On Preachers and Preaching-Why Theology Matters in Preaching

I have often heard the church criticized for its lack of interest in theology. The church, we are told, is theologically illiterate, more interested in entertainment than in doctrine. But if there is any truth in this complaint, I do not think the church is entirely at fault. I hold the church’s theologians at least partially responsible.

In his book A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Richard Lischer quotes from an article by Walter Wink that was published in The Christian Century over thirty years ago. In the article, Wink criticizes the theological scholarship of his day saying, “The American scholarly scene is one of frenetic decadence with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books which fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer address the lived experience of actual people in churches or society. Instead they address the current questions of their peers in the professional guild.”

After thirty years, this tendency has not diminished. If you doubt this, simply scan the topics scheduled to be presented at any meeting where professional theologians gather. If the average church member is disinterested in theology, it is partly due to the fact that the church’s theologians are mostly in conversation with themselves. Indeed, it has been my experience that many church members are interested in theology but don’t label it as such. They are asking fundamental and profound questions about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, the origin of evil, and about their own personal significance. Meanwhile, the church’s theologians, who have been reflecting on these questions for over two millennia, are talking among themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident to me than in our seminaries and Bible colleges, where practical theology is treated as a “soft-science” and preaching is seen as primarily the domain of those who intend to be pastors. Most of the theology majors I meet aspire to be professors rather than pastors. They are not terribly interested in preaching. Yet most church members get their theology from the pulpit. It is in the home and the workplace not the academy that the battle lines of theological controversy are drawn. Those who step into the pulpit are the church’s first line of defense.

John Koessler’s Theology Matters column in Today in the Word: http://www.todayintheword.com/GenMoody/default.asp?sectionid=8A7FDB2F7D2442D49DCF586A165A8C2C

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John Koessler

John Koessler serves as professor and chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest published by InterVarsity Press.

10 thoughts on “On Preachers and Preaching-Why Theology Matters in Preaching”

  1. Excellent post John, so true as well.

    One positive I’ve noticed is among that first line of defense. So many pastors who preach exegetically also are passionate about systematic theology (which I still read 13 years after leaving your classroom.) Which should translate into strong theological content in our (my) own teaching.

    This is how the echo chamber of theological scholasticism makes the leap from the ivory tower to the masses. Neither of us would claim that all of the dialog is pointless, it is up to the pastors you train to digest and disseminate good theology into their sermons, discipleship and pastoral hand holding.

    May God grant me the grace to do it again this Sunday.

    In just two weeks I intend to gather with about a thousand like minded men at the Moody Pastor’s conference. If you have a chance, maybe I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. We might even discuss theology.

    1. I love your metaphor-“the echo chamber of theological scholasticism.” Nicely put. Love to get together at the conference. I will be doing a workshop on Tuesday. Perhaps we can connect that day. Let me know when you are available.

  2. I think you would love meeting our pastor, who is full-time theology and homiletics professor and a full-time pastor. (I don’t know when he sleeps.) But he is committed to the value of theology in the pulpit, and the value of pastoral ministry for theology. I think that second part of the equation is what is often lost. I’m not sure many theologians are involved in the nitty-gritty, messy, nonsystematic work of hands-on ministry with God’s people. Ironically, this is the very model provided by Paul, who as the “theologian of the New Testament” was not sitting back writing abstract treatises of doctrine but was rather intimately involved in the matters that his churches were wrestling through.

  3. Seems to me that our higher institutions are set up this way. You don’t go to seminary to become a pastor. You go to seminary to be a scholar. Then you get in a local church so you can have some “pastoral” ministry on your resumé so that when a seminary calls you can get a job. Besides isn’t it more respectable to be a “New Testament Scholar” than a pastor of “First Church of Middle-of-No-Where-Ville?”

    D.A. Carson and John Piper did some outstanding lectures about a year (or two) ago on the place of the pastor as scholar. I highly recommend them.

    I’m curious how Moody is addressing this issue as an institution? Several of my classmates have gone onto the seminary to be professional scholars and have taken up some pretty unsound theology since departing MBI.

    1. I don’t know that we have an institutional response, per se. My impression is that the theology major intends to produce professional theologians (i.e. teachers or professors). The problem, of course, is that the number of opportunities in this area is extremely limited. In the pastoral department we want our graduates to be pastor/theologians.

      1. This is why I am grateful to God that I didn’t go the Bib/Theo route at MBI (and that’s not to say the Bib/Theo major is bad either – I have some really solid classmates in ministry who were Bib/Theo majors too…). I’m just grateful for the practical, and theological training I received from men like you in the Pastoral department. It has served me well even up to today. Keep up the good work!

  4. Your post makes me wonder what someone like John Owen (my favorite theologian) would think of our modern day “professional theologians.” I wonder if he would even understand the category. Every one of his theological works have a practical aim. He understood the goal of all true theology to be practical, to help us to better understand God and ourselves and grow in our relationship with him.

    A cursory glance at church history will show that the church’s most influential theologians have always been pastors of local churches. Of course, that can go both ways. If a pastor loves the theology and doctrine of the bible and understands its relevance to every day life, he will communicate it. But if he doesn’t understand or care for theology, or even believes erroneously, he’ll communicate that, too. You put it well when you said the pulpit is the front line of theological influence. That is where regular, everyday Christians get their theology, for good or ill.

  5. Interesting question, Aaron. I don’t know what John Owen would think. I agree that the church’s most influential theologians have been pastors. This was certainly true of Luther, Calvin and Edwards.

  6. John Piper is a good example, I think. Or Wayne Grudem – theologians, but pretty pastoral about it. As you said, most people are interested in theology and the relationship between people and God they just don’t call it that. Or they don’t speak the same jargon as the theologians and realize we are talking about some of the same things! A relative of my wife’s is a medium/spiritualist, and we once had a conversation about spirituality vs. theology. When I told her theology (to me) is relational in nature: God’s relationship with His creation, she was dumbfounded. “I thought it was just about arguing”.

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