The Sweet Spot of Preaching and Teaching

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If you remember back to Psychology 101 there was a term called the “Zone of Proximal Development” that boils down to an ideal zone of learning. If you try to teach someone by telling them things they already know they won’t get much from it. If you go way over their head and teach things they aren’t ready for you will lose them. But there is a zone right in the middle that is just beyond their current knowledge and ability that they can stretch to. That is the “sweet spot” of preaching and teaching. Aim too low and you miss. Aim too high and you miss.

A steady diet at either end of the spectrum can result in problems. Going too shallow can result in perpetual baby Christians whose roots aren’t as deep as they should be. Going too deep leaves people lost, confused and then board. Either way people will bail on you. If I am not careful I often assume people know more than they do and put parts of the lesson just out of reach of some in the room. That is something I am working on. Craig Groeschel posted two excellent articles on going too deep or too shallow. Worth the read…

Too Deep

Too Shallow

Do you struggle with either of these? What has been  helpful to you in finding balance?

0 Responses

  1. Good point (and I love the image you used to illustrate the blog).

    I wonder, though, if we should be trying to do this kind of teaching from the pulpit. If what you say is true, then didactic preaching can’t help but frustrate a sizable percentage of the audience. If you aim for the middle you might hit 60% where they are but be too deep for 20% and too shallow for 20%.

    Maybe preaching needs to have a different purpose.

    1. If you know your audience then you should understand the adjustments that need to be made along the way. If the brainy people never get tossed a bone that’s not good and if the less mature never understand a thing you say that’s not healthy either. It is certainly not an easy balance but it is something to be aware of as we often just get in the routine and fail to consider or be challenged in improving our communication abilities toward all of our listeners and not just those who are most similar to ourselves.

  2. Perhaps our concept of “preaching” sermons needs examination. When Paul “preached to them” in Acts 20:7, the word for “preached” is the word from which we get our word “dialog”. Maybe we need more dialog and less “preaching.”

    But, I’m not sure how to get there from here…..

    1. I have incorporated dialog on a very small scale in a sermon a few times and it really seems to engage people and keep their attention. But more than just keeping their attention, it involves them in the process. There are a few ways to do this that I can think of, just don’t have time to outline them now. Maybe a few others reading this have done this too and could mention a few helpful tips/suggestions.

    2. I, too, have done some of this. Our current preacher in my home congregation does this on a limited basis (usually by asking questions that have a specific, obvious answer). My impression, though, is that people look at it as a novelty, not as a standard practice. My comment above had more to do with getting it to become standard practice.

      We have talked some about devoting a Sunday pm each month to a “panel” that will answer questions asked by the people. We have yet to get it started, though we have had a couple of panels in the past six months. Maybe we’ll get there yet.

    3. One way to invite dialog is to find a work of art and ask people what they see. I like to go with some of the classics of Christian art – Rublev’s Icon is one of my favorites for communion. There is no wrong answer, but there’s no right answer either.

      Also using the phrase: “Why do you think people…” to set up your question is helpful. If you were to ask: “Why do you not obey the gospel?” That is a very confrontational question, but if you ask them to comment on other “people” they will usually give you their opinion but in a way that doesn’t put them on the spot.

  3. In my experience – and this is not to bragg – I have found that having a Master of Divinity degree means I know more than most in the church. That does not make me more spiritual or more special in God’s eye, it is just a fact the same way my wife, who has a Master of Science in education, knows way more about the field of education than I. Any ways, since I have no desire to preach/teach what I consider shallow sermons/classes my challenge has been to not go too deep…and that ussualy includes giving information that no one is interested except the student of theology.

    It is also a rare occasion where I actually mention a word from the original languages. The last time that happened was when someone in class who was trying to stoke an unnecessary factor mentioned that Phoebe was a deacon which caused some others to inquire how a woman could be a deacon so I explained that the word *diakonos* was used to describe Phoebe in Rom 16.1. That was in a class and it was not planned but in response to the dialogue taking place. I cannot remember a time ever doing this in a sermon. Now there have been a couple of church members who had a deeper interest in theological studies with whom I have gone into deeper conversations and loaned them books from my shelf which htey were interested in reading.

    Grace and peace,


  4. BTW…there is some lady TV preacher who preaches from the UCLA chapel and in her sermons she uses a white board with many Hebrew and Greek words, parsing them, going into the history of their use, etc… She also quotes everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Karl Barth.

    I know she has a PhD in Systematic Theology and is certainly qualified rather than just repeating things she has read elsewhere but I still wonder how much this helps people in the longrun? I learned in graduate school that intellectual depth does not necessarily mena or ensure spiritual depth.

    Grace and peace,


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