the money to fix the “cracks,” we thought we would just try to sell it as-is. When I was writing up the ad for the car, I told of the problems. I did not want to hide anything. That would have been deceptive. Sure, I might have been able to get it out the door without anyone noticing, but sooner or later they would have figured it out. It might have been too late for them to return the car, but it would not have been too late for my integrity to have been tarnished.

As important as it is for us to reveal the “cracks” when selling our car it is infinitely more important for us to be up front about the cracks in our lives to others. Chuck Swindoll told a story on his blog the other day. Early in his ministry he was looking for the “keys to success” and sought the advice of a man he admired very much:

“How do you do it, Jim?” I asked him. “Tell me the secret of ministering to people.” I expected him to say, “Always set the pace,” or, “Be strong no matter what,” or, “Model the truth, and stand against the adversary as he attacks you.” I got none of that. Jim just smiled in his inimitable, casual way and answered, “Chuck, let people see the cracks in your life, and you’ll be able to minister to them.”

That’s it. That’s the distilled essence of all he told me.

As we left their cabin that cool evening, I felt somewhat like the deflated, rich young ruler, who had just asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17). Like Jesus’s surprising answer to the ruler, Jim’s reply was not what I expected. Frankly, it convicted me. I was looking to minister from my strengths. Jim challenged me to serve in weakness.  He made that statement to me over fifty years ago, and it remains one of the greatest lessons I have learned in ministry. I have never forgotten it.

I immediately related that to theology. I look out across the spectrum of all those I admire, all those I read every day, all those I listen to, and find myself coming back to those who have cracks. They write the books I read a second time (or just get through the first time!). They record the sermons I listen to again and again. They are the ones who are real. I can relate to them. Why? Because I have cracks. Continue Reading →

How to Choose a Seminary

There are a lot of things that you must think through when choosing a seminary for your ministry preparation. I will attempt to cover them here.

Type of Seminary

There are three types of seminaries you need to be aware of:

1. University – These are those that are connected to a larger university and sometimes are simply a department within the institution (e.g. “Department of Divinity”). The spectrum of education will be very broad, ranging from conservative to liberal. Sometimes it will just depend on the professor. The advantages here normally include the broadness of the education provided and the lack of conservative and traditional assumptions. The disadvantage will be that many times these type of seminaries have as their purpose to deconstruct with no intention of reconstructing. In other words, there will be a greater chance the purpose of your education will be to produce a confused student (which is a construction itself).

If your purpose is to be prepared for ministry by godly leaders, you will find university-type seminaries and divinity schools to be weaker than the other options as the standards of belief and commitment to the historic Christian faith will be very loose. Some of the professors might even be atheists!

In my opinion, Duke and Notre Dame stand out above the rest here.

2. Denominational or Traditional – These are those seminaries that are connected to a particular denomination or Christian tradition. Their primary purpose is to establish the student in the dogmas and doctrines associated with their tradition. Baptist schools will train up Baptist leaders, Presbyterians schools will prepare Presbyterians, Reformed schools hope to produce Reformed graduates, and so on. Many times there is overlap with this type of seminary and the university as some universities are sponsored by a particular tradition (e.g. Baylor; Notre Dame). The advantage here is that you will be trained and educated in a way that will fit the needs of a said tradition. The disadvantage is that the outcome of your education is more predetermined.

3. Independent – These are those seminaries that don’t neatly fit into either of the previous categories. They are usually independent Evangelical training institutions that are representative of a movement or idea. They are often thought of as the tertium quid (“third way” or “middle ground”) between the denominational or university types. However, this is a little simplistic as many independent seminaries have just as much of an predetermined plan as the other two. The advantage here is that you may be able to get a broader education than the denominational-type while maintaining the ministry focus. This is especially the case with Evangelical seminaries who, at least in theory, fit under the broad umbrella of Evangelicalism.

Field of Study

There are also issues that involve particular fields of study. Some seminaries are going to have a stellar language department, but lack in theology. Others are going to be strong in preaching, but weak in apologetics. Others will be known for their Christian counseling, but void of worship (music) ministries. If you already know your passion, you should find a seminary that is going to serve that passion well. Continue Reading →

Christian Scholarship in a Nutshell

Three types of Christian scholarship:

1. Exegetes (study) – Level one studies 

original research; learning; data; facts

 These are the type of people who are continually doing research. They primarily involve themselves in first hand resources. In biblical studies, they are concerned with original language, backgrounds, historical criticism, and textual issues. They are often (though not always) very timid to take theological stands due to their realization of the complexities of the issues involved. Because of this, they are sometimes accused of “academic agnosticism.” They are very precise thinkers and normally find it difficult to teach because they are always qualifying everything.  More often than not they limit their studies to very particular areas.

They find all the pieces of the puzzle.

Viewpoint: TREES

  • Why they might dislike theologians: “They often lack the precise information and are sloppy with the facts.”
  • Why they need theologians: To process the data and come to conclusions from a broader understanding.
  • Possible problems with exegetes: Truth often dies the death of a thousand qualifications. They can lack common sense. Their precise studies can blind them to the obvious.

2. Theologian/Philosopher (think) – Level two studies

systematize; reflect; theories

 Theologians are the thinkers. They are not so much concerned about researching and discovering original data, but with the bigger picture of what the data means and exploring original ideas. They spend their time reflecting on issues and coming to conclusions about truth. They systematize the data in order that creeds can be reasoned, established, and defended. They are much broader in their thinking and studies, having to be familiar with many areas of scholarship in order to provide a systematic understanding of the complete truth. They are concerned with biblical studies, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, logic, and the like. Continue Reading →

Why Traditional Onsite Seminary is Still (by Far) the Best Option

It is obvious that so many places are relying on distance education—virtual distance education. After all, it is more convenient for all parties in many ways. People who would never have the option of going to seminary are now being trained by the best teachers the church has to offer. Institutions are able to stay afloat because of the minimal overhead that they have to sustain, all the while providing the same courses by the same teachers. Soon, seminaries may not need campuses at all. It will simply require a virtual campus. No one has to travel…not even the professors!

Not only this, but think of the students in other parts of the world who certainly would not have this opportunity. As well, what about the isolated pastors who have shepherded their flock with not much more than a Bible. They are now able to join with the church worldwide and feed from some of the most gifted members of the Body of Christ.

However, with all of these benefits, I don’t think we (the Church) should be too quick to rejoice to the detriment of the better option. I believe that traditional on-sadite training is by far the best option and I think we need to recognize this before we celebrate ourselves to the point of the demise of one of our most important and valued assets—the local seminary.

A couple of, side-notes, caveats, or whatever:

1. I know that I am going against the grain here. I also realize that I am going against the grain to, what some may believe, is my own detriment. Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, of which I am the founder and president, exists in large part due to our virtual constituency. We are facilitating the training of thousands of lay-people, ministers, and ministers-in-training all over the world. I think that we do online education just as good as anyone out there. However, we have never purported to be a seminary or a substitute for seminary. At best, we are a stepping stone for those who might go into seminary. However, in reality, we are here to make theology accessible to those who may never have a chance to get the type of education that a seminary provides. We do not encourage our students to use our ministry instead of seminary training. As well, one of our main thrusts is to get people to use our curriculum locally. We have thousands of churches who have used or are using The Theology Program in their local venue. This is part of the reason why we built the Credo House and why I still teach at local churches.

2. I am going to use somewhat of a heavy-handed conversation stopper (or at least primer). I have been to local seminary. I have experienced the rigors of being on campus at an experienced institution that knows what they are doing. I took 126 hours of courses on campus at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have also experienced online education in many different forms. Since 2001, I have been engaged in utilizing the power of the internet to educate people in theology. I will continue to do this. Therefore, I speak from experience. I know what both are like. (Here comes the heavy hand): One simply cannot compare the level of training—the type of training—that is available onsite to that which does not come readily or easily online. Onsite training from a good institution that knows what they are doing is simply much more effective. Those who have not experienced onsite and online training like this do not have the experience to make effective arguements otherwise.

Okay, now to a few particulars:

RE: Online Ed vs. Onsite Ed

“But online education is just as good as onsite education. Michael, you need to get with the times.”

One thing that you have to understand about my thinking here is that preparation for ministry involves much more than education. If education is all you seek, I agree that online venues can provide such. But preparation for ministry goes beyond education in the proper sense. Besides many intangibles, the primary thing I speak of is mentorship that includes particular encouragement, shaping, fellowship, and discipline. Is it theoretically possible that these things can happen online? Maybe. But not only are they much much more difficult, it simply is not happening. Continue Reading →