Should Preachers Show Their Work? Or, Should Our Preaching Train People to Read the Bible?

Should our attempts to preach the Bible train people to be better readers of the Bible?

I think the answer to that question is obvious. It seems like a no-brainer to me that our attempts to preach the Bible should train those who hear us to be better readers of the Bible. This has implications for what we do in our sermons, implications for how we preach.

In short, it means we “show our work” in ways that are appropriate. Remember that phrase from math class? It refers to the way that all the steps on the way to the answer are to be written out, as opposed to doing the math in your head and shortcutting from problem to solution.

Obviously we can’t show every step, and we shouldn’t bore people with unnecessary exegetical detail.

That said, we’re preaching the Bible, and the Bible is a book. We’re making disciples of Jesus who are to obey everything he commanded. As we preach, we’re training people who need to meditate on the word of God day and night. We’re training people to read and understand the Bible.

Why am I saying all this? Because to my thinking it follows from the people of God needing preaching that is squarely based on the Bible.

What’s wrong with preaching where the work isn’t shown?

It’s too easy for preachers who don’t show their work to make assertions that the text of Scripture does not make, and this is complicated when they make applications from their own assertions. If you can’t show it to me from the Scriptures, it does not carry the authority of the word of God. In such a case, it is not the word of God that is being preached.

As I listen to preaching, I want to hear what the Bible teaches. I want the preacher to prove to me that what he’s claiming is what the Bible teaches. I want him to show me enough of his work to earn my trust, I want his applications to come from what the Bible actually teaches, and I would like to go away with a better understanding of the passage that has been preached.

I’ve heard analogies that argue against what I’m contending for, and I think they fail.

Here’s one: when you preach, you don’t show your homework because preparing a sermon is like building a house. When you walk into a house that’s been built, you don’t see its structure. The drywall covers the frame, and paint covers the drywall. It’s finished. So should the sermon be.

But what if as you preach you’re preparing people to build their own houses? That is, what if you’re making disciples, not just being a disciple on their behalf? Even if a particular Christian never stands to preach a sermon, don’t we want him to be reading the Bible for himself? Don’t we want Christians arriving at the meaning of the Bible for themselves? Don’t we want them to be able to evaluate claims about what the Bible says for themselves?

This “finished house” analogy seems to suggest that the preacher is going to do the thinking and the Bible study and the responding to challenges for his audience.

If a preacher isn’t showing people how he got to his interpretive conclusions and applications from the Scripture, will anyone who hears that preacher learn to be a better Bible-reader?

For all these reasons, this past Sunday (October 16, 2011) I took some time to explain how I had arrived at the turning points in Jeremiah’s flow of thought in the passage I was preaching. It’s difficult to determine the structure of the whole book of Jeremiah, and it’s difficult to arrive at the structure of individual passages.

Why should we care about structure? Because the way that Jeremiah has arranged his presentation is essential to understanding his message.

As I preached Jeremiah 4:5–31, “Wash Your Heart from Evil,” I explained that repeated words and phrases, changes in content or theme, and changes in point of view (for instance, from first person to second or third) are all indicators of turning points in Jeremiah’s presentation.

What do you think?

Should preachers show their work?

Are these reliable indicators of the movements in Jeremiah’s thoughts?

Can someone learn to read the Bible from those who don’t show their work?

12 Responses to Should Preachers Show Their Work? Or, Should Our Preaching Train People to Read the Bible?

  1. Eric October 18, 2011 at 7:21 am #

    Jim,

    As you know, we are showing people how to read their Bibles every time we stand to preach before them — even if we are giving them bad examples of how to read. After 5, 10, or 20 years of preaching to a congregation, people have been shaped on how the read the Scriptures, and they have been given a sense of how significant the Scriptures are to the believers’ lives.

    John MacArthur probably is the best well known example of someone who has been intentional about teaching his people how to read the New Testament as he preaches–at least in terms of exegetical theology. I am not sure who would stand out as an example of someone who does this well while preaching through the Old Testament week to week. Outside of D. A. Carson (and someone who preaches at Kenwood Baptist Church), neither am I sure of a well known leader who helps people see how the parts and whole of the storyline of Scripture fit together. It would be good if we all could see many examples of such preaching.

    Great post, Jim! Blessings!

  2. Tim Bertolet October 18, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    I concur wholeheartedly. Good preaching should show its work.

    We want our listeners to be able to be good Bereans to see if what we have said is in the word and how we know that it is in the word.

    Good expository preaching doesn’t just tell people what the application is from a particular text but it models for people. It shows them how to see this is what the Word says and this is how it applies.

    The pastor who mentored me has had a long term ministry of 25+ years in his church. When I went there fresh out of Bible college and seminary I found people in that church with no formal degree who were often better at studying the Bible, interpreting it and applying it than some of the people with whom I had graduated. It has always been a testimony to me of the powerful effects of “showing your work” in the pulpit.

  3. Steve Drake October 18, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    As a layman, I am benefited the most, by an expositor who shows in detail how he arrived at his conclusions. Eric’s mention of John MacArthur is a great example of this. I want to know the details, the history, the differences in nuance of language, the context, all to help me better understand what God’s revelation is saying to ‘me’. I am tired and bored when the expositor displays his laziness and sloppiness by not doing the work he has been ‘trained’ to do, simply giving me his or someone else’s opinion without breaking apart the text. Yes, this takes time, is slow going, but the great Bible expositors of past generations are sorely missed in the pulpit of today.

  4. Eric Schumacher October 18, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    Great post, Jim! I couldn’t agree more.

    I think this also needs to be explained to the congregation. For one implication is: they must come as students of the Word, to be trained in how to “do the work.” Granted, we pray the Word would grip and benefit those who come not caring and passive. But, how much better if each had the text open in front of him, eagerly anticipating the preacher showing him truth from the text.

    • Steve Drake October 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

      Pastors vs. laypeople? Just a question. Pastors claim their congregants don’t study the Word of God for themselves, laypeople claim their pastors don’t lead by example and show us how. Preachers need to show their work.

  5. Matthew Westerholm October 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    It’s unanimous—preachers should teach people to “milk their own cow.”

    But haven’t we heard preachers who abuse this call as an excuse to showboat their learning? Please show your work, but don’t parade your “seminary learning.” The people of God may not need to understand appositive genitives, nor the Remonstrances, to live their faith.

    People should leave our sermons thinking “I could do that,” so that they will be encouraged to pick up their own copies of God’s Word.

  6. Steve Drake October 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    Not an either/or, but an and/both. Give me an ‘E’, give me an ‘X’, give me a ‘P’…. What’s that spell? Expository preaching.

  7. Matt Dickie October 18, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Dr. Hamilton,

    I wanted to challenge a few things in your post and see what you think.

    I like the building-a-house metaphor. To my knowledge, the metaphor allows for showing one’s work where it is necessary. It would be inappropriate for a teacher of calculus to show his work for the problem 4 + 2 = 6, because his students are beyond arithmetic. But a second grade teacher should show her work for the same problem (maybe by counting fingers or popsicle sticks). Showing one’s work in the church also seems to be relative to where the congregation is in its knowledge of Scripture. At some point, we want the church to see the house with as few helps as possible. If people are unaware of a beam here or there, then we should show them.

    I do not think that it is healthy for a church to be skeptical of what the pastor is saying (Your comment, “I want him to show me enough of his work to earn my trust,” sounds to me like skepticism). Rather, I think the church should be teachable and wide-open to the preacher’s words. This doesn’t sound very Berean, but the situation with the Jews there was different from the one in Christian churches. It was a synagogue full of unbelievers. Hence, they were right to examine the Scriptures with skepticism, because Paul was asking them to become Christians. I am not saying that people should only check the Scriptures when being asked to become Christians. Rather, I am saying that skepticism shouldn’t be an obstacle for Christian preachers in Christian churches. If I sat under your preaching at Kenwood, I’m confident that I would not be skeptical of what you say every Sunday before the sermon.

    Does showing one’s work make people better readers of Scripture? I think so. But I don’t think the payoff of showing one’s work is as great as your post suggests. There are linguistic, literary, and historical beams in a well-built sermon. Showing one’s work reveals these beams, but only for a moment. Listeners get only a glimpse of what preacher’s have done in their studies. Do listeners understand how to study words, analyze literature, and use background materials from the sermons they hear? My guess is that very few do. Perhaps I am wrong. I do believe that showing one’s work can motivate people to acquire the skills necessary for reading the Bible. John MacArthur’s preaching motivated me to learn Greek.

    In Christ,

    Matt Dickie

  8. Peter Mead October 23, 2011 at 10:42 am #

    Good to see this post. I wrote my DMin on this subject at GCTS a few years back. I think most preachers are very naive to the effect of their preaching on the Bible habits of their listeners. We assume that expository preaching models good habits, but often it doesn’t. We assume that expository preaching motivates Bible reading/study, but often it doesn’t. I think the preacher can never include all of the private workings, but should carefully select in order to help the listeners learn good habits over time. I heard a speaker a few years back that convinced me that I never want to show off in preaching – my role is to equip, not to impress. It was a bad weekend, but I thank God for impressing that on me that weekend!

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