We Preach What We Do Not Know

by on December 21, 2015

Learning theology is one of the main purposes and joys of seminary. But through the course of your education there, you’re likely to have many of your proper theological convictions challenged, shaped, and changed. And yet, even as we’re going through all this growth, many of us are still serving in ministries and churches; still others of us are preaching.

So what do we do when we are to stand up and preach on a topic that we ourselves aren’t sure of? Are preachers meant to be the ones who have “the answers” for every theological question of a text? Does it harm our people for us to come to ideas and texts and doctrinal disputes which we haven’t settled on yet?

I am currently in this place, having been given a preaching assignment for a couple of months from now, on a text that brings up some theological issues that I myself am still wrestling through. And it’s not something I can just sneak past without talking about. It’s front and center. So what do we do when we’re in this position? Here are my immediate thoughts for us in-process seminarians and preachers:

First, I have more time than most other preachers do. I can engage several books, articles, lectures, etc. on this topic well before I have to start writing the manuscript.

Second, through my seminary, I have access to scholars, ministers, theologians, and others who have looked into these issues far more deeply than I ever will. And with the wonder of the Internet, I can email them and ask them to help me think through these things.

Thirdly, I can use my seminary education. In the next few weeks, I begin the next semester of classes, and what do you know, I’m taking courses in Church History, Systematic Theology, as well as Eschatology, all engaging the very topics I’m trying to figure out right now.

What else, though? What if I engage all those things and don’t figure out? Or worse, what if I end up more confused? Here are some homiletical and pastoral tips:

Use Church History. Regardless of what some seminaries may say, the history of acceptable, orthodox Christian thought isincredibly diverse and polyphonic. On most any given theological issue, there has historical been a lot of latitude given to people to think a whole host of things and still be called “Christian”. And so, lay out some of those historically orthodox options (even the ones you disagree with) and then give your congregants the boundaries of orthodoxy and things to keep in mind as they work through this on their own.

Also, check your exegesis. A lot of times when I’ve had “uh-oh” moments when approaching a text, I’ve realized that what I feared it was saying was actually just the pop interpretation I had been fed when I was growing up in super Christian Bible Belt culture.Many of the assumptions we bring to the text are just that—assumptions.

Lastly, you can consider saying “I don’t know”. Now, this is dangerous. I’m all for preachers exhibiting a degree of vulnerability and honesty in their sermons, but our culture’s current obsession with “authenticity” can be unhelpful and undermine the very things our souls need to be secure and confident in. If you choose to go this route, may God be gracious to you and your people, but try and say this in a way that exhibits humility, not theological laziness; and that gives your people things to root themselves in even as they experience your own unknowing within themselves.

So those are my thoughts. But I’ll be honest, I’m still in “uh-oh” mode concerning this future sermon, and I could use all the feedback I can get. What would you do in this situation? Does a pastor have any business preaching on a topic before they are sure what direction they theological lean?

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About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.