A few differences between preaching and teaching

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One of my core callings (you know, besides writing and binge-watching prestige dramas) is preaching. And, there’s a difference between preaching and teaching. Over the years I’ve struggled to understand and express this, and honestly I’ve heard it expressed rather poorly in the past.

Some folks (who lean more charismatic and pentecostal) will denigrate teaching, implicitly if not explicitly, as being too intellectual, too “mind-y,” and not spiritual enough. Prophecy is one of the “best gifts,” they reason, and so prophetic preaching is far superior to any mere theological lesson.

Perhaps conversely, less Spirit-filled folks have flattened the definitions of preaching and teaching so that preaching itself is marked primarily by thorough study and preparation and skilled delivery. An intellectual, and perhaps overly academic, emphasis is part and parcel of this approach, and only lip service is given to the Spirit’s role. There is no functional appearance or operation, if you will, of the Spirit in the course of the message.

There’s a third phenomenon to mention here. The de-churching tendencies of “the Dones” almost always include a dissing of the “pulpit monologue.” More organic approaches to church tend to go this same route, calling for dialogue and conversation in place of preaching. There may be facilitation-style teaching, but that’s all that’s allowed in this value system.

I don’t want to argue for particular forms of church here – that’s not the point. Nor do I want to return the favor and diss the Dones – because I actually vibe with them quite a bit. Part of the future of the church depends on listening to the Dones and absorbing aspects of their perspective into the structure of the church itself.

But I don’t think the church – or the world, because the world needs the church – can afford to lose the prophetic art form known as preaching. Too much is riding on this gift as that which ushers in what Walter Brueggemann calls “the word from Elsewhere.”

While preaching one Sunday at a new Jesus-centered church in Bangor, I was reminded of the distinction between preaching and teaching which, for me, consists in a few things:

First, preaching is uniquely tied to the worship gathering, while teaching has a more general application.

Right off the bat this affects how we view the worship gathering itself – which, contrary to more organic sensibilities, I think ought to be centered around the preached word.

I realize that some may feel this takes something away from the Eucharist, but let me add: preaching is central because the Eucharist is central. Preaching is that which exegetes the gospel Table and then draws us back to that Table as its ultimate aim and goal. And it is Eucharistic, prophetic preaching that most effectively shapes and forms the community of faith. (Note: I do realize preaching happens in places other than the worship gathering – I’m just saying the worship gathering is where preaching really lives.)

Second, preaching is energized by the Spirit for the ecclesial moment, while teaching is focused on more gradual training and development.

This may be the central difference, in my mind, between these two gifts. While the teaching gift is utterly necessary for the ongoing training and development of God’s people, the preaching gift seizes the moment in the prophetic power of the Spirit. The goal is a sudden disruption, like a spiritual lightning bolt to the soul sparking a change in perspective and transformation of agenda.

This is not to say, though, that preaching is all about emotionalism, nor is it to say that preaching is anti-intellectual. In fact, intellect, theology, and even academics all play into the art form of preparing and delivering the sermon.

But these elements are bound together with the spiritual act of receiving a word from God, a word from Elsewhere, which then takes shape in the ecclesial moment as the preacher proclaiming that gospel word over this congregation, at this time, in this place, for God’s purposes.

Third, preaching is highly vulnerable and personal, while teaching is more objective and methodical.

We do not “proclaim ourselves” in the sense that our aim and focus is always King Jesus and the gospel gift – but we do proclaim from the depths of ourselves, from the depths of our experience, from the depths of our heart, and even from the depths of our pain.

Preaching cannot be inauthentic, which is to say, it must be born from that which is lived and embodied; teaching rightly deals with the more conceptual and objective realities of the faith. This makes preaching personal and vulnerable, which is why the Spirit is able to appear and operate so powerfully in and through the preached word.

In the cruciform space of the preacher’s self-emptying, the Spirit can fill the moment and disrupt the atmosphere with resurrection life. And, this lightning-like disruption, again, is the central characteristic of preaching.

In all of this, I don’t mean to promote a particular inflection or volume or style as that which separates preaching from teaching. Indeed, some authentic preaching may look and sound and feel like teaching. It is the substance, not necessarily the form, that separates the two, for the reasons given above.

I know that when I move into the pulpit, my outlook and intention changes, and my desire is to bring a word from Elsewhere in the power of the Spirit for the sake of that ecclesial moment.

How about you? How do you understand the differences between preaching and teaching? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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About the author

Zach Hoag is an author, preacher, and creator from New England. Planting a church in one of the least churched cities in the U.S. (Burlington, Vermont), and pursuing ministry beyond that in a variety of spaces, Zach has learned a few things about the power of a deeply rooted life in Christ. Zach has found belonging in the Vermont countryside where he lives with his wife, Kalen, and their three girls. Find him writing at zhoag.com