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.

In a recent post, I responded to Jonathan Leeman’s critique of centered-set churches. Yet I did so without ever explaining what a centered-set church is. Some commenters asked for further elucidation. So here goes.

There are two ways of thinking about social groupings: centered-set and bounded-set. These terms come to us from the field of mathematics (set theory). In recent years they’ve been applied more broadly by sociologists and missiologists. The fountainhead of most of this thinking in the Christian church was Paul Hiebert, a missiologist at Fuller Seminary.

Hiebert suggested that our minds categorize people according to either “bounded set” or “centered set” thinking:

Bounded Sets

  • are formed by defining the boundaries – the essential qualities which separate something inside the set from something outside. Heibert’s classic example is “apples.” Either a fruit is an apple, or it isn’t.
  • Maintaining the boundary is crucial to maintaining the category.
  • Bounded sets are static sets – they don’t change, they only add or lose members.
  • The important thing is to “cross the boundary” to be part of the set.

Centered Sets

  • are formed by defining a center. The set is made up of all objects moving toward that center. As an everyday example: “bald men.”
  • While a centered set does not focus on the boundary, a boundary does indeed exist. The boundary is clear so long as the center is clear.
  • The objects within a centered set are not categorically uniform. Some may be near the center and others far from it, even though all are moving towards the center.

Hiebert asserts that Americans tend to think almost exclusively in bounded-set categories. And this affects our understanding of Christian discipleship. We tend to “stress evangelism as the major task — getting people into the category. Moreover, we… see conversion as a single dramatic event — crossing the boundary between being a ‘non-Christian’ and being a ‘Christian'” (Hiebert, 1978).

Hiebert argues instead for a “centered-set” way of thinking about Christian conversion:

A Christian would be defined in terms of a center—in terms of who is God. The critical question is, to whom does the person offer his worship and allegiance? …Two important dynamics are recognized. First there is conversion, which in a centered set means that the person has turned around. He has left another center or god and has made Christ his center. This is a definite event—a change in the God in whom he places his faith. But, by definition, growth is an equally essential part of being a Christian. Having turned around, one must continue to move towards the center. There is no static state. Conversion is not the end, it is the beginning. We need evangelism to bring people to Christ, but we must also think about the rest of their lives. We must think in terms of bringing them to Christian maturity in terms of their knowledge of Christ and their growth in Christlikeness.

 Theologically, I find some aspects of Hiebert’s argument poorly nuanced. He would do well to differentiate regeneration (the invisible, immediate work of the Holy Spirit on the soul, which is in fact a decisive event) from conversion (our experience of that event, which often feels more like a “process” than like a decisive moment). Those who have applied Hiebert’s set theory to individual salvation (Brian McLaren, for instance) have tended to drift in fuzzy doctrinal directions – which is likely why Leeman is leery of a “centered-set approach to doctrine.”

But I find Hiebert’s insights immensely helpful when applied to ecclesiology. This is where I first encountered the set-theory rubric, as applied by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost in their 2003 book The Shaping of Things to Come. Frost and Hirsch argued for viewing the church as a centered set rather than a bounded set. Why not build a church by defining the center rather than patrolling the boundaries? Why not place the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of the church’s life and practice, inviting everyone to reorient their lives around Him? In this way, we continually invite Christians into deeper and deeper discipleship, while also inviting non-Christians to deal with the claims of Jesus on their lives. As Hiebert himself acknowledges, this does not mean there is no boundary; there is just “less need to play boundary games and to institutionally exclude those who are not truly Christian. Rather, the focus is on the center and pointing people to that center” (Hiebert, 1978).

It is my personal conviction that: a) this is what the New Testament church did (see, for example, Galatians 1:6-9; Colossians 1:6; Romans 1:13-15); b) this is what it truly means to be a “gospel-centered” church; and c) this is the only way to have a truly missional church, where non-Christians are treated with true Christian hospitality AND are regularly being converted to faith in Jesus.

I recently came across an article by Jonathan Leeman entitled “The Logical Fallacy of Centered-set Churches.” Since we often describe Coram Deo as a centered-set church, I was intrigued. And after reading the article, I am inclined to offer a rejoinder.

I apologize to Mr. Leeman – a very capable theologian and churchman, and one I highly respect – for making him revisit an article he wrote almost a year ago. But like GK Chesterton (yet without his genius), I am “a person only too ready to write upon the feeblest provocation.” To date, Mr. Leeman’s post has received no comments, which I take to mean either a) no one has read it, or b) no one has disagreed with it. I hope to remedy both problems.

The main logical fallacy of Mr. Leeman’s article about logical fallacy is the fallacy of equivocation. He uses the term “centered-set” in an ambiguous way to refer to at least two different ideas. He speaks of a “centered-set approach to doctrine” (which I, like him, spurn) and a “centered-set approach to ministry” (which I, unlike him, commend). Then he conflates these two ideas into one polemic against “centered-set churches.”

Leeman states plainly: “The centered-set metaphor doesn’t work for truth or belief in truth.” I couldn’t agree more. The question is: does the centered-set metaphor work for community? Within a church committed to Christ and His truth, is there space for people who have not yet embraced that truth?

I assume Mr. Leeman would answer this question, “Yes,” since he shares my passion to see people converted to faith in Christ. And if he would answer this question “Yes,” then I would submit that our debate is over. After all, Jesus clearly taught that the church will always be a mixed community – wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46).

I think Leeman and I are both passionate about the members of a church being a bounded set (converted Christians). But the church community as a whole should be a centered set. I expect, pray for, and delight in the presence of non-Christians in the church’s worship gatherings. I fully expect the Holy Spirit to challenge and convert them as they sit under the preaching of the word and come to understand the message of the gospel.

Leeman is concerned that centered-set language risks “erasing the clear bright line God places between those who are his people and those who are not.” But this is only true if we apply the centered-set metaphor ham-handedly. Admittedly, this is the mistake some evangellyfish types make. But had Leeman consulted missiologist Paul Hiebert (the fountainhead of all this centered-set thinking), he would have encountered a more careful and nuanced explanation. A recent academic monograph summarizes: “While centered sets are not created by drawing boundaries, they do have well-formed boundaries that separate things inside the set from those outside it. [So] centered sets have two types of change inherent in their structure: entry or exit from the set (based on their relationship to the center), and movement toward or away from the center” (Yoder, Lee, Ro, & Priest: TrinJ 30NS 2009, 180). In other words: a centered set does have a boundary.

I maintain that it is possible to employ the centered-set concept in a way that remains faithful to Scripture, to truth, and to sound doctrine. To say it another way: it is possible to have a centered-set approach to ministry without a centered-set approach to doctrine. In my humble estimation, it’s the failure to distinguish between these two that makes Leeman’s case less than compelling.