I’ve written a few times about the language we use for things. Most recently in a post about giving. You may think I’m making too much out of language. Our language shapes how we think about things, though, and it reflects what we already think about them. The group of people I want to talk to here knows just how important language is.
Why I loved teaching pastors
I have old business cards that show my title as teaching pastor. I chose that title after seeing it a number of other places. One of my real-life heroes then, Rob Bell, was a teaching pastor. In fact, it seemed that most of the pastors whose podcasts I would ever listen to were called teaching pastors.
One of the things I loved about Rob Bell and others like him was that when I listened to them, I felt like they opened my eyes to something new about the Bible and theology. Honestly, several sermons I had heard from “preachers” up to that point seemed as though they chose something they wanted to talk about and then found a Scripture that said something similar so that they could have a Scripture passage for their message. There wasn’t much evidence they had spent any time in real Bible study before they got up to preach.
Listening to some of these teaching pastors was a huge influence on me. Their devotion to serious study of the Scriptures has inspired me to do the same before I should dare to preach. They taught me that seeing Scripture more deeply can be a most spiritually enriching experience.
And so I remember a time when my primary goal for preaching (I called it “teaching” then) in worship services was for people to learn something new — for them to see the Bible with a greater sense of depth. Maybe this would include showing them a map so they could see just why Laodicea might be called lukewarm. Maybe it would involve showing people how the same Greek word is used over and over in the New Testament for both “simplicity” and “generosity.”
Making those teaching points wasn’t bad. Actually, they made for some of the sermons that had the greatest impact.
The problem is that my primary goal for the message in worship services was for people to learn something new. The standard of success I had set for myself was whether I tickled people’s brains, whether they walked away with new thoughts and new understandings.
By calling myself a teaching pastor and by calling what I did teaching, I taught my people that this was the standard.
The problem is that a proclamation of the gospel was a secondary goal. Now I think I usually met that goal, but it’s hard for me to look back now and think that it was only secondary. And it’s disappointing to realize that I gave more energy to making sure people learned something than I gave to making sure that people heard the gospel.
In Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green says three things characterized preaching in the early church:
- They preached a person. The message was plainly Christocentric, with the stress on “his cross and resurrection and his present power and significance.”
- They proclaimed a gift. “The gift of forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit, the gift of adoption, of reconciliation. The gift that made ‘no people’ part of the ‘people of God’, the gift that brought those who were far off near.” Two prominent aspects of that proclamation were pardon for the past and power for the future.
- They looked for a response. Specifically, they called for repentance, faith, and baptism. Though baptism is a one-time calling (in most traditions), repentance and faith are ongoing responses — responses that include our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
What great standards for our primary goals in preaching!
In my humble opinion — which coincides with the humble opinions of most great theologians through history — a proclamation of the gospel is essential to a worship service. A Bible teaching is nice. It can often be a great aid to that proclamation. But it’s not essential.
And lest you think I’m saying that each service needs to be about an altar call for non-Christians… I’m not. I believe the strongest Christian in your congregation needs to hear a message about Christ, a proclamation of a gift from God, and a call to response. We all continually need to share in proclaiming and celebrating God’s love and grace and continually need to respond.
The “teaching pastor” title and the transition from “preaching” to “teaching” in worship services seems to have confused what’s essential and what’s helpful. In our pastors’ and congregations’ minds alike, we’ve formed the impression that the chief goal of the spoken word in worship is learning. We’ve created a frame of mind that doesn’t see a problem with a message that never mentions Christ, so long as it gives people a better understanding of the culture of the Ancient Near East.
The place of teaching
To be clear here, I love learning, and I love teaching. I think they have an important place. More often than not, I hope that my sermons will continue to teach. I think the gospel comes more alive as we learn more. I like the Jewish understanding of Torah study as worship.
I also think there are plenty of places where it’s fine to teach without preaching — Sunday School classes, Bible studies, seminary classes. (I didn’t take certain classes in seminary because they were so light on teaching and so heavy on “devotional” material. That’s not what I went to seminary for.)
And finally, if your “teaching pastor” is in charge of teaching classes, not speaking in worship services, then it’s a great designation. Let them teach!
But in our worship, a proclamation of the gospel is essential. Teaching is just one useful tool for that proclamation.
So let’s quit putting “teaching pastors” in front of the congregation in worship, and let’s start putting preachers back up there. If those preachers teach some along the way, that’s great. But if they’re not preaching, it’s not worship.
[A note: we’ve tended to misunderstand another role in worship, too. See a brilliant piece by Jonathan Powers, “Desperately Seeking Worship Pastors,” here. If he and I are right, a lot of churches are misunderstanding the two primary leadership roles in their worship services. That’s no small problem.]