Recent homiletics textbooks tend to view the teaching sermon as a specialized type of preaching, sometimes equating the teaching sermon with the doctrinal sermon. In this view, the purpose of the doctrinal sermon is to inform the congregation concerning some aspect of Christian doctrine. For instance, a teaching sermon on the Christian understanding of prayer might define prayer, develop an argument for the importance of prayer, and provide instruction in the act of praying.
While the doctrinal sermon (so understood) might make use of scripture, the primary purpose of such a sermon is not biblical exposition but interpretation of doctrine. Of course, every sermon is preached through the lens of Christian doctrine (whether the preacher is conscious of it or not!) but the primary focus of the doctrinal sermon is to explain basic Christian beliefs.
To be sure, the contemporary pulpit has an important place for such preaching. But it is much too restrictive to equate the doctrinal sermon with the teaching sermon. For in addition to instruction in Christian doctrine per se, the congregation needs instruction in the content of the Bible (and in how to interpret the Bible), on the meaning of personal and social experience in the light of the gospel, as well as on appropriate moral beliefs and behavior.
Some authors in contemporary homiletics regard the teaching sermon as one that communicates ideas, makes points, or exchanges information (Blackwood, 141; Jensen, 11). The subject matter of the teaching sermon may be a biblical text, a Christian doctrine, or some aspect of contemporary experience. Richard Jensen uses a teaching sermon based on a passage from the Bible as a way of illustrating the traits of the teaching sermon generally. Its goal is to “teach the lessons of the text.” These lessons are often “abstracted from the text.” The sermon itself is directed to the mind of the listener and the sermon is developed in a “logical sequential and linear manner.” The sermon is prepared following the rules for the preparation of written material (Jensen, 27ff).
This understanding of the teaching sermon reduces the act of teaching to the transmission of information according to a single formula without regard for subject matter or situation. While such a conception of the teaching sermon has something to commend it, it goes awry at two points. For one, teaching today is much more broadly conceived as an act in which the teacher helps people to learn to see (and to be) in the world in ways appropriate to the normative vision of the community. For another, while teaching may involve the exchange of information, it may also draw upon any number of pedagogical approaches, ranging from Socratic dialogue to the telling of parables that are designed to cause the hearer to think afresh concerning the relationship of the self, the world, and the normative vision of the community. Maria Harris, in fact, shows that the Christian teacher draws upon the deepest powers of the religious imagination (Harris, 2-22).
In the tradition of the preaching of Israel and of the church (especially the tradition of the Reformation), we propose that today’s preacher view every sermon to an established congregation as a teaching event. This requires that we come to a clear understanding of teaching and of the teaching sermon.
As a corollary, we agree with David Buttrick that the church today needs to give renewed attention to evangelistic witness (Buttrick, 226-227; see also Craddock 1978, 108). The teaching sermon as conceived here is addressed primarily to an established Christian community and to those who are considering identifying with such a community. The purpose of the teaching sermon is to build up the congregation in faith.
Buttrick refers to evangelistic witness as “out-church preaching” because it takes place outside settled congregations and is ideally carried out by the laity (Buttrick, 226). The forms of evangelistic witness can be quite varied and can involve both actions and words. Buttrick correctly urges that when evangelistic witness takes the form of action, it should be accompanied by an interpretive statement that connects the acts of witness to the gospel.
However, contemporary Christians need instructions in bearing spoken witness in the world. As Buttrick notes, “The message that many lay people hand out is a vapid, semi-sincere sales pitch for local parish programs: ‘Come to our church. We have a keen pastor, a men’s bowling league. P.E.T. classes, a counseling center, the biggest Youth Club in town and, oh yes, if you like to sing, our music program with a bell choir is super. We’re a full-service church'” (Buttrick, 226). Beyond the sales pitch, the laity need to be able to “give an account of the hope” that is in them. The teaching sermon is one way by which the congregation can learn how to conceive and give such an account.
Before discussing the characteristics of the teaching sermon, we pause to consider what may be one of the most important steps on the journey to preparing the teaching sermon: the self-conscious decision to preach in a teaching mode. This may be a new perspective for pastors who habitually think of preaching in other terms. For instance, some primarily think of preaching as an instrument for the purpose of conversion or as counseling on a mass scale or for the purpose of maintaining the institutional health of the local congregation (for example, raising the budget or recruiting youth-group sponsors) or as lobbying for a particular social agenda. To think of the sermon as an act of teaching may require a shift of gears. Instead of beginning with a question such as “With what personal need am I going to help the congregation this week?” or “What political action am I going to urge the congregation to take this week?”, the leading question may be, “What do we need to learn as a community this week and in these upcoming weeks?” The latter question provides a distinctive angle of vision from which to go about sermon preparation.
Characteristics of the Teaching Sermon
Following the lead of Deuteronomy and in the tradition of both Judaism and the church, we may say that teaching involves two significant moments. The first is enabling the community to recall (or to learn) the content of the gospel as well as the traditions of our faith from the time of the Bible to the present day. The other is the interpretation of the gospel (and the tradition) for the sake of the living community. We refer to this process as “traditioning.”
Charles Blaisdell perceptively points out that this naming of the world often involves two things. First, the teaching preacher must often expose the fact that the congregation typically views the world (and its life therein) in purely human terms and without reference to the transcendent God. Second, the preacher moves beyond expose’ to name the world in the terms of the gospel. Thus, “the minister-as-teacher in his or her interaction with the world creates, as it were, a different world. Or, alternatively put, the minister-as-teacher, given his or her rootedness in the transcendent, discloses what the world is like when it is informed and structured by the transcendent” (Blaisdell, 49). Such “veracious preaching constructs or discerns an alternative to the idolatries present before the preacher” (Blaisdell, 52).
Blaisdell points out that the “teacher-preacher can fail at his or her task when what is spoken is neither ‘good’ nor ‘news.’ If preaching cannot name an alternative to the claimed ultimacy of the purely human, then it is not news; if it presents its news with a tacit admission that the news rally cannot change us, then it is not good (Blaisdell, 52).
Thus, in the language of the sociology of knowledge, the preacher offers the congregation a symbolic universe that is defined by ther gospel (Berger and Luckmann, 85-118). The preacher helps the congregation “tag” aspects of the world with names that help the congregation to recognize God’s presence and purpose as well as to know how to respond appropriately to that presence and purpose. For instance, the sermon can identify sin and its manifestations in the world; the sermon can name the gospel and show the significance of the gospel for a world caught in the grip of sin; the sermon can outline behavior and values that are consistent with the gospel. The sermon thus deals with two of the great questions of life: Who are we? What are we to do?
One of the writers of The Teaching Minister has a daughter named Genesis. When Genesis was about three years old, she was in worship with her parents. The pastor was preaching on a text from the first book of the Bible. The sermon began with a story from modern life; the daughter was sitting beside her parents in the pew, quietly looking at a child’s book. The pastor then shifted the sermon directly to the passage from scripture. The first time he spoke the name of the book, “Genesis,” the daughter lifted her face from the child’s book with a look of recognition and expectation. The preacher called her by name. She responded with trust and hope. And that moment pictures a primary purpose of Christian preaching.
As we noted earlier, teaching employs the highest and most imaginative powers of the teacher. The teacher seeks to create the best possible environment in which the learner can receive the material being taught and can make a responsible choice of whether to accept or to reject (or to make another response to) the material. Because teaching is a creative act, there is no single formula for the teaching sermon. However, although quite diverse in form, teaching sermons manifest similar characteristics. We outline fifteen characteristics of the teaching sermon.
1. The teaching sermon helps the listeners remember — or learn — the content of the gospel. It often helps the listeners become acquainted with the major witnesses to the gospel in the history of Israel and the church. Through the teaching sermon, the listener will typically become acquainted with a piece of the tradition not known before or will become reacquainted with a piece of the tradition once known but now forgotten or will review a familiar piece of the tradition in a new way.
Aiden Kavanaugh points out that, at times, the preacher may not so much “instruct the unknowing in the Unknown,” as she or he may “trigger the myriad awarenesses of that same absolute reality all members of the group bring with them” (Kavanaugh, 43). In the same way, Thomas C. Long notes that “we who preach do not have the whole gospel in our grasp ready to drop it into empty vessels. Our task is not simply to proclaim the gospel to them, but to recognize it in them as well, to name it, celebrate it, nurture and guide it” (Long, 1988, 62).
To put the matter simply, we cannot draw upon and interpret a tradition that we do not know. Developing familiarity with the gospel, with the historic witnesses to the gospel, and with the occurrences of the gospel in our own setting is a first important step.
2. The teaching sermon helps the listeners reflect critically on the situation of the community. If the purpose of the teaching sermon is to help us name the world in the terms of the gospel, then it follows that we must know the world so that we will name the world as it is and will not misname it or name it in caricature. Thus, the teaching sermon will help us clarify the cultural, psychological, economic, political, religious, cosmological factors that are pertinent to the sermon at hand. However, it is not enough for these things simply to be described phenomenologically in a Christian sermon. “No, if we address situations, somewhere, somehow, there must be a contending with our assumptions as well as a rereading of situations in the light of revelation” (Buttrick, 417). The teaching sermon will help us assess the adequacy of our view of the world in the light of the gospel and its norms.
3. The teaching sermon helps the listeners interpret the significance of the gospel (and the tradition) for the contemporary community. When the sermon draws only upon the gospel (the promise of God’s love for each and all and the command for justice for each and all) as its theological center, the preacher’s job is relatively straightforward. The preacher conducts an exegesis of the situation of the community in order to determine whether the community has a greater need to hear the word of promise or the word of command. For instance, if the church is losing confidence in God’s presence, the community likely needs the assurance of God’s promise. If the community is endorsing values and practices that devalue others, then the community likely needs to hear the call for justice for each and all.
Of course, the themes of love and justice are so closely intertwined that the preacher will nearly always consider both in a single sermon. The reminder of God’s universal love necessarily calls forth the recognition that God’s love is for all. But in a given sermon, emphasis will often be more on one pole of the gospel than on the other.
The preacher’s task is more complicated when the preacher brings a piece of the tradition (such as a biblical text) into the sermon. In this case, the preacher encounters the hermeneutical problem. The hermeneutical problem arises from the recognition that the worldview (including theological assumptions) of the text is different from the worldview of the contemporary community. This raises the question of what the text means (or does not mean) for the current church.
One of the simplest examples of the hermeneutical problem is the phenomenon of idolatry. At various moments in the world of the Bible, people worshiped false gods (represented in the world by idols). The Bible frequently chides the people to avoid idolatry. Yet, in late twentieth-century North America, few people actually worship (in the liturgical sense) idols. Hence, the question is raised, What does a passage such as the following have to say to us? “Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods” (Lev. 19:4a).
Slavery provides another example. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible generally presumes the validity of slavery as a social institution. What is today’s community to make of a text such as 1 Peter 2:18-19? “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.”
The preacher cannot mechanically reproduce the tradition (copy-machine fashion) but must consider the witness of the tradition and what that tradition might — or might not — have to say to our generation … Thus, the teaching preacher must converse with the tradition in order to determine what the tradition has to say to the living body.
4. The content of the teaching sermon is appropriate to the gospel. The positions advocated in the homily will be consistent with the conviction that God loves each and all.
5. The content of the teaching sermon is intelligble. Christian teaching concerning God, God’s activity in the world, and the possibilities of the world will be consistent with the ways in which we think about the world today. Christian preaching will unpack the inner logic of the Christian faith and will show how the Christian faith is a coherent and sensible way of viewing the world today. Furthermore, the methods of development and argument in the sermon should be open to the examination of the listeners.
6. The content of the teaching sermon is morally credible. The theses of the sermon assume that all human beings as well as the natural realm are to be treated in ways that assert that each and every created being is loved unconditionally by God. The sermon will never degrade another person or license the abuse of the natural world. In the course of telling the truth, the viewpoints, values, and practices of others will often be critiqued by the preacher. But such criticism will always occur in the context of the preacher’s acknowledgement of the love of God for the other and God’s call for justice for the other.
7. The teaching sermon teaches both in its content and by its methodology. To be sure, the sermon always teaches the content of the gospel. At the same time, the teaching sermon offers the listeners a clear model of how to think theologically about the significance of the Christian tradition for the world today. The ways in which the preacher reasons in the course of the sermon teach the people how to reason as they come to judgments concerning faith and its relationship to life.
8. The teaching sermon has a clear purpose. For instance, the preacher may want the congregation to learn the meaning of the gospel, to experience the grace of God through the medium of the sermon, and, hence, to become gracious in their view and treatment of others.
9. The teaching sermon employs a communication strategy that is appropriate to the purpose of the sermon. For example, a sermon whose purpose is basically informational may call upon the preacher to think of how creatively to convey information so that the information will have a good chance of being remembered. If the sermon needs to deconstruct a part of the worldview of the hearers, the preacher may want to create a parable that causes the listeners to look at their world from a new perspective. In any case, the teaching preacher will need to be aware of the worldview(s) of those who hear the sermon in order to conceive a homiletical strategy that will stand a good chance of getting a fair hearing.
10. The teaching sermon is delivered in a way that is appropriate to the gospel. The whole of the preaching event teaches, so the preacher will want to speak and act in the pulpit in ways that embody God’s love for the world and in ways that teach that God is alive and passionate. Thus, the preacher will want to be authentic and lively. And the style of the delivery should be consistent with the tone of the sermon. A passage on sadness would be delivered in a sober mood while a passage on joy would be delivered joyfully. In a sermon on love, the delivery undercuts the content when the preacher speaks in harsh, angry tones and bangs his or her fist on the pulpit.
11. The teaching preacher respects the freedom of the listeners to say no to the sermon. This is more than the practical recognition that some people will disagree with the preacher. To respect the right of the people to disagree is to take them seriously precisely because the subject matter under discussion is serious. Indeed, the preacher and the people are discussing what is true and what is not. Because the stakes are high, the preacher seeks for all to bring their best powers of analysis and reasoning to the sermon.
12. A teaching minister learns from others. Teaching ministers are especially willing to learn from those who understand the world from standpoints that are not immediately available to the minister, for example, artists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, political analysts, physical scientists, persons of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Ministers may even be surprised at what they learn from sensitive members of the congregation who have no credentials that would suggest that these persons have insight to offer to the ministers beyond their own reflection on life experience. From this vantage point, one of the best preparations for the work of preaching is simply to live and to reflect on what happens in life.
13. In the teaching sermon, the preacher draws upon the best of what we know regarding how people learn. The chief tenets of our awareness follow:
In the optimum learning environment, the teaching and the students are bonded together in a relationship of trust and mutual support. In particular, the teacher affirms the worth of the learners as persons, and the teacher makes her-self or himself available to the students (Roberts, 12). Thus, a foundation of the teaching sermon is a strong, trusted pastoral relationship between the pastoral teacher and the congregation.
Within this environment, the teacher encourages the learners to take risks in trying new ways of thinking and shows support and encouragement even when the learners seem to fail. As D. Bruce Roberts notes, “It is clear that cutting, sarcastic or combative styles of behavior in the classroom will not support or sustain the student through the experience of risk in learning to think critically” (Roberts, 14). The same is true in the arena of preaching.
As a corollary, the teacher often introduces (into the teaching situation) factors that produce dissonance in the mind of the listener. The dissonance may be as small as getting the learners to recognize that they do not possess knowledge that could prove helpful to them, or it may be as serious as the preacher helping the listeners to recognize basic conflicts between the values of the gospel and the everyday values of the listeners. The contradiction thus experienced “facilitates growth precisely because it creates doubt and intensifies the search for more adequate views of understanding” (Roberts, 14-15). Thus, dissonance helps open the listeners to entertaining new perspectives.
The teacher helps the students integrate the new perspectives that come from individual learnings into the larger patterns of students’ thinking and acting. A sermon on the importance of forgiving one another, for instance, should ultimately be connected to God’s forgiveness of the human race and to the nature of God.
When a preacher develops an idea or concept in the course of a sermon, the preacher needs to use an image that will give the listeners a picture of the concept (Buttrick, 32). The self-conscious use of learning theory in the development and presentation of sermons cannot guarantee learning on the parts of the congregants, but it can help create an environment that is learner-friendly.
14. Each teaching sermon will be informed by a comprehensive vision of God and God’s relationship with the world such that each sermon is coherent with the overall theological clarity of the preacher. All the sermons from the same preacher will articulate a consistent viewpoint. The preacher teaches only one thing: the gospel. But from time to time the preacher looks at the gospel and its relationship to the congregation through different windows. One week, the window may be a text from the book of Joshua. Another week the window may be the Christian doctrine of baptism. Still another week, the window may be the Christian interpretation of natural disaster, such as an earthquake. But, regardless of the subject matter for the particular week, the sermon is refracted through the lens of a well-defined grasp of the gospel.
15. The teaching sermon helps the community discern the implications of the gospel (as presented through the sermon) for life. One reason that many of us have difficulty remembering the details of subjects we studied in high school or college is that many of the details of the subjects were given to us with no attention to their relationship to our ongoing experience. We tend to take to heart those things that relate directly to us. Thus, the preacher will want to give some direct points at which the sermon illuminates the lives of the listeners and points at which the life experience of the listeners illuminates the tradition.
Thus, the teaching sermon does not so much announce the news of the gospel (as if for the first time) as much as it helps the congregation grasp the import of the gospel for its life and for the life of the cosmos.
Preachers often lament the inability of the congregation to recall the contents of particular sermons. This situation will likely not be alleviated by a purposeful shift to preaching from a teaching perspective. However, the fact that parishioners cannot regurgitate the contents of a specific sermon need not worry the preacher as long as parishioners are growing in their vision and trust of God and in their capacity to witness to the gospel.
Individual sermons contribute in an incremental way to the development of the listeners’ theological vision, method, and capacity for witness. By analogy, as a child, this writer was not a good student in arithmetic. I cannot, in fact, remember a single lesson in arithmetic. But today, I can add, subtract, multiply, and divide. In this spirit, Thomas Long adds that “a preacher may well have reason to rejoice over a hearer who cannot recall what was said but who is still savoring the places in her life where the sermon made an impact, the places where she attached pieces of her own experience to a sermonic pattern she can no longer see” (Long, 1988, 60).
Reprinted from The Teaching Minister, by Clark M. Williamson and Ronald J. Allen. (c) 1991 Clark M. Williamson and Ronald J. Allen. Reprinted and used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press.

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