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How Seminarians Can Learn to Preach to Normal People, Part 1

By Tim Raymond

One of my favorite seminary professors used to tell a story intended to warn students of the dangers of preaching like seminarians once in the pastorate.  I don’t recall the precise details but it went something like this.  He was fresh out of seminary with his ThM and had taken his first pastorate in a small, country church.  For his inaugural sermon series, he decided to preach sequentially through the book of James.  Since all he had ever known was seminary, he thought he’d proceed through James in a manner similar to the New Testament introduction classes he’d taken.  So after a good 15-20 hours of preparation, he devoted his entire first sermon to defending James the brother of Jesus as the author of the epistle bearing that name.

After the sermon, when this young pastor was standing at the door saying goodbye to his congregants, an elderly farmer came up and put his hand on his shoulder.  In words none-too-subtle he barked, “Young man, I thought James wrote the book of James before I got here this morning!”  The man walked out the door without saying another word.

The point was well made and this professor learned his lesson.  From that time forward, he attempted to compose his sermons not for seminarians or professors but for the sheep entrusted to his care by our Lord.  This professor encouraged us, his students, to go and do likewise.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am a firm believer in seminaries and rigorous academic training for pastors.  However, the very real danger exists that seminary-trained pastors can so breathe academic air that we lose sight of the reason we attended seminary in the first place.  We can come to the point where we can’t imagine any true Christian not being eminently interested in the composition of the Diatessaron or how intrusion ethics should inform our discussions of paedocommunion.  If we’re not careful, before long our preaching can wind up sounding strangely similar to Charlie Brown’s school teacher.

While I make no claim to being an expert in this area, in His mercy, the Lord has taught me a thing or two.  Although I’m naturally somewhat of a bookworm and still gravitate toward academic studies (sometimes unhelpfully so), I’ve learned something about communicating solid research to those without formal academic training.  To help you, my brother-pastors and seminarians, preach quality, expositional sermons to normal people, here are my suggestions, for what they’re worth:

First, if at all possible, preach or teach regularly in an ordinary local church during seminary.

In retrospect, one of the greatest privileges I had during my seminary years was the opportunity not only to attend but to regularly teach and preach in a small, rural church.  I had no idea how beneficial this would be until years after graduation.  Frankly, I think this was more helpful and did more to prepare me for real ministry than most of my pastoral ministry classes.  First I had the opportunity to teach the teen Sunday school class.  For around a year I took 2-4 farm kids through a lengthy series on soteriology.  After this I was entrusted with the Wednesday night Bible study and prayer meeting.  For about 2 years I had the opportunity to preach once a week to the entire congregation (about 20-30 people) and took them through most of 2 Peter and a number of Psalms.  This experience not only sharpened my preaching skills but helped me learn how to speak to ordinary Christians.  I was forced to digest my exegesis and communicate it to elderly widows, factory workers, self-employed carpenters, the mentally disabled, and sometimes recent drug addicts.  I’ve come to see this experience as so helpful that if I were the Pope of evangelicalism, I’d make an absolute decree that all seminary students must be preaching and/or teaching in ordinary local churches concurrent with their education.  This not only gives them the opportunity to practice their skills but, perhaps more importantly, it keeps their feet on the ground.  You may have noticed I keep referring to ordinary local churches.  I think we all know that some churches in seminary communities are made up of 75% seminary students and professors.  While those are certainly true local churches and God uses them profoundly, I’d encourage you to go out of your way and find a congregation comprised mostly of ordinary Christians who never spent time in the academy.  In all likelihood, that’s the kind of church you’ll pastor for the rest of your life, Lord willing.  If you’d like to do more thinking on this issue, I recommend this thought-provoking and somewhat related article by Tim Keller entitled “The Country Parson.”

Second, learn to rely on both exegetical and pastoral commentaries. 

I recognize this is going to sound like a terrible overgeneralization, and perhaps it is, but it seems to me that exegetical commentaries and pastoral commentaries approach the Bible seeking to answer very different questions.  Exegetical commentaries, such as the NICOT or the NIGTC, tend to query the text by asking grammatical, linguistic, historical, and text-critical questions such as, “What is the significance of this aorist?”, “Was this passage in the autograph?”, “How does this verse correlate with what we know from Phoenician archeology?”, and so forth.  Pastoral commentaries, such as John Owen on Hebrews or James Boice’s commentaries, tend to ask theological, devotional, and spiritual questions of the text such as, “How does this passage feed my soul?”, “How might this passage help my congregation endure through suffering?”, “How can God’s Spirit actually enable me to obey this command?,” and so forth.  Occasionally you’ll discover a commentator who is highly skilled in both exegesis and pastoral application, such as John Calvin or Don Carson, but the generalization I just described seems to hold true.  What I’m arguing for here is that if a pastor wants to do responsible expositional preaching to ordinary people, he needs to rely on both types of commentaries.  Since all pastoral application is dependent on right exegesis, the faithful preacher will need to use academic commentaries to ensure proper interpretation.  Yet pastors are not mere exegetes; we must comprehend how a passage speaks to the plowboy, the housewife, the college student, and the businessman.  Commentaries of a more pastoral nature can be priceless for training your mind to think this way toward the text.  So, for example, if you’re preaching through Romans, don’t read only Doug Moo, but also Robert Haldane.  If you’re teaching through the Psalms, peruse both VanGemeren and Spurgeon.  If you’re studying Mark, rely not only on RT France, but also JC Ryle.  Now admittedly, there will be many times when a pastoral application isn’t grounded in responsible exegesis, and therefore it will need to be discarded (so read with discernment), but if you desire to truly pastor your people in your preaching, you need to consider how your exegesis helps them love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).  If you’re looking for help in selecting relevant commentaries, here are a few resources to consider:

Resources for finding the best academic commentaries include:

Carson, D. A., New Testament Commentary Survey, 6th Edition

Longman, III, Tremper, Old Testament Commentary Survey, 4th Edition

Resources for finding the best pastoral commentaries include:

Spurgeon, Charles H., Commenting and Commentaries

Thomas, Derek, The Essential Commentaries for a Preacher’s Library

Lord willing, in my next blog post, I’ll share my three remaining suggestions for how seminarians can learn to preach to normal people.

Tim Raymond has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, camping, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.

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