10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers

10 target nonsemLast time we looked at some pointers for preachers who have had formal theological training.  This time let’s ponder the situation for those that haven’t.  There are many, many preachers, in many denominations, in many cultures, that are doing wonderful ministry without ever having had the privilege of formal training.  Here are 10 pointers for the “formally untrained” preacher:

1. Don’t wallow in insecurity because of a lack of formal training – Most of the “formally untrained” preachers I have met would love to be able to study in a Bible College or Seminary.  There are undoubtedly great benefits from being able to do so.  However, God knows the circumstances of your life and He is thoroughly committed to developing your character and ministry.  There is no need for insecurity because of a training path you have not been able to take.

2. Don’t be proud of your lack of a degree – Some of the strongest critiques of the arrogance that can result from formal training have come from people who reek of pride.  Why the pride?  Because they haven’t been “formally trained.”  They are self-taught.  They are self-made.  Sadly, they are often also self-absorbed and self-deceived too.  The “formally untrained” preacher can be wonderfully godly, but this person can also be horribly arrogant and painfully unaware of what they don’t know.

3. Recognise the first of two big weaknesses of “self-taught” ministry: a lack of exposure – It is hard to know what you don’t know if you have always chosen what you have read and studied.  A formal curriculum helps to force exposure in areas you might never choose otherwise.  I remember a conversation with a man who claimed all he needed was his “library of 66 books” (i.e. just his Bible).  In the same conversation he revealed his commitment to a major heresy, but he had no idea.

4. And note the second of two big weaknesses: a lack of critique – While there are a lot of problems with Bible schools, there are some great benefits.  One is to have your thoughts challenged.  You have to express your thinking on paper, and you then get those thoughts shot at by someone who knows a lot more than you.  You get to discuss with fellow students over lunch, who also are happy to test your thinking with alternative viewpoints.  A “self-taught” preacher is in real danger of carrying untested thinking through life, into the pulpit, and straying theologically as a result.

5. Beware of trying to sound educated in ways you are not – Actually, this could have gone in the list for the seminary trained preachers too.  It is tempting to try to sound more knowledgable than we actually are.  For instance, having read some commentaries, it is tempting to drop a Greek term and its definition into the message.  Please don’t.  Anyone who has studied Greek will spot a lack of awareness, anyone who hasn’t might be impressed by your knowledge and there is a chance you will preach error.  The goal in preaching ministry is simplicity that communicates truth and serves the listener, rather than complexity that communicates nothing and serves the preacher’s ego.

6. General critiques of people with training are unbecoming – Some trained folks are worthy of great critique, but don’t generalise (and typically, don’t verbalise either).  I remember one preacher I used to enjoy who suggested that everyone with a PhD is insecure and gave a harsh alternative for what the three letters stand for.  I am not sure what benefit his listeners derived from this critical spirit, but I know his shelves were full of the fruit of the labour of numerous PhD’s.  Tearing others down to strengthen your own position will always come across poorly.

7. Grow – Lean into your walk with Christ with an inquisitive spirit, a disciplined reading schedule, a passion for ministry and you will grow.  Do that for a decade and your ministry impact will add up to much more than a highly educated, but spiritually stagnant minister down the road.  (And if the highly educated individual is not stagnant, but is also growing and thriving?  Then praise God and press on!)

8. It is hard to know what you don’t know – I’ve met many people who assume seminary is a place to learn obscure theological trivia.  Actually, the best theological training is not about probing the frontiers of obscure theoretical theology.  Rather, it is about probing the very foundations of our faith and discovering the richness of the Gospel.  There are a lot of people with a very “thin” Christianity who are convinced they know all there is to know (that is worth knowing).  They are wrong.  There is a rich Christianity that standard fare evangelical preaching knows all too little about.  Perhaps you could get a taster in Mike Reeves’ The Good God, for instance.

9. Get training – Don’t miss opportunities to attend training courses, seminars, workshops, etc.  Is there a Bible school where you could take a single course?  Diligently hunt the best books to read, as well as well-informed people to engage with in conversation.  Pray about finding someone who can mentor you in some way.  Not going to Bible school is not a commitment to solitary learning – look for conversation partners who can help you think, and nudge you to read things you never would otherwise (Luther, Sibbes, Edwards, etc. or maybe a book about early church history like JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines).

10. Being in a seminary is a privilege, so is being in God’s school – But taking pride in either is dangerous.  Be sure to keep up your conversation with the ultimate conversation partner – God himself.  Ask him questions, write them down, see how you learn and grow.  Pride always manifests in an “I don’t need you” attitude.  It is ugly irrespective of educational opportunity or lack of it.  Humbly walk with Christ, prayerfully engage with him through your study of the Bible and he will equip you for every good work.

What would you add to this list of pointers for preachers who have not been “formally trained?”

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10 Pointers for Seminary Trained Preachers

10 target semThe periodic 10 Pointers series is going to add two more posts this week.  Previously we’ve considered younger preachers, older preachers, and preaching teams.  Here’s a set of 10 pointers for those of us who have had the privilege of studying in a Bible College or Seminary.  Next time we will offer 10 pointers for those without formal training.

Disclaimer – I get frustrated with articles written about “all the things I never learned in seminary.”  I really praise God for the time I got to spend at two great seminaries and feel they prepared me very well for ministry.  This post is not intended to critique formal training, I believe in its value, but I also want to be honest about its dangers.

1. Graduation is not the end of learning – I am so thankful for the years I was able to spend in seminary, but I have learned a lot since.  Seminary equipped you to some degree for ministry (some institutions do better than others at this), but most of all, it equipped you to keep on reading, studying, learning and growing.  You cannot have a fresh and vibrant ministry today based on how good your Romans lecturer was back in the day.

2. Don’t treat your pulpit as a surrogate classroom – Academia has a habit of stirring a desire in some, though not all, to pursue further degrees and to aspire to teach in the classroom.  I am probably right in stating that you didn’t yet get hired by the seminary of your dreams to join the faculty.  Please don’t impose that aspiration on your church by turning your preaching ministry into pulpit lecturing.  Create venues to train, accept invitations to lecture, but when Sunday comes, be sure to preach the Word!

3. Seminary is a glory environment, but ministry is done in the trenches – I loved my years in seminary, but it is clear that academia has the poison of human glory in its very DNA.  There’s the prestige of the institution, regular praise from feedback on projects, peer competition via grades, ego stroking through certification and awards.  Everyone in seminary should ponder the last verses of John 5 at least twice each day.  If you are now out of seminary and in church ministry, welcome to the trenches.  Ministry tends to keep its servants wounded and humble.  This is probably healthier than the intoxicating glory chase of academia.

4. Education can undermine authentic spirituality – Having left the institution of learning, you probably need to detox.  I am being provocative, even though I loved my seminary years.  However, the human glory DNA can really undermine a close daily walk with Jesus.  Our spirituality can grow sophisticated, our theology can grow heady, and our Lord can seem to grow distant.  Beware of plastic spirituality. Your church needs you walking closely with Jesus more than they need your great learning.

5. Pray for God to develop a loud pride radar – You may have thrived in studying languages, or theology, or whatever.  Perhaps, post-Seminary, God needs to help your character catch up with your learning.  One helpful tool would be a loud radar that beeps whenever your fleshly inclination toward pride rears its head.  Pray for this.  And speaking of pride – don’t name drop.  You may have learned Romans from Professor Doctor Exegenius, but people probably don’t need to know that.  Just give them Romans!

6. The Bible says more about the heart than a lot of academia does – Due to a potent combination of emphasising the intellectual, mixed with some philosophical assumptions, and buried in dubious exegesis, many in academia turn the biblical emphasis on the heart into a matter of cognitive processing.  Good preaching, good counselling, and good living, all requires a spirituality that is hearty, not just heady.

7. Make sure your learning closes the gap through clarity, rather than extending it through impressiveness – Watch you vocabulary as well as your attitude.  Technical terminology is typically unnecessary.  Grammatical and original language references are almost always unhelpful.  The best athletes make their sport look easy.  The best preachers don’t obfuscate.

8. Good classrooms include robust discussion, but good ministry requires Christlike love – So perhaps you formulated a watertight theological position on divorce or whatever.  In church world you need to be able to lovingly shepherd real people with real pasts and real struggles.  You will need the biblical basis, and you will need a heart of love and compassion.

9. Incidentally, your listeners are typically not as interested in your Bible school experiences as you are interested in telling the stories – They need to know that the Gospel works in real life, so don’t keep talking about how good it was when you were in seminary.  That can seem like a bubble to those who’ve not experienced it.  Instead, talk about how good God is in the midst of the life experiences you share now.

10. Own what you preach, and be owned by the One you preach about – Don’t regurgitate your class notes.  People can tell.  Instead preach out of the overflow of a present day walk with Christ that is vibrant and vital.  Be thankful for your seminary years, but never despise where you are now.  God has brought you to this point to know Him now and spill that goodness onto others as you preach.

I am sure there are many points that could be added.  I probably should have written that you should wear your learning like your underwear: It is important that you have it on, but don’t let it show.  Maybe I should have nudged you to pray about paying off any education debts.  But, I ran out of points.  What do you think should be included here?

Discover Cor Deo – 3rd of July

If you are in the UK and might be interested in Cor Deo – the new mentored training programme launching in 2011, consider yourself invited to Discover Cor Deo.  This event will be held in central London and will help to answer any questions you may have about Cor Deo, you’ll get to meet the mentors and get a taste of what’s to come in the programme.

Cor Deo is about multiplying ministry that shares God’s heart.  It is a unique five-month intensive training programme that is open to those who have a passion for God and for ministry.  Whether you are considering training for the first time, or if you are considering a refreshing season of study as part of a sabbatical or study break, please consider Cor Deo. 

The information for Discover Cor Deo can be found on the left side of the home page at cordeo.org.uk

We are actively seeking the first team of participants and spaces are limited.  Come and find out more, we would love to see you on the 3rd of July!

Homo Homileticus

Still I withhold the name of the book I’m reading, but I’ll share another thought nonetheless.  In fact, I’ll quote (and if you want the source, you’ll have to ask, although I’m on vacation and won’t check comments until the end of the month!)

“Homileticians as a caste are extinct in the UK.  Not in a single theological or Bible college, or university, will you find anyone whose full time job is to teach homiletics.  Makes you think that there ought to be a homo homileticus on display in the British Natural History Museum, the skeleton of W.E. Sangster perhaps!”

Now I wouldn’t want to overstate the importance of this, but it is interesting.  Equally I cannot validate the truth of this statement since I have not searched every possible faculty corridor in order to “prove” the extinction of this breed.  The general perception, though, is that anyone can step out of their own discipline and teach preaching.  Perhaps the general fruit of such a perception is worth evaluating?

The Non-Academic Preacher Compliment

Last week I spoke to a friend who had asked to borrow my master’s thesis.  He was positive about it, but mentioned that he’d had to look up some terms I’d used.  He was a bit surprised since he doesn’t have that challenge when I preach.  That’s an encouraging compliment in my eyes!

Here’s a quick quote that is somewhat related in Phillip Jensen’s chapter, “Preaching the Word Today” in Preach the Word, the book of essays in honor of Kent Hughes:

With the discriminating eye of the cynic, the modern scholar can deconstruct the author’s writings so as to explain what he “really” meant.  Only the expert – never the ploughboy – can know what was meant.  The priesthood of all believers is no longer replaced by the sacerdotalism of the sacramentalists but by the arrogance of the academy.

We need to be so careful.  I think it is good to get the best academic training possible (a matter of good stewardship), but we need to be very careful not to develop the easily associated arrogance that comes with training, nor to carry that arrogance into the pulpit.  We serve the priesthood of all believers; we are not the priesthood for all other believers.

Let’s make sure we open up the Bible in peoples’ laps, rather than moving it further away from them.  Let’s make sure we communicate well, rather than impress with lofty language that the ploughboy doesn’t understand.  Let’s make sure we prepare for ministry and prepare for a message as fully as we are able, but not let that show in any way that will hinder our listeners.

Texts Have Rights Too

Seminary training (or Bible college/school, etc) can be a massive blessing for the preacher.  It can provide skills, awareness, background knowledge, even slightly accelerated spiritual maturity (depending on the individual, the institution and the pressures of the experience!)  In many ways, all the studies come together in homiletics – this is where they merge and meet.  However, formal training does not guarantee good preparation for preaching.

Listen to Clyde Fant’s words from thirty years ago, I think they still hold true for some institutions:

For many preachers, unfortunately, seminary training in preaching merely furnished them with a set of homiletical cookie cutters, which they routinely mash down upon the dough of the text and presto, out pops a little star, or a tree, or a gingerbread man.  No matter that the text doesn’t want to go into these forms, the poor thing is mashed and tortured until it is made to say the things it never intended to say. (Preaching for Today, 1978.)

If you’ve had the privilege of formal training, take the time to honestly evaluate whether your training in homiletics was what it should have been.  If you are going to Bible school, try to discern whether homiletics is truly taught, or merely bolted on to the side of the syllabus.

Whatever your situation, don’t torture a Bible text – texts have rights too!