True Pragmatism


This is the fourth in a series of five posts on the importance of serious theological study beyond the commentary work required for preaching. The posts are by Garry Williams, with input from the Pastors’ Academy team.

You can listen to this post on our podcast here.

Many pastors live as if ongoing theological study beyond sermon preparation is a distraction from the front-line ministry that matters most, even if they would not say that out loud and probably don’t even think it. Even some of the most naturally bookish pastors tell me that time for study and theological reflection has been entirely squeezed out by the pressure of the urgent, especially over the last two years. Some even feel guilty about spending time reading beyond preparation or attending events where they receive teaching because it feels like self-indulgence rather than self-sacrifice. Sadly, their elders may think that too, even if they only intimate it through thoughtless jokes of the ‘What’s it like having a job where you only work one day a week?’ variety. In some contexts, asking for a period of study leave would feel like asking for ‘me-time’ as opposed to serving others.

If we live, think, or feel like this then we ought actually to be more truly pragmatic, because pragmatism itself, properly understood, suggests that time well-spent in study more than repays with fruit on the front-line. Deep study, undertaken over time, is supremely practical. Not only does it make us more interesting and insightful teachers of the word of God and physicians of the human soul, it even ends up saving us time in preparation. Working from a stronger baseline of theological understanding, we more quickly bring together teaching for discipleship classes, training on apologetics, and sermons.

For example, reading the kind of book that you would not ordinarily read for preparing next week’s passage can shape and give decisive direction to an entire sermon series. A busy pastor preaching on Leviticus, for instance, might think he is too thinly stretched to go beyond the commentaries to Michael Morales’ book Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. But if he did set aside time to read and digest that book, it would unlock Leviticus in a way that no commentary does. It would speed his work on individual sermons because he would see how to read Leviticus in the context of biblical theology, how it relates to creation and redemption, to the garden of Eden and to Christ. With the book located clearly on the map of redemptive history, he would see much more readily how to apply it to the Christian life.

As one pastor writes: ‘the helpfulness of my ministry—precisely in practical things like explaining the gospel to secularists, Hindus, mystics; preaching difficult passages (and, far trickier, preaching ‘easy’/familiar passages in non-trite ways); counselling people with same-sex attraction, marriage difficulties, experiencing long-term suffering; visiting the hospital when someone has died or is dying, or when a mother had stillborn twins, etc etc—has been directly proportional to how much time I’ve spent studying and meditating on the Bible and theology etc over the course of years.’

The Pastors’ Academy offers a range of activities to help you become more truly pragmatic, including study hours, days, projects, and our ThM degree with PRTS. Do get in touch to discuss how we might help you.