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When I started the Basic Training series, I thought I’d be writing about foundational theological concepts and practices in Christianity. You know, like baptism or the sufficiency of Scripture. It never occurred to me that I might someday need to explain something so basic that most lost people could define it as well as (sometimes better than) many professed Christians.
But the more “Bible” studies and sermons I take in, the more I think a remedial course in exactly what those things are supposed to consist of might be very beneficial to the church at large, and an unfortunate necessity for many pastors, teachers, and Christian celebrities.
I could be way off base here, but I’d almost bet that if you went up to ten random people on the street and asked them what a Bible study class is supposed to do, at least nine out of ten of them would answer, “Study the Bible.” If you asked those same people what a sermon is, you might get more varied answers, “It’s when the preacher explains what the Bible says,” or “It’s a pastor telling you how to be a good person,” (remember these are random, probably unsaved, people) or “A sermon tells you about God.” But I’m guessing none of them would answer, “It’s when a preacher gives a stand up comedy routine,” or “A sermon is mostly stories about the preacher, his family, and other people,” or “A sermon is when you watch a movie and then the preacher adds a few remarks at the end about what you can learn about God or life from the movie.”
Yet, that’s pretty much where way too many churches are these days.
So let’s take a look at what Bible studies and sermons are and aren’t supposed to be.
It’s All About The Bible
This is supposed to be a “duh” moment for Christians, pastors, teachers, and churches. If someone is teaching a Bible study or a pastor is preaching a sermon, the first thing he should reach for is his Bible. He is to be preaching or teaching God’s written Word. It’s right there in black and white in 2 Timothy 4:1-2:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
That’s a very solemn and weighty charge to pastors. In today’s vernacular, it’s almost like placing your right hand on the Bible, raising your right hand, and saying, “As God is my witness, I swear to God I will ______.” (and actually understanding the gravity of that and meaning it). God is witnessing this charge to you pastor – you’d better take seriously your duty to preach His Word.
And notice, there are only two times when a pastor is supposed to preach the Word: in season and out of season. When his people want to hear it and when they don’t. When he feels like it and when he doesn’t. When he’ll be persecuted and when he won’t. When it’s easy and when it’s hard. When it’s a pleasant, encouraging passage, and when it’s a passage that offends people. Pastors, and, by extension teachers, are to preach and teach the written Word of God in every sermon and teaching opportunity. Always.
It’s Not About the Preacher/Teacher/Author
There are a lot of awesome pastors, teachers, and authors out there who labor faithfully to rightly teach God’s Word to His people. I am unspeakably grateful to them and for them.
But let’s face it, there are also a lot of narcissistic gas bags out there who use the pulpit and the pages to pump up their already over-inflated egos by endlessly blathering on and on about themselves, their families, their friends, and their experiences. You can tell by the ratio of personal stories to Scripture who they love best and are most interested in.
I’ve read books and heard sermons that I walked away from thinking, “I know more about that pastor or author, his family, his trips, the charity work he does, and who his important friends are than I do about God and His Word.” (I’ll tell you this, he’s received his reward.)
Pastors, teachers, authors aren’t to preach themselves, they’re to preach the Word.
It’s Not About Gimmicks and Entertainment
A sermon series based on movies. A pastor riding a motorcycle into church. Ziplining during the sermon. Rock concerts and light shows. Raffles and giveaways of cars and other big ticket items. The pastor and his wife promoting a sermon series on sex. On the news. From a bed. On the roof of the church.
Pastors and teachers aren’t charged to entertain people or get them in the doors of the church and keep them there by any means necessary. Pastors and teachers are charged – with God as their witness – to faithfully preach and teach His written Word. Jesus said shepherds who love Him will feed His sheep, not entertain them.
Newsflash – the world isn’t going to find that interesting enough to get out of bed for on Sunday morning. Newsflash – That’s fine. The gathering of the church isn’t for the world. The gathering of the church is for the church – the people who have been saved out of the world and into the body of Christ – to give them an opportunity to worship the Savior they love with their brothers and sisters, to disciple them in God’s Word, and to equip them with God’s Word to go out and share the gospel with the world.
It’s Not About You, Either
The flip side of “it’s all about the Bible” is, it’s not about you. What does that mean? The sermon or the Bible study lesson should not teach us to look down in narcissistic navel-gazing, it should teach us to look up at God, who He is, what He has done, and what He says in His written Word.
Over the years, I’ve had the discouraging duty of reviewing various women’s “Bible” studies. Though some have been better than others, the theme running through the majority of them is “it’s all about you” – your feelings, your hurts, your ego, your opinions, your personal experiences. It’s evident in the way authors insert long stories about their own lives and base their ideas, agendas, and assertions on those personal experiences rather than on Scripture. It’s evident in the questions the reader is supposed to answer at the end of each lesson: “Have you ever experienced _____?” “How does ____ make you feel?” “If you could ____, how would you do it?” “What do you think others’ opinion of you is?”
Good Bible studies give you rightly handled, in context Scripture until it’s coming out of your ears, and then they ask questions like, “What are the attributes of God listed in this passage?” “Verse 3 talks about lying. What are some other verses that talk about lying, and how can we tell from these verses how God views lying and why?” “How does this passage point us to Christ?”
Is there a need for introspection during Bible studies and sermons? Sometimes. But the focus is not you and your feelings and experiences. The focus is on reflecting on the glory of God in the passage you’ve just heard, repenting of the sin the passage you’ve just read has convicted you about, obeying the command in the passage you’ve just heard, and things like that. It’s Bible-focused, driven, and governed, not me-focused, driven, and governed.
Context, Context, Context
It’s not just important to preach and teach the Bible, it’s important to handle the text of the Bible correctly and in context.
You’ve probably heard the old joke about the guy who wants God to tell him what he should do with his life. So he opens up the Bible to a random spot, closes his eyes, puts his finger down on the page, and looks at the verse he’s pointing at. It’s a New Testament verse: “Judas went and hanged himself.” “Hmm,” he thinks, “that doesn’t make much sense.” He shuts his Bible and tries the process again. This time, it’s an Old Testament verse, “Go and do thou likewise.”
We laugh at the silliness of this little story, but it hits frighteningly close to home for far too many pastors and teachers.
Perhaps you’ve read a devotional that quotes a Bible verse (or maybe even just part of a verse) at the top of the page. The author then goes on to teach on that verse or tell a personal story. When you look up the verse and read a little more of the chapter it’s in, you discover it has nothing to do with the author’s story or doesn’t mean what the author was teaching.
Or maybe you’ve sat in a church service where the pastor reads a verse or two at the beginning of the sermon and then basically closes his Bible and shares personal thoughts and stories for the rest of the sermon time that have nothing to do with the verses he read at the beginning. Or a sermon in which the pastor hopscotches all over the Bible (often using a myriad of translations) reading a verse here, half a verse there, in an effort to prove his homespun thesis or support the agenda he’s crafted.
Yes, technically, there’s Bible in all of those teachings, but none of those methods handle Scripture properly or in context. That’s called eisegesis, and it basically means reading your own ideas into the text of Scripture, or twisting Scripture to get it to say what you want it to mean.
The proper method of teaching Scripture is exegesis. Exegesis is taking a passage of Scripture in context, and “leading out” of it- teaching what the passage means. That’s nearly always going to require reading several verses from the passage to catch the reader or listener up on what’s going on in the story she’s just parachuted into.
Good pastors and teachers read and teach the biblical text in an organized way. When you sit down to study, say, a history book, you start at the beginning of the book and you work your way through to the end. You don’t start by reading two paragraphs out of the middle of chapter 7, then move on to the last three sentences of chapter 49, then the first half of chapter 1. That’s how people preach, teach, and “study” the Bible sometimes, and it’s just as crazy to read the Bible that way as it would be to study a history book, or math book, or science book that way, or even to read a novel or a magazine using that helter-skelter method.
Expository vs. Topical
This section is a brief, modified excerpt from my article The Mailbag: Expository or Topical Preaching: Which is better?.
For readers who might not be familiar with the terms, expository preaching and teaching is basically when a pastor preaches (or a teacher teaches) through books of the Bible from beginning to end carefully explaining what each passage means. (Ezra is an example of an expository Bible study.)
Topical preaching can have a couple of different meanings depending on who you’re talking to and what she understands the term to mean. Some people understand “topical preaching” to mean a sermon series, usually in a seeker driven church, that centers around something in pop culture. (For example, popular movies or the Olympics.) Normally, these sermons are very shallow, biblically – sometimes nothing more than a pep talk or self-help tips. This type of preaching and teaching is unbiblical, and if it makes up the bulk of the teaching at your church, I’d recommend finding a new church.
There is, however, a biblical form of topical preaching and teaching that can be very helpful, occasionally. If a doctrinally sound pastor sees an issue in the church that needs to be addressed, or a biblical topic to explore, there is nothing wrong with his taking a break from preaching through a certain book (or when he’s between books) to teach on this issue from the pulpit. (Imperishable Beauty: A Study of Biblical Womanhood is an example of a biblical, topical Bible study.)
In my opinion, the majority of a pastor’s preaching and a Bible study’s teaching should be expository with occasional breaks for (biblical) topical preaching and teaching as needed. There are a variety of reasons for this (more in the linked article):
• Expository preaching models for the congregation the proper, systematic way they should study the Bible at home.
• Expository preaching helps a pastor better preach the whole counsel of God.
• Expository preaching pushes pastors to tackle hard and unfamiliar passages as they come up in the text.
• Expository preaching should keep the Old Testament and certain books of the Bible from being neglected as much as they usually are.
• Expository preaching gives the congregation a better grip on the overall story arc of the Bible and the culture of the period being studied.
Expository and topical preaching are both helpful in their own ways, but the most important thing is that the pastor is “rightly handling the word of truth.”
There’s a lot of lousy preaching and teaching out there these days, but if you’ll look for good, solid biblical preaching and teaching (check the Recommended Bible Teachers and Bible Studies tabs above for ideas) God can use it mightily in your spiritual life to grow you to greater Christlikeness.