I know this sounds like a crazy notion. I’m not 100% convinced myself. But I’ve begun to wonder if there might not be enough public teaching in today’s church.
That probably sounds nuts to many churchgoers, not to mention most pastors. Plenty of ministers already feel swamped with some combination of morning service, evening service, Sunday school, catechism, and midweek teaching, not to mention extra preps for weddings, funerals, and special events. I also realize I’m swimming up stream against the current of contemporary church thought which says the one thing we certainly have enough of is teaching. We are already stuffed full with Bible studies, services, small groups, conferences, and classes. The last thing we need is another opportunity to get our brains crammed with more information.
But see if you can track with these observations.
(1) Paul told Timothy: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Later, the Apostle told his young protege to “practice these things” and “immerse yourself in them” (v. 15). It seems to me the normal pattern of pastoral ministry should not one of drowning in administration or getting in over your head in meetings or under water in visitation. Normally, the pastor should say of his week, “I was immersed in the public ministry of reading, teaching, and exhorting from the Scriptures.” It’s fair to assume study time counts in this “immersion” but there’s no question Paul is talking about the public activities of reading and preaching the Bible.
(2) Calvin, like many of the Reformers with him and many preachers after him, was teaching all the time. From 1549 onward Calvin preached twice on Sundays and every weekday on alternating weeks. This meant about 10 sermons every two weeks. Now, it’s also worth pointing out Calvin worked himself to death in his early fifties. He’s not a model in everything. But this was also an era when most people died young, and Calvin barely ate and barely slept. So preaching isn’t mainly to blame. Calvin killed Calvin more than teaching killed Calvin.
(3) Consider this description of the early church from Hughes Oliphant Old as he examines the Didache:
While nothing is said about how preaching fit into the liturgy, the Didache does indicate that the Church provided a daily preaching ministry. This we gather first from the instructions given to catechumens. Catechumens are admonished to pray for those who teach them the Word of God and honor them as they would honor the Lord, and furthermore to seek daily the presence of the saints so as to find rest in their words. It is not simply daily catechetical instruction presided over by a catechist that the Didache has in mind, but rather a daily assembly of the saints, at which the Word was preached for the glory of God and the spiritual strengthening of the congregation. What seems to be intended here is that the catechumens should attend the daily preaching services, where they will hear the Christian interpretation of the Scriptures and learn how Jesus fulfilled the Law and the prophets in his death and resurrection. While the Eucharist was held on the Lord’s Day, preaching services were held daily.
There is a second reason for believing the Didache reflects the life of a Church which conducted daily preaching for the whole congregation, not merely for catechumens. This daily preaching was directed toward the mature members of the congregation; it was not simply elementary instruction designed for catechumens. This is made clear not only from what is said to the catechumens but even more from the fact that the Didache assumes a rather large body of prophets, teachers, bishops, and deacons who devote full time to their preaching and teaching. The Didache seems to have in mind a group of professional preachers who devote their lives to their ministry rather than lay preachers, if we may use the modern terms.
The Didache assumes that the main function of the various ministries it mentions is teaching. This is clear at several points. Chapters 11-13 are devoted to traveling apostles and prophets. They are specifically called teachers, and teaching apparently was their main function although they might also perform signs or even lead in prayer at the Eucharist. Prophets may settle in a church, and if they do are to be paid on the principle that a true teacher is worthy of his support. A bit later on churches are told to appoint bishops and deacons, for they also perform the ministry of prophets and teachers. The picture one gets is of a church with a number of teachers, which would hardly be a necessity were there but a single sermon each week. In fact, if there were but a single sermon each week one could well imagine that all these prophets, teachers, and bishops might get into considerable competition for the pulpit. On the other hand, if there was daily preaching one might be glad to welcome a traveling evangelist from time to time. (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, pp. 256-257, emphasis added)
I understand that our century is much different from the early centuries of the church’s history. Back then few people could read. People were used to listening to speeches. There were no Bibles in every home, no sermons on their iPods, Amazon to deliver boxes of books whenever you want. I don’t expect us to go recreate the world that called for these instructions in the Didache. But surely there are some lessons for us from Paul, from the early church, and from the Reformers. What would it look like for people and preachers to have this kind of hunger for the public exposition of the word?
- Our people would come to worship each Sunday with great anticipation. Whether John Piper is your pastor or Peter Piper with his pickled peppers, you would look forward to the sermon as a high point of your week.
- Maybe you would be eager to come back for another sermon on Sunday night? Or stick around for Sunday school? Or show up on Wednesday?
- Senior Pastors would realize they aren’t the only game in town. That Didache describes a situation with teachers everywhere–in the church, on the “budget,” traveling through. There was a lot of teaching to do and a lot of people to do it.
- Preachers and congregants would have to be okay with more “out of season” sermons. By that I mean, teaching that arises out of 20 years in the Bible instead of 20 hours for that lesson. A man in the ministry for over ten years who has been a serious student of the Scriptures knows more about any part of the Bible than almost anyone else in his congregation. If I’m reading through Hosea for my devotional time, I should be able to read through four chapters of Hosea in front of others and explain what it’s about for 15-20 minutes without too much trouble. Many of Calvin’s sermons were largely impromptu. If we are constantly immersed in the Scriptures as seasoned ministers we should be able to overflow without a lot of extra study.
- Similarly, most pastors have a barrel of sermons. Why should they be used once, never to be heard from again? Maybe the illustrations aren’t so fresh and the organization seems weak. But couldn’t someone benefit from the series you did back in 2005? Congregations turn over quickly in many places. People are gone many weekends. They forget sermons after five years believe or not. We could teach more if we refurbished some of our good stuff. Maybe not on Sunday morning (we want to keep pouring over the word and learning new things), but maybe for some other venue.
- What would happen if a church held 30 minutes lunch time lessons? Nothing fancy, just reading a chapter or two and explaining the meaning. Would people come? Would professionals come for a break? Would people eat their lunches while listening to the word? Might we be able to provide some of our discipleship and counseling this way? Maybe students would walk over? Would the homeless wander in? Might older folks enjoy getting out? Might some people make this their “quiet time” in the word for the day who would otherwise lack the discipline to do it on their own or the knowledge to make it beneficial? I really don’t know. I’d be worried that no one would show. Everyone is super busy. But they did come out on Friday night for Lloyd-Jones in London. They come for hours to hear David Platt during “Secret Church.” Whether you are as gifted or not, they might come to hear you.
Food for thought: how can we be more devoted to the public reading and teaching of Scripture in our churches?