How much teaching is enough?

After reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity I searched his website without success for an exact quote from a commenter, one he had paraphrased in the book. Today I gave it another try, and came across the quote in one of his articles, but still no link to the comment. Here it is:

It’s time for one of your favorite programs here at Internet Monk.com: “Secret, Terrible, Unspoken Thoughts…REVEALED!”

Today’s secret thought was uttered by a commenter in a recent discussion thread, but it’s the kind of terrible thought that lurks in the minds of many of you reading this post. What terrible, shameful, embarrassing secret thought am I referring to?

Frankly, I’m to the point where there isn’t that much a pastor/teacher is going to be able to say that I haven’t heard 100 times already.

I know, I know. Shameful. Can you believe there are people like that out there? Someone call the watchbloggers.

The reason I searched so diligently for the quote is that I thought I might be the commenter in question. Now, if those are the exact words I probably wasn’t, since I don’t use the phrase “pastor/teacher” and I would have spelled out 100. But I have said almost exactly those words, at least to myself, many times in the past few years.

Before I write about what I mean by those words, let’s look at what Spencer thinks they mean:

The commenter is correct, and he isn’t saying “tickle my ears with something new.” He’s saying that the model of Christian spiritual formation now extent in worship is one that sees the 40 minute information dump as the primary means of spiritual growth. The sermon, the sermon and the sermon from the preacher, the theologian and the teacher. Plus a daily quiet time. That’s evangelical spiritual formation in a nutshell.

It’s hit me like a ton of bricks this past year: the blogosphere is full of voices that think we are all a bunch of big brains, and nothing more. We need more information. More data. More sermons. More books. More facts. More lectures. We are what we think. We are what we hear, read and think. So open up those brains and pour it in…after an appropriate prayer.

Well, I don’t disagree with what he writes here, and the imbalance Spencer describes is definitely something to wonder at. But I think I mean something less dramatic.

My question is this: how hard is it to learn not just the basics of Christian doctrine, but most of what is important? Is it really a lifelong endeavor, requiring weekly (or even more frequent) lectures supplemented by lots of independent study?

I began thinking about this when I realized that a sermon was increasingly unlikely to feed my mind. What I was hearing I already knew, sometimes far better than the preacher. But I didn’t chalk this up as a shortcoming of the preacher. In the early years I had been pretty hungry for doctrine and diligent about feeding myself. It didn’t surprise me that I was now hearing things I already knew, that I had heard from the pulpit over and over.

I wasn’t even dismayed in the beginning, because it is perfectly obvious that such a thing must happen. There just isn’t that much doctrine that it can’t be covered in a year or two of sermons and Sunday school. You’ll get through it faster if you add your own study to that. From that point on you’ll be hearing something you already knew.

And there is certainly more to learning than hearing something once. Repeated visits can help you internalize a truth more solidly, or understand it more deeply. That contented me for awhile. Later, when I likely to know as much about it as the preacher, I would occupy myself with judging his presentation of it—not always a spiritually healthy practice!

But mostly I listened in faith that there was some other purpose in hearing a point preached again and again, something beyond edifying my mind. And plenty of spiritual adepts are quick to claim that not all the reasons sitting under preaching can be quantified, that God works through preaching in ways we can’t easily detect.

Once on tape I heard R.C. Sproul begin a sermon by asking his congregation if anyone remembered the point of last week’s sermon. There was a pause, filled by nervous tittering, and then Sproul proceeded to say something like this: That’s fine. It used to bother me that parishioners could rarely remember the content of my sermons from week to week. But then I realized: I’ve done my job, and you’ve done yours. I’ve proclaimed the Word, and you have heard it proclaimed. Whatever happens beyond that is up to God.

Now, I do like the fact that this gets beyond the idea that the preacher and the parishioner are somehow obligated to make something happen during the preaching of the Word, and if it fails to happen then at least one of them has failed somehow: I didn’t preach properly, I didn’t listen properly. But I still wondered: what exactly is this thing that happens beyond the reach of our consciousness? And, more important: does it happen often enough that it merits regularly gathering the many to sit through point after quickly forgotten point, in order that the few might occasionally—what? Have their previously hardened conscience unexpectedly pricked? Suddenly understand something they didn’t get the first forty-seven times they heard it?

I’ve lately come to the conclusion that there really is a point where you’ve heard enough, and going beyond that point is at least optional and sometimes fraught with danger—the danger of thinking that going ever deeper into the Word outweighs the need to live what we’ve already learned. Those who aren’t living what they already know should be wary of thinking that learning more will somehow fix that problem.

My proposal is simple: before starting a sermon, the preacher should quickly state the point he is about to make, then excuse anyone who has heard enough on that point. What would those of us who are excused do instead? Well, I suppose we could discuss some other point of doctrine that interested us more. But I’m more intrigued by the possibility raised by one of the commenters on Spencer’s blog post:

I don’t know who said it first . . . but it could have easily been me, or maybe any of us. I do think that I’ve been at different places at different times in my life. There was a period when I (I now think erroneously) could sit and listen for hours to instruction on techniques of godliness. Then there were long periods of times I sat and longed to hear theology, and Biblical exposition. I expect to be at that place again. There were times I could sit and feel the emotional worship take me to another world.

But for now, I long for a friend. As a middle aged Christian man, I’ve never been lonelier than I am now. Sitting in our Church worship week after week is like handing a man dying of thirst a tall mug of ice cold. . . . sand.

I long to talk to my pastor or any man in my Church with my guard down, talking about how sad I feel about my kids moving off to college, or how disappointed I am with some things in life, or how I still have dreams unrealized. I equally long for one of them to tell me something personal and of substance . . . maybe how they are struggling with an issue or how their marriage isn’t perfect. I’ve done every thing I know to do to create that safe zone where they should feel free to talk. But it is counterintuitive to speak honestly in the context of a Church.

I hate standing in the basement of our church each week for snacks, coffee and “fellowship” while I have to filter every word that I want to say . . . to avoid the “that’s disgusting” look from my fellow-believer, or from my pastor.

I hate to start to talk about the most important thing of my deepest place and watch the pastor look at his watch or sigh in disbelief as if I should beyond that by now.

I think I’d like to spend my time talking to this guy. I know that we could just as well talk about such things outside of church, and some might think it would be more proper to do that. But if we were there together sitting out the sermon, I think we could talk and it would be time well spent.

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13 thoughts on “How much teaching is enough?

  1. I don’t disagree with the point that sermons are often repetitive, but I am often moved by a sermon on a basis other than the informative / intellectual one — to a greater awareness of my sin, or a greater determination to surrender to G-d.

  2. Rick, I believe that you make a valid point in terms of the belief that a lack of information is the primary obstacle to our sanctification, and I also agree that an important aspect of body life should be the freedom to share struggles and to be vulnerable to one another.

    However, it seems to me that you are looking at the sermon or teaching time in purely individualistic terms, which is rather surprising. The sermon or teaching time during worship is more than the simple sum of atomized individual information dumps. What about how the Spirit works corporately within a fellowship during the teaching of the Word in a way that is synergistic and would not be the same if the hand or foot were missing? This has been my experience and it rarely had much to do with the information per se, but more to do with the Spirit working through hearts in a corporate way at that particular moment in time and in the particular circumstances of that local body.

    I am also wondering why this is an either/or. Why does the teaching or sermon need to displace real conversations? Why only look at the sermon in terms of what “I” already know or have heard, but also in terms of what is God saying to “us”?

  3. However, it seems to me that you are looking at the sermon or teaching time in purely individualistic terms, which is rather surprising.

    The body consists of individuals, and at no time are they treated more as individuals than during the sermon. Worse, they are treated as a generic individual, with one set of needs, one amount of understanding, one level of attentiveness, and so on.

    The sermon or teaching time during worship is more than the simple sum of atomized individual information dumps. What about how the Spirit works corporately within a fellowship during the teaching of the Word in a way that is synergistic and would not be the same if the hand or foot were missing?

    Can you be specific about this? What work does the Spirit perform in you while Fred is present which isn’t performed when Fred is absent?

    This has been my experience and it rarely had much to do with the information per se, but more to do with the Spirit working through hearts in a corporate way at that particular moment in time and in the particular circumstances of that local body.

    You are blessed, but I don’t think your experience is common, much less normative. An example of such an experience would be helpful.

    I am also wondering why this is an either/or. Why does the teaching or sermon need to displace real conversations?

    I suppose it doesn’t need to, but I haven’t yet been to a church where real conversations are part of the gathering. And with most churches, where could they possibly happen? In the foyer beforehand? At the coffee hour afterward? Fine for small talk, but not for comforting and edifying a brother in need.

    Why only look at the sermon in terms of what “I” already know or have heard, but also in terms of what is God saying to “us”?

    Please give me an example of how God speaks to us in this way.

  4. The body consists of individuals, and at no time are they treated more as individuals than during the sermon. Worse, they are treated as a generic individual, with one set of needs, one amount of understanding, one level of attentiveness, and so on.

    Yes, the speaker is speaking to everyone and not just one person, but that does not mean that it need be to a generic individual. Let us assume that as a sincere shepherd, that the speaker really knows those individuals. They are not just anyone, they are the unique saints knitted together in that local expression of The Body of Christ. Because of this, he is thinking of them in those terms, as a Body, one that is unique to a given set of circumstances, locale, and place in time. They are not just a set of generic threads, but threads woven into a fabric of which he is part. Rather than talking to a room full of strangers, he consciously considers this fabric and is sensitive to the Spirit’s leading as he prepares his teaching.

    Can you be specific about this? What work does the Spirit perform in you while Fred is present which isn’t performed when Fred is absent?

    As a simple example, both Bob and Fred hear the same teaching and the Spirit works in the hearts of both in such a way that it leads to further reflection and discussion with each other on particular truths or experiences related to those truths, which results in changed hearts leading to changed lives that would otherwise not have occurred had the same “information” been acquired independently. This is not to deny that the Spirit works individually in our hearts through the Word as we meditate individually, but that there can be a different way that the Spirit works corporately leading to increased unity in the Body. This is a common example, in my experience. Less often, are the more dramatic examples as when a church is going through particular circumstances where the Spirit works corporately through the preaching of the Word in such a way that major issues are laid bare with mutual repentance and forgiveness taking place.

    I suppose it doesn’t need to, but I haven’t yet been to a church where real conversations are part of the gathering. And with most churches, where could they possibly happen? In the foyer beforehand? At the coffee hour afterward? Fine for small talk, but not for comforting and edifying a brother in need.

    We could distinguish between the time of corporate worship and other times of gathering. It has been my experience that real conversations occur in a more informal bible study atmosphere where there is not only teaching, but the opportunity for each to share their own perspectives, struggles, and experiences. This more likely occurs organically in smaller sized settings where the group has a certain quality of relational bonds and this type of gathering is an important part of body life. In addition, very meaningful and substantive interactions also occur in our homes as we have one another over for meals.

    The question then is whether this type of more intimate, informal, give-and-take setting is the same as what Scripture refers to as corporate worship. Is the openness a desirable part of Lord’s Day worship, or is that more appropriate in a different setting or gathering with a different purpose?

    ****************

    A.W. Tozer wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become unity conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”

    Ironically, the context for that quote is a defense of the importance of the individual “habit of beholding God.” I would shift the emphasis and simply consider the idea that believers together in a corporate setting are “tuned” in a way that does not occur outside of that setting.

  5. Jeff,

    Anyone who is experiencing the potential blessings you describe ought to stick around for the sermon, and probably will be eager to do so. Those who aren’t ought to be free to stay or go as they see fit.

  6. Rick,

    Those who aren’t ought to be free to stay or go as they see fit.

    This seems quite individualistic to me, and something of a salad bar approach.

  7. Jeff,

    Let’s say someone tells you that they have honestly and prayerfully considered their church situation, and concluded that:

    • He is rarely edified by the sermons.
    • The sermons do not directly address any issues he is aware of facing him, his relationship with his brothers, or the church as a whole.
    • He is not aware of any difference that his presence might make during a sermon.

    Your reasons that he should stay anyway seem to be:

    • He might hear something edifying at some point.
    • His presence might in some way unknown to him edify a brother

    I wouldn’t second guess a brother who decide to stay for those reasons, but neither would I second guess one who decided those reasons aren’t good enough, and that he’d rather spend the time doing something that he knows would edify either him or his brother.

  8. Perhaps before one determines whether or not a pastor’s specific message is worthy of hearing, or whether we have advanced far enough in our understanding of the Word to set listening aside; we should seek establish the biblical legitimacy of the preaching ministry in the first place.

    I place a high value on this ministry. As I understand the book of Ephesians, the gift of the pastor and teacher was one of many that Christ was pleased to give as gifts to men when he ascended into high. These gifts were given for our instruction and our edification until “we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;”

    It might be a fair question to ask whether or not we can or have achieved the end result that I refer to in the quotes. If we can achieve this platform and remain securely planted there, perhaps we could render these gifts as unnecessary or obsolete. I tend to think, though, that if we achieve this platform we could say that we have reached then en of the process of sanctification.

    I think a trip through the pastoral epistles is sufficient to show that preaching and teaching are legitimate tools that pastors and teachers are to utilize. Having said that, as I understand the pastoral role, there is more to shepherding than merely delivering a teaching session. The experience in the quote you supply that the speaker is looking for is a legitimate desire – that it is might be absent in his experience speaks to something, but I am not sure that it should be assumed that it negates the usefulness of preaching.

    I am sure that across the country there are men behind the pulpit who may not necessarily be called and gifted for the work they are performing. This complicates the problem. It could well be that they fall short of shepherding because they literally are not gifted to do so.

    If I have not been deceived by the status quo and am correct in thinking that pastors and teachers are a gift to the body of Christ for their mutual good, I would argue that it is a great mistake for the body to neglect and devalue these gifts. In Hebrews, we are told to submit and obey those who are ruling over us, for they watch for our souls and must give account of their work. We submit ourselves to them so that they might labor in joy – and this process is profitable to us.

    Preaching and teaching should be centered on the Word of God. If there are men who are gifted to labor to this end, I find it difficult to believe that we can advance beyond this end in our spiritual life without also packing our Bible in a box and storing it in the attic. Proper preaching should magnify God – revealing his character and operation among the inhabitants of earth. It should be laced with the gospel and instruction for living a godly life. It should serve to comfort, encourage, train, admonish, and rebuke.

    As for my own experience, I grew up in a Christian home and attended a Christian school and college. I think that I could honestly state that I have read more and studied more than the average churchman. Perhaps I am mentally duller than the average man, but I must confess that after 30 years in the church I find that I am still learning, discovering, and exploring. I think on an average week, I listen to or read manuscripts concerning sermons at least a half dozen times. Some are better than others and of course, in reading or listening to sermons, I can be more selective as to the teacher. It is rare that I can work through a sermon and not be encouraged, comforted, and taught.

    There is a genuine concern about the lack of community in the church. There is also a genuine concern about the lack of shepherding by those who claim the office of pastor. I am not sure that these concerns should necessarily be allowed to undo the legitimacy of the preaching ministry, even if we suspect that the influence of the shortcoming might be derived from an improper focus on that preaching ministry.

    I started reading “Mere Churchianity” some time ago, but did not finish it. I’ll be honest – I have grown weary over my years with the arguments that have been sustained by those who have become disenamored with the church. I have endured a couple of church splits and have seen a number of family attend, join,and leave the church. Many times the unhappiness is fueled by legitimate concerns. That most churches are perfect assemblies is something that I will not grant. It has been my observation, however, that those who are able to point to imbalances within in the community rarely are those who themselves diligently labor to provide an example contrary to the imbalances. It is easy to point out a problem, it is much more difficult to provide or offer an example of the conclusion.

    Many times those who have observed the problems retreat to the corner, which only serves to exacerbate the problem. While they continue to bemoan the lack of “one anotherness” in the church, they wind up being guilty of the same charge by a factor of ten. They drift off to some other assembly, or just simply start privately worshiping at home. It has been my experience that it seems as if it is rare indeed to find these folks in a better spiritual place months or years later.

    Spurgeon was once speaking to a woman who was unhappy in her Christian life. She had left the church and was functioning on her own. Spurgeon kicked a coal out of a brightly burning fire and they watched as the coal slowly ceased being red and sputtered to a smokey end. He then kicked it back into the fire, where it quickly began to function again for the good of the fire. I think it was an apt example of the description of the body. Each part serves as a legitimate function of the church, including the pastor, as he dutifully leads and guides in his God given duty. The finger has no right or place to say to the ear that he has no need of it. If the hearing is a little on the faulty side, maybe the finger ought to reach up and pull out a little of the wax.

  9. I couldn’t disagree more, except for the Sproul quote.

    Paul is constantly telling us “ore and more”. A lot of it is love for each other, doing things not out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but he talks/writes about growing more and more in knowledge, understanding, insight etc., things we only gain by spending time listening to God by reading the Bible and books about God and the Bible.

    I also heard many of the same (topical) sermons until I heard expository teaching. Many of these were parts of Scripture nobody else wanted to talk about. My eyes were opened to many thing that I’ll be studying the rest of my life.

    I agree with parts of what you say about preaching and I appreciate your point of view and your conviction. I may write a post of my own about this subject.
    Jeff

  10. The point of going to service on the Lord’s day is to receive the Gospel through Word and Sacrament.

    The main goal is not edification of mind, although that is a side benefit of hearing it proclaimed that we have been absolved of our sin because of the finished work of Christ.

    Your wish for a friend is understandable, but is not the commisioned function of the Church.

    The Church is to proclaim and administer forgiveness of sins and give Christ to sinners… even Christians need to hear the Gospel… every single week.

    What we should be asking outselves is not, “Don’t I already know this?” But, “Am I hearing about Christ on the cross, and how my sins are forgiven because of him?”

    If that’s not what you’re hearing from the pulpit, then you should find a pulpit where you will hear it.

    If that’s not what you’re hearing from the pulpit, then what you are probably hearing is more law which does nothin but leave us in more despair because we’ll never be able to keep it.

    The spoken word is not the service in and of itself, but is merely one part of a divine service that dispenses grace to the people of God, washes away their sins, and justifies them before a holy Creator.

    I truly enjoy your articles Rick, they’re always well written and very insightful. I think of you as an agrarian Gene Edward Veith. Keep it up.

  11. Paul,

    The Church is to proclaim and administer forgiveness of sins and give Christ to sinners… even Christians need to hear the Gospel… every single week.

    I remind myself of the gospel every single week—multiple times throughout the day, in fact.

    What we should be asking outselves is not, “Don’t I already know this?” But, “Am I hearing about Christ on the cross, and how my sins are forgiven because of him?”

    I am well aware of Christ on the cross and how my sins are forgiven because of him. I have heard this from many pulpits, and I remember clearly. I have read it again and again, and pondered it between readings. I will “hear” this from myself dozens of time during the week. I will hear it on Sunday morning, whether or not I am in a church service. I will hear it as least as clearly as I have ever heard it preached.

    What exactly is the added benefit of hearing it once more from the pulpit? This is not a rhetorical question.

  12. Sorry for my delayed reply.

    It is our spiritual food, and we need it just like we need to east everyday.

    Why specifically from the pulpit?

    I don’t know the explanation as to why, but I do know that this is what is meant when we are told to not forsake the assembly of ourselves.

  13. I submitted my answer above hurriedly from my phone, and didn’t realize how unsatisfying it would come across.

    What I meant to say was, I don’t know the explanation as to why Christ chose to do things the way he has done, but here is the reason why we need to here of forgiveness from the pulpit:

    Jesus gave the power to forgive sins THROUGH HIM to the church:

    John 20:21-23

    21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
    (from New International Version)

    Matt 16:18-19

    19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
    (from New International Version)

    Mark 2:5-12

    5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

    6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

    8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . .” He said to the paralytic, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
    (from New International Version)

    2 Cor 2:10-11

    10 If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven-if there was anything to forgive-I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
    (from New International Version)

    The pastor rightly exercises his office by announcing the forgiveness of Jesus which He gave to the church to the penitents(those who repent of their sins).

    The end result is that the person IS forgiven of any sin against God as surely as if God spoke the words of forgiveness personally.

    My guess as to why Christ would do things this way is because we are tangible, physical human beings, and we NEED to have a tangible and physically audible absolution.

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