Thursday, October 27, 2022

Are We Teaching or Just Speeching?

If you tell me, I forget.
If you show me, I remember.
If you involve me, I understand.

— Old Teaching Axiom

In his recent post on the subject of platform preaching, Tom writes, “For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that one-man platform ministry is the way to go, not because I believe it to be the most scriptural model, but because it’s what we’re all doing and I see little hope for wholesale change.”

He just doesn’t see any reasonable prospect that we can be induced to reevaluate our conventional church behaviors to the extent of questioning the value of platform ministry.

Well, Tom and I usually agree. But not on everything. Not on this.

I think we have to rethink platform ministry.

How’s that for a radical idea?

Preaching vs. Sermonizing

Now, before I go any farther, we should sort out what the Bible calls us to do and what it does not. We are told to preach. “Preaching” means proclaiming the word of God. It can mean from a podium or from a street corner. It can mean to one or to many. It can mean by public oratory or by personal conversation. Reprove, rebuke, exhort, instruct. Yell it from the steeples, chat it up in the square, debate it with the skeptics, discuss it with the faithful. Whatever. It just means, “get it out there”. That’s preaching.

But what we have is different. We have in-house sermon-making. We have a platform, a passive audience, a pulpit and 45 minutes of one-way talking.

Why Rethink?

But people are used to that, so why change it? My reasoning is simple: we don’t actually learn very much from just listening to people talk.

Yes, we do learn something. In fact, there are a few situations in which the ‘talking head’ approach works fairly well. One of them is when you have an extremely highly motivated audience, listening to a genuine expert explaining something that is very content-dense.

The university lecture hall is an example. But even there, it is only those students who are majoring in the subject and who are particularly interested in the subtopic of the lecture who are inclined to work at absorbing the information. Those who are simply taking the course to check off a box or because nothing else was open in that time slot absorb relatively little of what is being said.

Still, they all have papers and exams to write, and that forces them to pay a certain amount of attention. But while the motivated few will pull off ‘A’s, the unmotivated hangers-on may be happy with ‘C’s or ‘D’s.

In comparison, though, who writes papers based on our platform ministry? How many self-motivated majors in theology occupy the pew each week? For the average Christian whose career is out in the real world or making a home, what is the payoff for sitting for 45 minutes each week to hear somebody talk?

Comatose Christians

We’ve all done it: we come into the service and sing. We bow our heads for the prayers. We listen to the announcements. Maybe we even drop something in the offering plate. But when the preaching starts, we listen for the first three or four minutes, then go into suspended animation. We hear nothing, remember nothing, consider nothing, and when we leave, apply nothing of the message.

It’s all too easy to blame the audience for this. We could say, “If Christians were more serious and dedicated, or if they took notes, they’d get more out of the sermons.”


But we’re asking an awful lot of them by forcing them to learn in a way that every teacher knows to be highly ineffective. We’re recycling the teaching methods of the 19th century. It’s like we’ve learned nothing about how to teach people in the last century and a half.

In fact, today’s teachers know that people have different natural learning styles. Some people are particularly good at retaining information they hear. Some can only remember things if they see them in a diagram or list. Some learn by conversation, and cannot process well if they cannot ask for clarification. Others cannot concentrate without the opportunity to move. Some like ideas presented as theories, but many more understand better when the ideas are made practical.

When there are so many different learning styles in the average audience, what sense does it make continually to appeal to only one? How many of our audience will grasp the truth of scripture firmly when it is presented to them only in the way in which they find it hardest to learn?

Do we really care if they learn? Or do we really care only to keep our old procedures going? Is the pulpit really working for any of us?

Real Growth

Think back on your own experience. When did you grow most as a Christian? Was it sitting in a pew, listening to preachers? Most people will say no. Some will say it came through their personal morning devotions. Some may say it was at camp or at a conference where physical and social activity were integrated with teaching. Many will say it was in a smaller home Bible study, where they learned conversationally. Some will say it was through the personal discipleship of a Christian friend or mentor. A few will say it was by reading good books and commentaries …

But hardly anyone will say it happened just because they sat in the Family Bible Hour — even if they did it for years.

But hey, don’t take my word for all this. The word of God says the very same thing. When Moses was charging Israel with the responsibility of learning, absorbing and walking in the way of the Lord, he commanded the following:

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

Moses saw that hearing the words would never be enough to keep God’s people from becoming dull and indifferent. It would take nothing less than an active engagement between the people and the Word in every aspect of their lives. The truth could not be an academic matter; it had to get into everything.

So he gave the people strategies. He said, don’t just listen: get active in teaching the Word to other people, and especially your own family. Keep his words on your heart though private meditation and devotion. Turn the Word over in your minds through conversation. Put the Word to work in all your daily life and practices. Take the Word to the street, to your home, to your bed. Consider the Word when you see each other. Think of it when you pass through your doorways and gates. Engage with it in as many ways and circumstances as possible.

See? Total engagement.

Don’t relegate the word of God to an academic activity once a week. Make it part of every practice you have.

Make it your life. Make it the life of your congregation too.

Bottom Line

As for platform ministry, it’s not actually wrong: it’s just not nearly enough.

It’s really time we rethought how well we’re doing if we’ve been hanging our estimation of the spiritual health of our Christian lives on what comes off the platform on Sunday mornings. The real business of Christian edification happens in a multitude of ways, and the best are those that engage not just our hearing but our seeing by example and our active involvement as well. We learn and remember when we are provided with opportunities to examine, question, doubt, rethink, apply and act upon what we learn. And that is true of practically everyone, from the most academic eggheads among us to the most hands-on, down-to-earth folks.

The acid test for everything we do ought to be this: “Does it edify?” Does it build up the believers so that in a week, a month or a year we can see that they are happier, stronger, more obedient, more active, more mature Christians than before?

And we ought to ask, “Just how quickly and effectively are we edifying the believers?” That, and not “What are we used to doing?” ought to be the question that decides what methods we use.

We all need a much richer engagement with the truth of God. It is time to rethink what we have been doing.

That is, if we want to be teaching, not just speeching.

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