When preaching is teaching or usually not…

Over the past few weeks I have attended a number of University workshops on learning and teaching in higher education (not what they were called but what they were). Since the time I first got a chance to do a PGCert in Teaching and Learning at the University of the West of Scotland right through to my MEd in Enhanced Educational Practice – I have quite simply wanted to become a better theological educator. This has meant not merely enhancing my subject knowledge but learning about what it means to be a good teacher. I mean by good teacher, one who facilitates good learning.

Today in the workshop we discussed some statistics that show that a good and fluent presentation may increase the confidence of learners but does not necessarily in fact enhance the amount of their learning. Technically this relates to good presentations creating something called the “illusion of fluency”. To simplify – if the students find the content easy because it is well presented they may not in fact go through the process required for them to learn it for themselves. Now I have some issues related to the measure of “learning” in the research but I am happy to park the bus on the spot that a good and fluent presentation does not necessarily facilitate greater learning at least at the level of retention and retrieval.

I struggled with some of this because it conflicts at least with other research I am aware of related to public speaking and communication. Such research highlights the importance of a good presentation in order to encourage confidence in the product, and the presenter, and lead to positive decision. I found some resolution when I realized that the difference in the data related in part to the different purposes of the presentations. In sales the goal is not necessarily learning but convincing people then and there of the benefits of a product rather than facilitating retention and retrieval for ongoing development and critical thinking.

Different forms of public presentations have different purposes and the nature of the presentation has to be suited to the nature of the purpose.

I often hear people talk about preaching as teaching. Of course this is good if it stimulates people to give good and informed and clear sermons. I still think clear is better than chaotic, entertaining better than boring, informed better than ignorant, and interesting better than dull. I will settle for “delight” (Augustine) rather than pain. Yet, such sermons, even if well presented may not be the best approach to “teaching” if learning is the goal and educationalists know anything about what sort of presentations facilitate learning.

In response to the above, while I think every sermon needs to have good content I do not think that the only purpose of a sermon is “teaching”. I think that sermons can have a variety of purposes including that people may do something or experience something or believe something rather than primarily “learn” something.

In turn, I think that those of us who preach to “teach” need to give a bit more attention to the sort of presentations that will facilitate such and be open to have our “teaching” sermons evaluated on the basis of the learning which does or does not take place and not on the form of our presentation. If we claim it – we need to be ready to analyze, evaluate, and enhance it rather than hide behind some claimed status.

Forget about Sunday, however, I am teaching tomorrow, “The Practice of Preaching and Preaching as a Practice”. I have spent a good bit of the day re-organizing my material and reviewing the handouts I provide in the light of strategies suggested, to try and enhance learning beyond the illusion rather than simply give a good clear presentation.

Someone has just robbed the Samaritan

This is how it happened…

People believe in the Bible…

The Bible believes in Jesus…pointing to him as the ultimate revelation of God and author of salvation: John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-23; Hebrews 1:1-4.

So far so good…down the road we go

The people who believe in the Bible, and believe in Jesus according to these verses, indeed who would fight to defend this, are rightly concerned about eternal life..

Good religious people often are.

They speak about eternal life: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus thinks it is pretty important too …

He speaks about eternal life

So far so good, down the road we go.

Jesus clearly indicates that the way in which you gain it is to: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Do this and you will live.” He says, that is Jesus, the one who the Bible points to and brings eternal life, he says this drawing on the Bible.

Then to show what this looks like he (Jesus ) again tells the story of the Samaritan, not so much “good” (never calls him good), as compassionate, and says … “Go and do likewise” to the person who asked about eternal life. By this he means showing mercy to those in need including those who are different from us…

This is how you show the love necessary for eternal life, according to the Jesus who the Bible points about as knowing about these things.

So far so good – but now the robbery happens,

Instead of taking Jesus, to whom the Bible points as the Word, at his word, good religious people reduce the Samaritan to a children’s story about being “nice”, all the time stripping the story of its essential meaning as being a primary command related to what we need to do in order to gain eternal life.

This is how it happened, how the good religious people did not simply still walk by, but actually became the robbers, stealing from the Samaritan the significance Jesus gave him.

Millstone hitting the water

Today I heard the sound of a millstone hitting the water. It was a strange sound: deep, sonorous, thunderous, particularly as it drew me in, down, deep, covering, no return.

I think I heard it as I was reading (albeit in fiction) about the practices of the “Indian residential school” system in Canada in its treatment of indigenous children. Treatment that was often supported by a Christian religious ideology.

But I may have heard it as I thought about the camps on the Mexico/US border.

I have never been to any of these camps. Some will say, therefore, that I have no right to comment. But I will. I do not know if they are as bad (“as bad!!!!” my goodness so “bad” is okay as long as “not so bad”) as people say, but suspect that if there is truth in this, I fear that one day we will hear the sound of a dull thud hitting the water.

And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

Well: should Street Preachers be arrested?

John Stackhouse writes an interesting post on the topic “Should street preachers be arrested?”

John avoids rightly discussing the specific case – so do I.

In so far as the main thrust of John’s post is that street preaching which alienates people is bad communication (“if one’s intention is actually to persuade, to successfully transfer an idea and enthusiasm to the other person rather than merely incite him or her to defensive rage, then one has to pick the message and the medium accordingly”) I agree. I agree. (I meant to write that twice). In turn, I would argue that one of the features of the successful historical open-air preaching that John mentions is that for various reasons the preachers came across as being on the side of, rather than against, the people they sought to reach.

Following on from the above, I am also not sure that John is saying being a “pest” is a good enough reason for your freedom of speech and religion to be denied. But for the record, I do not think that being “provocative” or “annoying” or telling people they are sinners or being loud or “confrontational” or even verbally “haranguing” are necessarily in themselves sufficient reasons for a person to have their public freedom of speech denied. If things such as freedom of speech are important we certainly have to work at clarifying which speech we do not think comes under that category but in and of themselves I am not sure that verbally being a pest is sufficient. It may not be neighbourly but I am not sure it is criminal.

John mentions three considerations that we need to think about as we ponder the ethics of street preaching…well invited, here are my pondering about each. I hope I represent the original claim fairly:

First, he writes: “in a society blessed with the printing press, television, and the Internet, it’s hard to make a case for public preaching on the ground that Canadians otherwise won’t hear the gospel”. That case could be made at other places and times, but hardly so today”.

The physical public space is a place of constant ideological contest. I am not sure it should be abandoned. It does not really make sense to me to argue, that since communication takes place in some places and some ways (printing press, television, and the Internet) that it should not take place in other places and in different ways. Luke 14:23 has been a favourite verse of a variety of open-air preachers throughout history and I think its till has some traction.

More than this, the practice of preaching in public space involves embodied presence in which a person shares space and time with other people. I do not think that other stated forms of communication (printing press, television, and the Internet) can claim the same incarnational validity. The Word, as was recently said by someone else became flesh – not text, or indeed tweet, or TV program. Yes, I am arguing a special theological case for public preaching as a practice in the ministry and mission of the Church over and against other approaches. Call it foolish if you will 1 Corinthians 1:21.

John under his second heading summarizes,: “The point of preaching is to help. And if it manifestly isn’t helping, it’s manifestly wrong.”

I think that the point of preaching is to “teach” the church what it should be, “announce good news to the poor”, and to “proclaim” release to oppressed and marginalized people groups (Luke 4:14-30). If that is what is meant by “help” fair enough, but as we know from that Scripture and the following narrative, such help is not always appreciated by those who have a vested interest in the status quo.

I also wonder what this means (“The point of preaching is to help. And if it manifestly isn’t helping, it’s manifestly wrong.” ) if we apply this to in-church as well as to street preaching. Unhelpful preaching is not simply found in the streets. Ironically, however, in the streets it can be easier to shout back or walk away than when constrained by convention, pew, and stewards.

Back for a moment to freedom of religion and speech, I also wonder what this statement (“The point of preaching is to help. And if it manifestly isn’t helping, it’s manifestly wrong.” ) means for preaching in services described as “public worship”, should they be silenced under laws that restrict freedom of speech just as though they were spoken in the street?

John’s final consideration: “Third, we all need to play by the same rules. If we Christians would object (as I would) to a Muslim or Buddhist preacher standing on the sidewalk in front of a church on a Sunday morning to harangue everyone on his or her way in to worship, then why would we treat others the way we don’t want to be treated ourselves (Matthew 7:12)?”

In this context I apply Matthew 7:12 (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets”) quite differently from John. For in the context described, I would defend the freedom of speech of the person on the street (regardless of their ideological position) precisely because I would want my own freedom of speech defended. I may “object”, – but I would not (and I am not sure if John means this) seek their silencing through the use of law unless what was being said clearly exceeded what are the recognized limits of such speech (This goes back again to the question of what we think the limits of such freedom are, not simply for us but others).

The above does not mean that I would want to harangue others nor that I think it a good thing. See my first paragraph. I do, however, want to keep public places as places of public debate, discussion, and “fierce conversation” . Insofar as this is the case I do not think that the answer to bad street preaching in no street preaching but thoughtful, embodied, counter performances of public preaching that stand in solidarity with the humanity among whom the preacher bears witness.

These are my pondering on the ethics of street preaching as invited in the blog post.

Imagination rules the world…

The claim is that it is through images, myths, and stories that our consciousness and understanding is formed regarding our relationships with God, others, and everything else that is.

The claim is that the spirit of religion is necessary to maintain the moral imagination.

Christian preachers, therefore, need to preach to the imagination in order to create the empathy, build the bridges, and establish the action to the benefit of individuals and the community. So claims Frank A. Thomas who includes withering attacks on the current paranoid nature of American politics as a result of conceding to a diabolic imagination.

This year the Lester Randall preaching Fellowship in Toronto in October will be focusing on the theme: The Faithful Imagination.

As part of that, I will be offering a DMin course on “Preaching with the Faithful Imagination”. This course which will offer opportunities to critically reflect upon the conference and develop the theme is open to auditors – anyone interested in joining us at the conference in Toronto can be in touch. I will also be offering a workshop on: Preaching as oral graffitti.

More not less…

At ADC we offer a Doctor of Ministry degree.

People who seek such a degree are often interested in a specialism related to their ministry practice – and in this sense a DMin is a professional degree that seeks to ehance practice.

This being the case we are sometimes asked, challenged, maybe criticized as to why we do not offer very specific “streams” when and where from the get go people can in every course, except perhaps for the necessary “research methodologies” course focus solely on their specific interest: preaching, chaplaincy, youth ministry etc. Instead, we have requirements in our course that people need to do required advanced courses in bible and theology.

Of course we are interested in areas of specialization and through electives, the shaping of assessments, directed studies, and thesis a person can indeed focus in various way upon their area of interest.

Yes so far we have resisted the “streaming”. The reason: we are interested in “developing the person and not just the specialist”.

Here is another way of looking at it from educational literature. For this I draw upon: Liezel Frick, “Improving Students’ Learning Outcomes: What about Doctoral Learning Outcomes?” in Nygaard, C., Holtham, C. and Courtney, N. (2009) Improving Students’ Learning Outcomes.

We do not simply see a doctoral degree as a “product” but as a “process”. In this process we are concerned not simply with what a persons comes to know (epistemology) but with what a person becomes (ontology) and that is not least a scholar with transferable skills to be applied not simply to their present ministry interest but to their wider life and ministry. This is about preparation not simply for the present but the future.

Frick writes:

“Alpert & Kamins (2004), Kember & Leung (2005) and Leonard et al. (2005) argue that the development expected to take place in a doctoral programme entails more than acquiring the knowledge base of a specific discipline; it also encompasses skills that should enable the student to think and act beyond the knowledge boundaries of the discipline.

Such an aspiration of course forces challenges not simply on learners but those who would facilitate learning in this direction and what that means and how to do that well remains an interest.

This explains why I am typing this early on a Saturday morning.

You can only imagine…rural dweller in big city.

I will be heading to the Lester Randall Preaching Fellowship in Toronto in October … rural dweller goes to big city!!!!

The Lester Randall Preaching Fellowship brings high quality input and discussion about preaching to a wide audience in an affordable and accessible way.

This year the theme of Preaching on Faithful Imagination will pick up on themes of prophetic preaching. Sunday 27-29 October 2019

Among the preachers will be Otis Moss III

In addition, as part of this “high quality” I get the opportunity to preach on the Sunday in Toronto and to deliver a workshop at the Conference on “Preaching as Oral Graffiti” – a playful and maybe faithful metaphor that pushes the often dull on overly fixed boundaries of what we mean by preaching.


As part of this we are offering on-site and in conjunction with the conference a DMin course on: “Preaching with Faithful Imagination” that will explore what this means. This will involve involve participation at the conference (Sunday to Tuesday) , and additional reflection on learning around the theme (Wed – Thursday morning).

People can do this course for credit – oh yes – or come as auditors and be part of the band – jazz band – well in an imaginative way – of preachers.

If you are interested in being part of this. Let me know.