Preaching is not easy, but it is far easier than teaching. Although preachers and preaching styles vary, preaching is still quite predictably monolithic: a male voice monologues for 30-40 minutes. No visuals. No interruptions. No discussion. No great surprises. That’s what everyone expects. Some may take some notes, but most people just listen (or, at least, appear to), and everyone goes home. Some believed; some believed not.

But teaching students for the ministry is quite different. The emphasis in most classes is on conveying information – lots of it – in a way that students can remember and use in future ministries. Yes, there should be worship and character shaping going on too, but the focus is on accumulating usable knowledge. But how? What is the best way to do this? I’ve talked with lots of students and teachers from various institutions, and have found that there seems to be four main approaches:

1. The traditional prof stands at the front of a classroom reading from his well-worn notes. The students burn their fingers trying to keep up with their typing, while wondering, “Why can’t he just photocopy his notes and give them to us?” Or, more commonly, students get copies of notes from previous year’s students and catch up on email and Twitter while the lecturer thinks his students are engaging with his pearls of wisdom. Exam questions tend to test memory, but not understanding.

2. The conversationalist prof has given up on trying to pass on a body of information and instead conducts “fireside” chats on subjects that the students deem to be important. YouTube videos and short blog articles feature largely in this student-centered approach. Maybe some books are discussed as well. Students may not be so bored, but are they much the wiser? Exam questions tend to begin “Discuss…” but often produce more questions than answers.

3. The online prof does most of his teaching via the Internet. He provides all his lecture notes to students and may even accompany them with audio or video recordings of the material. He has less classroom time with his students but uses that face-to-face time to answer or pose questions based on the material previously provided. This approach certainly ensures that the students get substantial amounts of information in their folders, but have they read the notes and listened to the lectures? Or are they just winging it and waffling it in the face-to-face question time? Exam questions can certainly be drafted to test this, but maybe having to type out the notes produces greater concentration and engagement with the material. Also, does online teaching communicate the ethos and pathos of the prof – a vital question when we are dealing with theology.

4. The read-along prof provides full lecture notes at the beginning of the class and then proceeds to read the notes as the students follow along. I’ve tried this and hate it – as do most students, I believe.

Indeed, each approach seems to produce complaints from students. #1 is “boring and pointless – just give me the notes.” #2 is “empty and directionless – I’m paying to hear you not my fellow students!” “We don’t get enough time with the prof” in #3. Try #4 and students faces seem to scream, “I can read this myself, you know!”

So, do we just stick with the one approach that suits the teacher best, and accept that some are just not going to like it? Or do we offer all four approaches and say, “Just come to the class that works for you” (and run the poor prof into the ground)?

Or am I missing something?

What is the best way to convey theological information to this generation of students? And does that method also stimulate worship and shape character?


  • Foppe

    Dear David. I don’t think you’re missing something. But as a real estate salesman says ‘location, location, location’ so a teacher says variety, variety, variety. All 4 ways you mentioned indeed have disadvantages, but they also also have merit. Break up your material into main units, and determine which method you want to use. In my teaching years I preferred the Socratic method. I’m sure you know Socrates loved to ask questions till the students had to acknowledge ignorance, so providing for a starting point and a measure of being teachable and interested. This can be used simple as a starting point only or throughout a lecture. It can be done verbally or in writing, at the moment or in advance. You can do this based on certain assigned readings, etc. Regardless, it will allow you to have interaction with (and among) your students, and give you opportunity to supplement what you want to get across. This makes it more interesting (for teachers and students alike), and it also keeps the students from doing other things (web browsing etc.) and on ‘their toes’ and on guard. In the mean time continue to use the method you are most familiar and (comfort-)able with. Of course it does require that you as a teacher know your stuff!

  • Jeremy Walker

    I entirely agree with the thrust of this post, without being able to give a coherent reason why I do not have the same difficulty with preaching as I do with lecturing. I mean, I want to be accurate as a preacher, but I am not tied to series of names, dates and so on as I often am in lecturing, or – at least – I am often more free and familiar in the employment of the Scriptural data. I see the same tensions in conferences where papers are delivered rather than sermons, where the vast majority head for the safe end of the scale and produce, often drily, what is obviously nothing more than written English read aloud. I am labouring to produce some lecture material myself at present, and often despairing at a tendency toward a spiritually sterile, non-devotional production (in part, because of the sterile and academic resources which are often all that is available).This is carrying me toward my answer: I think the option that is missing falls between the teacher who is toward the student-led, entirely discursive end of the scale and the man who is a slave to his notes, one way or the other.That is, a man who is the master of his material, and who can speak from prompts rather than a script (or, at least, can bounce off his paper without being chained to it), and who can develop and mold it in the act of delivery without losing his train of thought or thread of argument. That, of course, does not rule out scope for interaction.In short, especially in theological teaching, I should say that the best lecturers are those who come closest to being preachers in their delivery. After all, if we are teaching students for the ministry, we are generally handling the truth, or material closely related to it, and that should point us back to a greater reliance on the Spirit of God to bless our preparation and delivery. I think of models, for example, like Spurgeon in his Lectures to my Students , or some of the addresses that Lloyd-Jones and others like him gave at the Westminster Conference here in the UK.I think if we are more aware of the nature of the material we are handling, and the purposes for which we are handling it, it will carry us toward a more devotional spirit and a greater awareness of our dependence on the Spirit of Christ in our preparation and delivery that will provide for a full, accurate, careful treatment, while alleviating some of the worse symptoms of the man who pursues mere recollection without true comprehension and apprehension, or the dreaded reader on the one hand, or the aimless wanderer who covers much holy ground as he travels between Dan and Beersheba, unfortunately losing all his fellow-pilgrims on the way.A bit stream-of-consciousness, I know, and for that I apologise; also, not sure if it actually answers your closing questions. Nevertheless, I hope it offers something.

  • h.kleyn

    Consider how our Lord taught His disciples and the crowds. “Come, follow me.” “The servant is no greater than his Master. It is enough for the servant (student) to be like his master.” Jesus taught with stories, by example, by illustrating Himself through Scripture, by answering the students’ questions, by refusing to answer questions, by lecturing, by methods designed to reach the mind and heart. I know you know this but it may be important for those reading your questions to be brought back to the Master teacher Who once started a profound lesson with, “A certain man went down from Jericho….

  • David Murray

    Foppe: Thanks for this constructive encouragement. I definitely need to use the questioning approach more – both before and during class. I ask for questions, but I should also pose more of them myself.Jeremy: You identify very clearly what I want to avoid – the sterile, dry reading of data that bores the reader and the hearers to tears. I think you also articulate the approach that I’ve been “feeling in my bones” more and more – somewhere between a lecture and a sermon. Combining Foppe’s and your own suggestion how about this as an approach: 1. Hand out the full detailed notes before class2. Pose questions at the beginning of the class to test knowledge of the lecture3. “Preach” a summary (short version) of the substance of the material in class, with some sections expanded beyond the notes. Or:1. Pose questions to be answered before class2. Review answers at beginning of class3. “Preach” summarized version of the lecture in class with emphasis on the most important parts4. Hand out the full notes after classHenk: Thanks for this vital call back to our Model and Master. Probably to have more of His Spirit would go a long way to answering this question.

  • Tim Chiarot

    I wanted to address a specific type of teaching medium–online. Has PRTS considered working with various Reformed churches across the nation that have the means to facilitate a classroom setting to which PRTS can offer classroom webinars, or have local ministers who are qualified teach classes?Thanks,Tim

  • David Murray

    Tim, we’ve actually just concluded a successful pilot course along the lines you suggested. Over the last year, I taught a course on Eschatology to a church group in Chilliwack, under the supervision of a local elder and teacher. It worked very well. If you email me on FB or at the Seminary, I can put you in touch with our Distance Learning director.

  • Foppe
  • Shawn Anderson

    Thanks again for an engaging post. I have also enjoyed the comments from readers. Two thoughts came to mind after reading your post:1) All of these seem to work for some student(s) because we all learn differently. Some want the concrete material, others want the relational-conversational classroom. In your reply to Jeremy you lay out steps that consider hitting many learning styles. I think you are on to something there.2) The one learning style that is rarely addressed in the classroom is the style that learns from a hands-on approach. In my nursing program I had the benefit of learning theory in the classroom. But I also had the lab to practice my skills, and the clinical setting to get real-life experience. It seems that if the local church and seminary work hand in hand, then students can get these experiences.At RPTS we have a counseling track that provides 3 classes on theory, AND 3 clinical classes (observation, role play and supervised counseling). In our Evangelism class we have to go knocking on doors, lead a 5-week evangelism bible study, and the students host a dinner where we invite unbelievers to eat a meal and hear the Gospel. In apologetics we have to go onto the local college campus and engage in an apologetic encounter. The goal in all of these examples is to provide a clinical opportunity to our seminary education.I know that you are addressing the classroom, but I think that students would be more engaged in the material and begin to ask the “right” questions if they had to integrate real life opportunities with the material you are giving to them.Thanks again for letting me ramble. Peace.

  • Jeremy Walker

    If I might skip back a few comments, I agree that taking account of the way students have learned to learn is wise, as well as – hopefully – teaching them to learn better. I also think Shawn is spot-on when he says that the local church is the best environment to see theological instruction worked out in practice, and I therefore believe that theological training should be given, for the most part, by pastors in a context where the students are engaged in and under the oversight of local churches.In terms of specific suggestions for a “lecture-room liturgy,” where time permits I might suggest the following:1. Provide an outline of the material (main headings, to give the students a sense of direction).2. “Preach” the substance of the material, interacting with the students and responding and developing the material in that environment with conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.3. Encourage the students to take notes (for the sake of retention) and to engage along the way with questions and contributions (for the sake of understanding), if need be by throwing out questions, requiring them to read excerpts or Scripture passages, asking them to suggest the logical next steps in an argument, or to draw the logical conclusion from a series of premises.4. Hand out fuller notes (if available) after class or at the end of the course (I find that to do so earlier tends to disengage the brain and relax the memory overmuch).5. Some kind of formal or informal review or test to assess retention and understanding (not just that horrible regurgitation of what the teacher said, but a demonstration of head-and-heart apprehension of the material). Those questions might be open-ended to demand real engagement e.g. if studying a book, to draw up their own outline, with brief explanations of their selection criteria, divisions and transitions, or to take some passage that is thoroughly representative of the book in which it is found and to provide a sermon outline demonstrating a grasp of the material studied.6. Prayer for and encouragement toward the application of the learning in an appropriate environment.Of course, time rarely permits, and this might not work everywhere, but I offer it as a template-in-progress!

  • David Murray

    Shawn & Jeremy,This is extremely helpful. I really like your “liturgy” Jeremy. I’m going to implement some of this next semester.David.

  • Jeremy Walker

    Thanks, David. I am shortly due to be teaching a course on the Gospels and the Acts, and I hope to road-test this. Most of the lectures are prepared, the outline is ready, I am working up the examination, and the teaching is looming. If I remember, I will try to give some feedback on the system – I might catch some gremlins! You will have to let us know how it works in your environment when you come to it.