book review: the teaching sermon

The Teaching Sermon by Ronald J. Allen (Abingdon, 1995), 183pp, hb $14.00 retail; $14.00 @ Amazon (


“At the heart, Christian teaching is helping the community name the world (and its experience in the world) in terms of the gospel.” (p.26)

“Sermons also teach implicitly, by what the preacher addresses and what the preacher does not address. … Sermons teach implicitly too by including and ignoring different kinds of people. … Sermons also teach implicitly through their homiletical styles. … Furthermore, sermons implicitly teach theological method. … The preacher needs to be critically conscious of the implicit curriculum of the pulpit.” (pp.33-34)

“One of the quickest ways for the teacher to erode trust is to fail to take seriously the concerns of the students.” (p.42)

“I have never been a part of a satisfactory sermon in a normal service of worship in which the preacher invited the members to respond verbally (either talking directly to the preacher or among themselves in buzz groups.” (p.43)

“The best teachers understand that a major part of their role is to help learners learn how to learn.” (p.50)

“Why do people resist? The most common reason people resist learning can be put simply: fear of change. People long for stability, so they resist change. … Two moves go hand in hand. First, don’t push too fast. Change in human awareness usually takes place in small increments, rather than in single, transformational bolts. … Second, preachers can explain their intentions clearly.” (p.52)

“Preachers need to be circumspect in their use of stories. Negative stories (stories of sin, brokenness, pain, death) are much easier to find than positive stories. Yet, positive stories provide the positive visions toward which the preacher often wants the congregation to move. Therefore, the pastor must often work harder to find positive lures.” (p.57)

“When the sermon ends on a positive note, the congregation is more likely to continue ruminating on the subject.” (p.59)

“To maximize the learning climate of preaching, the preacher should devise a systematic plan for receiving responses from the congregation. The best feedback system consists of forming a small group (six or ten) of representative listeners. The group meets soon after the sermon (Sunday afternoon or Monday evening) for a limited period (four to six weeks). They focus primarily on the preacher’s communication style. … If such groups would meet two or three times a year, the preacher would significant amount of feedback. I will mention two cautions. First, the preacher must make critical judgments as to which of the group’s recommendations to implement. … Also the preacher needs to avoid playing to the crowd for the sake of making the congregation comfortable or receiving good strokes in the evaluation process. For the sake of the gospel, the preacher must sometimes say things that people will not receive with immediate joy.” (p.61)

“What do we, as a congregation, most need to learn this week (and in the coming weeks and months) as a part of our growth in Christian understanding and action?” (p.64)

“When developing the teaching sermon … investigate resources in four areas. First is the Bible … second … the history of the church … third … contemporary studies of the subject … [and] a fourth body of resources resides in the arts.” (pp.68-69)

“The church [and her preachers] can ask three questions of every phenomenon encountered … (1) is it appropriate to the gospel? … (2) is it intelligible? … (3) is it moral?” (pp.71-72)

“… make a clear statement of the central focus of the sermon. … I call this statement the sermon-in-a-sentence – it puts the content of the sermon into a single sentence. The sentence many never actually be stated in the sermon, but, depending on the purpose of the sermon, the sermon amplifies it, considers questions it evokes, creates emotional associations, brings it to bear on individuals and communities, thinks through its implications for thought, action, feelings.” (p.76)

“Teaching from the pulpit has its best effect when sermons relate systematically to one another. From week to week and month to month, sermons can build on one another. Systematic teaching allows the preacher to treat subjects in both depth and breadth. … Without a systematic approach, the preacher is likely to select biblical texts, themes, doctrines, and issues in a scattershot manner. Important issues can be ignored for long periods of time. … Furthermore, if sermons are unrelated, the community may get the impression that God and God’s purposes are unrelated.” (p.126)

“… [here are] six different plans for teaching systematically from the pulpit. … (1) preaching from a selected lectionary … (2) preaching from continuous reading of the Bible … (3) preaching on an important theme from the Bible or from Christian tradition … (4) preaching a series on foundational Christian doctrines … (5) preaching a series on the Christian interpretation of personal and social issues … (6) preaching on questions people ask.” (pp.127,130,133,135,137,138)

“Sample worksheet for developing the sermon as an event of teaching and learning: (1) identify a point at which the congregation needs to learn … (2) determine the basic issues and questions that are essential to understand and preach on the subject … (3) investigate resources needed to understand the subject … (4) come to a Christian understanding of the subject … (5) describe the congregation’s relationship to the subject … (6) determine what you hope will happen in the hearts, minds, and wills of the listeners, as a result of hearing the sermon … (7) summarize the content of the sermon in a single indicative sentence … (8) list the memories, questions, and other matters that are likely to be on the hearts and minds of the listeners as they interact with the sermon … (9) plan the content and movement of the sermon so that the congregation will have a good opportunity to learn what it needs to learn … [and] … (10) draw on styles and qualities of learning that can enhance the congregation’s participation in the sermon.” (pp.157-159)


The table of contents of The Teaching Sermon by Ronald J. Allen looks like this:

Introduction (pp.9-12)

ch.1 – The Call to the Teaching Ministry Today (pp.13-25)

ch.2 – What is a Teaching Sermon? (pp.26-38)

ch.3 – How People Learn from Sermons (pp.39-62)

ch.4 – Developing the Sermon as an Event of Teaching and Learning (pp.63-85)

ch.5 – Five Models for Teaching Sermons (pp.86-125)

ch.6 – Plans for Systematic Teaching from the Pulpit (pp.126-140)

ch.7 – Teaching a Core Curriculum from the Pulpit (pp.141-156)

Appendix: Sample Worksheet for Developing the Sermon As an Event of Teaching and Learning (pp.157-159)

Endnotes (pp.161-177)

Subject index (pp.179-183)

There’s a snip of an old silent, black-and-white movie comedy in my memory bank. The face is dim in my mind (is it Buster Keaton?), but the rest of the scene is vivid. Someone in an old biplane is trying to get the plane up into the air and he’s having the devil of the time getting her off the ground. You wonder if the pilot will ever get her up as he “hops” several times on his take-off run. Finally, he’s airborne, and to stay. Everything smooths out as he gains altitude. The flight couldn’t go better, actually – until he has to land. Then the process we saw at take-off is reversed, but ultimately ends on a picture-perfect note.

It’s something akin to those times your sermon intro has fallen flat, but the rest of it was pretty good stuff, some of it outstanding even (if you may say so yourself). At least so said the few who stayed awake past the intro to hear it or who were jostled back to awareness just in time to hear your wonderful conclusion.

That’s the way it is reading The Teaching Sermon by Ronald J. Allen. If we believe books were made to be read from cover-to-cover we probably won’t make it past the first chapter. Chapter two gains a us a little air time, but it isn’t sustained. “Hang with it; we can do this,” we say hopefully. Alas, chapter three is yet another “hop.”

Ah, but with chapter four, everything finally seems to be adjusted just as it should be and we feel the prop catch a real bite of the atmosphere and we just know it won’t let go! We begin to climb and this time we know we won’t be coming down. With chapter five we’re truly soaring with an effortless, magnificent view of everything below. This is what flying is all about and all the previous troubles are left far behind in our mind! With chapter six we begin our descent and we begin to encounter some turbulence, increasingly so. As we make our approach, we’re bobbing and weaving and chapter seven is a series of unnerving hops. However, as we reach the appendix (of the book, not yours, personally, of course), things line up and lo, we make a perfect three-point landing and roll out! With endnotes and index in view, we crawl out of the cockpit – and kiss the earth with a smile on our face.

This book is for skippers; readers who tend to peruse a book, reading only what they find immediately interesting. Do yourself a favor: fast forward to chapter four, xerox and keep chapter five, ditto with the appendix and then get on to the next thing in your life.

Score? I give chapter five a 9.7. Overall, I give this book a 7.6 and so, it’s flying off my shelf to someplace else.