Preaching demands life-long learning

Or: Why Sudy? Part 2

This is the second in a series of five posts seeking to encourage pastors to engage in serious theological study beyond the commentary work required for preaching. This post is by Garry Williams, with input from the Pastors’ Academy team, and especially from Ben Dean.

You can listen to this post here.

In pastoral ministry the pulpit’s demand is perpetual and relentless. After all, it is preachers who pastor congregations effectively. The regular form in which biblical faith finds its expression in the church is the sermon, a message drawing out of a biblical text or passage whatever the Spirit of God has put into it for the church. The preacher’s task is nothing less than to bring the Word of God to bear on both the broad contours and the fine details of people’s lives.

What does this involve? The preacher must call upon the whole scope of God’s counsel. Take a look at your Bible. The copy I have just taken from the shelf beside me is 1500 pages long. All of it has been breathed by the Spirit with a purpose for the church. It makes sense only as a whole, when each part is read in the light of the rest. Wrestling with this text is a considerable task by any measure.

Then there are the 2000 years of the church’s reflection on those 1500 pages. As Peter Jensen puts it, even if a preacher ‘makes no formal reference to church history in his sermon, his knowledge of history is what helps create the depth and texture of the sermon, part of what gives it authority.’1

Then there are systematic theological considerations as the preacher seeks to avoid any suggestion that God speaks with a forked tongue, saying one thing here and something contradictory there.

These disciplines – exegesis, historical theology, systematics – are all brought to bear to discern the message of the text that must then be applied with surgical skill to real people living in today’s world. This demands that the pastor be both a reader of his times and a doctor of the soul.

With all this work in place the preacher then has around half an hour to communicate the message of God’s word to his people. The preacher’s learning must equip him to gather, distil, and articulate the entire resources of faith in Christ in what are just small fragments of the week. As Jensen concludes, ‘the preacher has to integrate all his learning as well as all his experience in a few moments’. In a few moments: the distillation involved in preaching is a truly formidable task. No wonder Helmut Thielicke wrote that he regarded the sermon ‘as the greatest intellectual achievement that can be demanded of a theologian’.2

Preaching with impact, regularly and reliably, week-on-week – accurately speaking truth that is listenable, penetrating, and properly applied – is so considerable a challenge that nothing less than a lifetime of learning could possibly suffice to sustain it.

The Pastors’ Academy helps pastors with the demanding theological work that enriches preaching. We offer a range of activities to help you keep growing theologically, including study hours, days, projects, and our ThM degree with PRTS. Do get in touch to discuss how we might help you.

[1] Peter Jensen, ‘The Seminary and the Sermon’, in Preach the Word. Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. by Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), p. 219.

[2] Helmut Thielicke, Notes from a Wayfarer: The Autobiography of Helmut Thielicke, tr. by David Law (New York: Paragon House, 1995), p. 291.