JON'S OPINION PAGE
The various short essays below are designed to be thought provoking and challenging. They reflect the experiences of the author. So they may or may not apply to your situation.
I love details. So there is a tremendous amount of data in some of our Bible studies. However, the details are always part of the big picture. For instance, although the ranking the Top 55 People in the Bible involved much research and many numbers, the overall message is simple. Jesus is #1 and the One whom the world needs.
The meaning of words and grammatical structure in the Bible are important, but they can be overly stressed. Some falsely claim or give the impression that only those who are trained in Hebrew and Greek can correctly understand the Bible. To help counter this error, our studies provide tools for believers at various levels of maturity to use to discover and proclaim biblical truth. For instance, our Descriptive Bible Studies and Describe-It-Yourself Cards and Lists are great meditation tools and aids in thinking about the meaning of passages as a whole.
Neither am I, BUT I also do not want to put people to sleep by always teaching or preaching the same way. I could easily speak for an hour straight about the Four Gospels Summary Chart below, but wouldn't it be better to ask some good questions and get people in the class investigating the summary chart for themselves as well as listening to me? One of the best ways to do this is with an educational game, such as with Four Gospels Golf. It is not just a game!
Frankly, I believe there is a great need for better teaching in many otherwise good churches and that one of the main reasons for this is because preaching is overly stressed in conservative churches and schools, in Japan especially perhaps because of Confucianism. As one who loves to teach, undoubtedly I am biased in favor of teaching, but perhaps many preachers are biased in the opposite direction against creative teaching.
I have always loved the outdoors, especially ponds, streams, and fishing. So Thoreau's WALDEN POND has been one of my favorite books for many years. I often pick it up to read a few lines and be reminded of the wonder of God's creation. Therefore to me it seemed totally appropriate to compare the 22 stanzas in Psalm 119 to various places along the Appalachian Trail. The page with these analogies and many graphics is one of the most popular on our website.
Bible study sets are like babies and children in various ways. There is usually a several months gestation period, and like elephant babies, these sometimes are far longer than nine or ten months. (Our Psalm 119 material is a good example of this.)
Moreover, like a human baby, a Bible study set must be cared for and corrected as it tentatively crawls its way toward other churches. Covers and bindings are as necessary as diapers and baby beds. And translating a set into a new language is like a child learning to talk and speak correctly which, of course, is a long process. Mitsy, with some help from Jon, has taught many of our Bible study children to speak Japanese as well as English over the years.
Since Ezekiel ministered to his own people in a corrective way, his ministry was biblical counseling. Through the giving of warnings regarding sin and judgment, the ministry that he called for was life saving (3:18-19, 33:5). Obviously this involved much speaking, in contrast to the popular but erroneous listening-centered counseling advocated by Carl Rogers. Of course, listening is important, but honoring mere human opinion is overly stressed today.
If you are called to preach, then you are also called to teach, Ephesians 4:11. Bible preaching alone, no matter how good it may be, can never completely fill the people's need for Bible teaching! Moreover, this is true for adults as well as children!
Those who put up the informative church sign below would probably agree with me in theory, but questions remain. Is there adequate time for teaching in the church program? Is much of the teaching that is done actually just additional preaching with a question or two thrown in at the end? Was the pastor adequately trained on how to teach adults and youth? Above all, is preaching regarded so highly that there a subtle, unspoken bias against teaching?
I believe that preaching is a type of teaching, teaching being the broader category. Sadly, many in Japan seem to think of teaching as lower-class, non-pulpit ministry compared to preaching. So the pulpit and the morning worship service are stressed at the expense of everything else. Likewise, in the U.S., especially the south, the "called to preach" view of ministry I believe is a manifestation of the same problem. (The "missing lectern" piece below helps explain my situation and thoughts.)
In my experience, large pulpits are common in Japanese churches, but small lecterns are extremely rare, despite the fact that many Japanese churches are very small. So I personally made this one to use in a (BMM) pastoral seminar. Otherwise, I would have been forced to use a large pulpit while all the pastors present sat in pews several rows away. It would not have been interactive and would have become a series of sermons rather than a seminar.
Why does a church need a lectern?
Understandable Conservative Questions: Aren't a pulpit and pews best for Sunday morning meetings and a table and chairs fine for the few interactive classes that are held? If there is a second service on Sunday, isn't the pulpit fine for that as well? Wouldn't the people be confused if the afternoon or evening service on Sunday had a different format from the morning one?
Unnerving (but good) Creative Questions: Wouldn't the people better understand the need for another meeting on Sunday if the format were somewhat different? Wouldn't the people feel freer to ask questions if a lectern were used instead of the same pulpit as in the morning service? Wouldn't the people learn more and fall asleep less?
Most preachers in Japan do NOT ask questions in their sermons, other than a few rhetorical one. The page below explains why, in contrast to this, I strongly believe in asking (and answering) many questions in messages as well as in Bible studies. (2017)
There are some excellent preachers in Japan, but there also seems to be a lot of "running commentary" masquerading as exposition. Moreover many church members are so used to commentary-like, verse-by-verse messages week after week that they instantly regard anything else as abnormal. The questions asked below are not a call for topical preaching instead of good exposition. Rather, they a call for more variety in the formats used in exposition.
Does your “expository preaching” sound like reading through a commentary verse by verse?
Are there numbered points in your messages other than the verse numbers themselves? Are your main points about the various people or topics in the text instead of just about verses and words? Do you preach through passages verse by verse mainly because doing so is traditional or because commentaries are set up that way?
Is going through a passage verse by verse the only proper way to do expository preaching?
Is there much variety in your preaching style, week by week? Of course, the content changes, but what about the format? How about occasionally focusing on the negatives and positives in the passage? How about trying to describe the main character(s) or topic(s) in the text? How about using sermon subpoints to answer one main question raised by the passage?
It can be very helpful to write out one's sermon completely, but there are disadvantages as well. There seem to be more preachers in Japan than in the U.S. who take complete manuscripts into the pulpit. Some are, of course, better at using their long manuscripts than others, but in general the preaching in Japan seems to be more formal and inflexible than in the U.S (in part) because of this practice. The various questions asked below address some potential problems with complete manuscripts.
Are you too dependent on completely written out notes?
It takes much time to type out your sermon notes completely. Could this time be used better in other ways? How about writing less in order to study the entire Book more? If you write out your messages completely, isn’t it more likely that you will sound like a commentary? Did Peter and Paul have completely written out sermons that they read to the people? Was Paul’s long message in Acts 20:9 read from notes? Doesn’t the preaching of Peter and Paul show broad knowledge as well as specific details? Doesn’t the preaching of Peter and Paul show flexibility and sensitivity to those listening?
In my experience, pastors and missionaries like me with a background in engineering or the physical sciences are a small minority. Therefore it is probably not surprising that many preachers are good speakers but rarely use diagrams, charts, or graphs. If presentation software is used, there will be graphics (photos and cartoons), of course, but almost never a real graph with data.
Isn't it wise to avoid difficult diagrams and graphs?
Are most people in church engineers, scientific researchers, or economists? Which do children understand better: graphs and charts or graphics and cartoons? Do people really need to study a detailed graph of the four Gospels that shows that 35% percentage of the verses in Mark involve miracles compared to only 20% in Matthew? Isn' this type of data overkill for most folks?
Isn't it wonderful that the Bible is rich in measurable data?
Isn't it great that we can count the number of verses in each Gospel that involve various topics to see what topics are stressed more in each Gospel? Isn't it wonderful that we can use computer software to count the number of references to various Bible characters to see who is mentioned more? Isn't it helpful to be able to visually depict the Lord's Prayer in a 3D diagram as well as talk about it? And isn't it good to study and compare graphs which show that love is mentioned more frequently in First John chapter four than in First Corinthians chapter 13? (See above.) Some graphs, diagrams, and charts are, of course, detailed and difficult, but are most of them over-the-top? Don't they actually help most of us better understand God's word? So shouldn't they be used more rather than less?
© 2022 by Jon F. Mahar, Hakusan City, Japan