As I develop leaders and church planters, I’m jealous to help them cross the line from teaching to preaching. Most aspiring church planters can teach. But many struggle to preach. Being an intuitive person, I sort of just “know” preaching when I hear it. I’ll often tell guys, “You taught that passage well, but you didn’t PREACH.” They usually ask, “What should I do differently?” And I stare at them blankly. So this week I spent some time trying to clarify, in my view, the concrete differences between preaching and teaching.
First, let’s consider what preaching & teaching share in common (when done properly):
- They are both content-driven
- They are both concerned to create insight in the hearer/learner
- They both require a certain type of authority & confidence
- They are both forms of rhetoric, and so benefit from good training in the classical rhetorical arts (ethos, pathos, logos)
Now, let’s ponder some of the ways preaching is distinct from teaching. This list is certainly incomplete – and you’re welcome to add to it in the comment thread. I’m merely sharing some of the intuitive filters I use to determine when a man is PREACHING and when he’s just teaching. I see teaching as a step on the way to preaching. You’ll never be a good preacher if you’re not first a capable teacher. But not everybody who can teach can preach. Effective pastors move beyond teaching to master the art of preaching.
1. Preaching is more forceful and weighty in tone. One of the guys who mentored me in preaching taught me to always ask the question, “What’s at stake in this message?” Good preachers always communicate with a sense of angst, of urgency, of forcefulness. Something is at stake. People need to HEAR this. At Coram Deo we refer to this as the “pastoral burden” of the sermon. If you’re not burdened, you can’t preach effectively.
How can I grow in this? 1) Spend time in prayer asking the Spirit to burden you with His own longings for His people. 2) Spend time querying the text. Talk to it. Ask it questions. Figure out what the burden of the TEXT is, and then allow that to become your burden. 3) Ask: “Why does this matter?” Your job is to communicate not just what it SAYS, but why it MATTERS.
2. Preaching requires more compact phraseology. Teaching seeks to convey information, which can be done without careful attention to sentence structure. But preaching seeks to create transformation and provoke change – a goal which is helped by short, powerful, memorable sentences. Good preachers state things simply. They cut words. They craft short sentences. They use periods, not commas. They seek clarity.
How can I grow in this? Spend more time on your manuscript. And ask relentlessly: do I NEED to say this? Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Verbosity is easy. Precision is hard.
3. Preaching requires stronger vocal dynamics. Good preachers play their voice like an instrument. They vary their volume: sometimes almost-yelling, sometimes barely whispering. They vary their vocal pace: sometimes fast and excitable, sometimes slow and thoughtful. They pay attention to inflection and timing and delivery. Like a good singer, they learn what their voice can do, and they use it to make music.
How can I grow in this? 1) Get more reps. Take every speaking/preaching/teaching gig you can. There’s only one way to grow in delivery, and that’s by doing a lot of it. 2) Listen to yourself. Record and listen to every sermon you preach. Pay attention to where your voice was flat; where your pacing was too fast; where a careful pause or better inflection could have helped drive your point home. When a preacher says, “I hate listening to myself,” he’s really saying, “I’m too proud, too self-pitying, or too lazy to get better.”
4. Preaching leverages a key phrase or phrases. In politics, they call it the applause line. In comedy, they call it the running gag. One of my preacher friends calls it “the horse” – as in, the mount you’re going to ride through the whole sermon. Good preaching circles back to one key line, theme, or idea. When done well, this creates a strong association that “sticks” in the hearer’s mind. When done poorly (usually by some ham-handed youth pastor) it sounds something like: “If you guys only remember one thing from this talk, remember this…”
How can I grow in this? 1) Watch a lot of comedians and a lot of politicians. Pay attention to the stock lines they use, and how they use them. 2) Listen to more African-American preachers; they do this especially well. There’s a reason the phrase “I Have a Dream” is famous… 3) Land on this phrase early in your sermon prep, and don’t move forward until you have it. J.H. Jowett famously said: “No sermon is ready for preaching until we can express its theme in a short pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.”
5. Preaching seeks to create an experience – a “rhetorical moment.” Good preaching is captivating. It catches you up. It pulls you in. Good preachers know how to create a moment. And this is perhaps the key difference between teaching and preaching. Good teaching makes you go away saying, “I learned something.” Good preaching makes you go away saying, “I experienced something.” This is why the best preachers – Whitefield, Spurgeon, Moody – always drew large crowds. They were masters of stewarding the moment. Of course the Holy Spirit plays a huge role here – but so does the preacher.
How can I grow in this? Honestly, it’s really tough. For young preachers, this can easily become prideful and self-focused. It’s tough to “create a moment” without making it about you. So you’ve got to get on your knees, ask the Lord for revival, and pray yourself out of the equation. Get low, get humble, and get your identity grounded squarely in Christ. Only then can you work on this in a self-effacing and God-honoring way.
Leadership in the local church requires both good teaching and good preaching. But let’s not confuse the two. If you’re called to the ministry of the Word in a local church, learn to preach, not just teach. And if you struggle as a preacher… have the wisdom to invite feedback, the courage to face reality, and the humility to seek mentorship and growth.