Imagine a student attending a classroom. How would you respond if that student had no evidence of growth or knowledge from class? No class preparation, homework or assessment completed. No evidence of knowledge gained or work done. No record of attendance or extra-curricular events? You would rightly be asking what has the student been doing?!
Now, imagine it's Sunday evening. You reflect back on today's sermon. What evidence is there that it impacted you at all? Is there evidence you did some preparation before and readings after the sermon? What evidence is there you grew or what behaviours changed?
This past year I have been interacting with both churches and schools. I see similarities and differences that can help refine how we approach preaching as teachers and listeners.
So what can we learn from classrooms for our sermons?
Both schools and churches are trying to challenge people and lead them to a greater maturity. And there is a focus on not just knowing, but doing: living out knowledge in an applied way.
However, schools have a refined focus worth exploring. They are focused on students meeting specific learning outcomes. Today, most classes have 'Learning Intentions'. These are the take away goals from the lesson. For example, to "Students will understand the difference between verbs and nouns."
They also have 'Success Criteria'. These are the evidence of the learning intention. For example, "Students will provide definitions for verbs and nouns with three examples." Assessments are given to students to show if these outcomes have been achieved and what areas they need to address to meet the Learning Intentions.
The problem with sermons
Sermons, in contrast, have points of application but it is hard to gather evidence. A preacher may point to living out of a theological concept from a Bible passage but it is hard to record this evidence. And there is little accountability, especially in an individual society where accountability is seen as impinging individual rights.
The problem is the that Bible points to the school approach of requiring evidence of learning. The Bible has a clear focus and central message. It has clear "success criteria" on knowing and living out concepts such as grace and holiness. It gives a clear "learning intention" on where we are headed and how we are to prepare for this journey.
If you are in church leadership here are some tips:
What is the take away message for your people? This is your Learning Intention. It is vital to make this explicit for people to know what God (i.e. the Bible passage) wants them to learn. Chances are if you, as a church leader can't articulate a clear Learning Intention for your sermon, then your people won't either. The secret is to stay close to your Bible passage because the context of this passage will give you clear instruction of what your people are to do with the knowledge.
What evidence should your people show to prove they applied this Bible passage? The success criteria might be an increase in support for a local mission or it could be an increase in attendance at Bible studies or prayer meetings. Or it could be an increase in "hits" for the online Bible reading program you are running. Or it could be an "old school" home visit to chat about how their faith is growing related to the sermon. Or a sermon outline sheet with the main points and extra readings and applications. The idea is that if you don't know how people are going then your sermon could be missing its mark. And more troubling your people could be missing the mark with their faith.
If you are a listener here are some tips:
Teachers often get students to rate themselves on a taxonomy as a way to keep them engaged in the lesson and assess progress towards a goal. The different levels create scaffolding for a listener to apply a sermon. Here is my attempt at one for a sermon to classify learning from a sermon on 1 John 1:7. Which level are you during a sermon?
Level 1: Needs work – hasn't grasped the concepts
Level 2: Basic – understands one main idea. They may be able to define a concept or term. e.g. sin as "rebelling towards God resulting in judgement"
Level 3: Good – understands several concepts independently but with no connection between them. E.g. sin, blood, salvation
Level 4: Excellent – concepts are understood and linked. Their relationship is able to be explained and conclusions made. 1 John 1:7 – Jesus blood shed on the cross cleanses us from our sin. The result is our salvation from our own blood being shed as just punishment.
Level 5: Higher Order understanding – Concepts are not only understood but can be related to wider Biblical and practical experience and application made for self. E.g. As is reflected in the Old Testament typology, the shedding of blood brings life. The blood painted on the Hebrew's doors during the Passover saved God's people from judgement. This points to Jesus own blood that saves us from the judgement we deserve. This results in admitting my own sin and turning to Jesus in thanks and following Him.
By this they will know you are My disciples
Schools today have a heavy emphasis on dynamic teaching that produces visible results. Despite the differences between teaching and preaching, I am suggesting that church leaders take a similar intentional approach to making their Bible passages impact. And also for listeners to make the sermon an active process of moving up levels of maturity. This is, after all, what the Bible constantly calls for: evidence that you are His disciples by your fruit.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html