What’s the Difference Between Preaching and Teaching?

sermon development Aug 18, 2018

What’s the difference between preaching and teaching? This is a question a lot of church leaders ask. Or perhaps it could be posed this way, “Is this particular form of speaking considered preaching or teaching?” There is a difference, but it can be hard to articulate exactly what that difference is and why it matters. The words we use to describe our communication are important.

It’s important to have clarity so that you know, as a presenter, what your aim should be in a given context – whether preaching, teaching or otherwise. As for the delineation between preaching and teaching, this article will show you what the difference is and why it is important to distinguish between the two forms of communicating content. Simply put: The difference between preaching and teaching is that preaching is primarily geared toward life-change while teaching is primarily aimed at transferring knowledge.

 Are you interested in discovering how to study and prepare with the goal of preaching life-changing messages? Click here to grab my free 21 Day Guide to Creating Killer Sermons.

In the remainder of this article I will unpack some of the further clarifying questions that you may have about the difference between preaching and teaching. Additionally, I will show why I arrived at the conclusion above. First, I want to acknowledge that the lines between teaching and preaching are not always all that clear.

THE LINES BETWEEN PREACHING AND TEACHING GET BLURRED

At this point you may be saying, “But can’t teaching change lives and preaching share knowledge?” Of course this is the case and anyone who has endeavored to preach or teach knows this well. But when we consider what is the primary aim of each activity it becomes clear that preaching is more bent toward motivating and inspiring listeners for life-change and teaching is more bent toward informing and equipping listeners with biblical knowledge.

With this acknowledgement that the lines can be blurred and there is some overlap, I want to dive into the distinctions between preaching and teaching.

A LOOK AT THE DEFINITIONS

To develop and understand this distinction more deeply we should take a look at the official definitions of these two words. According to Merriam-Webster, the two terms are defined as follows:

Preach  verb\ ˈprēch\

to deliver a sermon; to urge acceptance or abandonment of an idea or course of action; to exhort in an officious or tiresome manner; to advocate earnestly 

Teach verb \ ˈtēch\

to cause to know something; to cause to know how; to accustom to some action or attitude; to instruct by precept, example, or experience; to make known and accepted; to provide instruction

Given these two definitions, I want to draw out two distinctions I observe that will help us further clarify the difference.

DIGGING DEEPER INTO THE DISTINCTIONS

The first distinction I see between these two definitions is that preaching has an attachment of earnestness to it, while teaching is typically more measured. In the above definition for preaching we see phrases like urgeexhort in a tiresome manner, and advocate earnestly. These descriptors convey a sense of urgency and high stakes.

I get a visual of a preacher with his vocal cords worn from raised volume. He wipes the dripping sweat from his brow with a cloth as he paces energetically about the stage taking deep breaths before launching into more urgent pleas to his audience. You can see in his eyes and in his face that he desperately wants his listeners to latch on to what he is saying and be changed by it.

Conversely, the vibe I get from the definition of teaching does not have this same urgency attached to it. Rather it seems more like a measured approach at presenting information in a way that benefits the student by giving them knowledge they can use. We see descriptors such as instruct by precept, example or experience.

In this case I form a visual of a presenter standing in front of a white board with a detailed and purposeful agenda that the students are meticulously guided through.

Another distinction in these definitions goes back to my original thesis which is that preaching is for life-change and teaching is for knowledge transfer. The urge in this definition is to the acceptance or abandonment of an idea or course of action. In this phrase the idea of life-change is put forward as what preaching seeks to accomplish.

Preaching seeks to change people’s minds, hearts, behaviors, manners, and habits. Preaching urges such change and is the nature of the preaching activity itself.

In contrast, the result of teaching is to cause to know or to cause to know how. For me, this conveys a how-to tutorial. In a typical tutorial the student is presented with a step-by-step process for accomplishing the task at hand. The presenter is seeking to transfer the knowledge they have about a given subject and present it in such a way that it becomes of sort of short cut for the student. The student is able to perform the task for themselves without having to go through rigorous experimentation and learning process the instructor might have had to go through. The aim of the tutorial is that the student is able to perform the task, and not as much on changing their current state of mind or behavior.

THE BIBLE DIFFERENTIATES BETWEEN PREACHING AND TEACHING

 In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the collective roles of those who lead the church. Here’s what he writes:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-12 (ESV)

Paul names each kind of church leader and says that their collective role in the church is to equip God’s people. This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture because it flies in the face of the pastor-dust model so many churches have adopted. The “pastor dust” model suggests that unless the pastor shows up and sprinkles his pastor dust on something, then it doesn’t count. If the pastor doesn’t visit you in the hospital, only the people in your small group do, then it doesn’t count. It didn’t have the proper amount of pastor dust. So many churches function with this mindset. But Paul’s view is that church leaders should equip God’s people so that they can do the work of ministry. No pastor dust needed.

THE FIVE ROLES OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP: A.P.E.S.T.

For our purposes, though, I want to dig into the different roles he names. This is sometimes referred to as A.P.E.S.T. as he names these five roles:

  • Apostles
  • Prophets
  • Evangelists
  • Shepherds
  • Teachers

Each one of these five roles means something distinct. When you put all these roles together you get a well-balanced church that is lead by a plurality of leaders with varied gifts:

  • Apostles start churches and movements of churches.
  • Prophets proclaim the truth of God and urge people to follow.
  • Evangelists plea with people to trust in Christ.
  • Shepherds care for the souls and physical needs of people.
  • Teachers explain and convey the wonders of God’s Word.

USING THE FIVE ROLES TO FURTHER CLARIFY THE DIFFERENCE

These five roles serve to further clarify our question between preaching and teaching. Preaching, generally speaking, is more apostolic and prophetic in nature than teaching. What I mean by this is that the act of preaching tends to be movement-creating, truth-proclaiming, and urgency-inducing much like Apostles and Prophets.

Even though “Preacher” is not on Paul’s list here, it is assumed by the roles described. Evangelists conveys preaching as well which Paul describes in Romans 10 when he asks the rhetorical question about the fate of those who are lost: “How can they hear without someone preaching?

So preaching describes at least three parts of Paul’s five roles. “Teacher” is a role that he has left distinguished from the others. In this I believe we see the same distinction we see in our definitions above. He lists the roles associated with a preaching activity as the roles that aim at life-change. And he leaves teaching as its own category because the teaching act is different than the others.

WHY DOES THIS DISTINCTION MATTER?

Why does it matter what the difference is between preaching and teaching? In some ways, it doesn’t. Both preaching and teaching proclaim truth, both seek to influence and help the listener, and both are biblical roles of church leaders. I never get too hung up on whether my sermons are teaching content or preaching content. But with that said, in some cases, the distinction can be helpful but it has more to do with how it frames your mind as you deliver the content.

Knowing the difference helps you contextualize your content to the setting. How you present material in a Sunday morning sermon may look and feel different than presenting the same material at a Tuesday night small group Bible study. The Sunday morning setting may be aimed at life-change and new direction so the way you would present that material would be considered preaching. But the Tuesday night Bible study may be more about sparking a discussion and helping your participants fully understand the biblical truth. This would be considered teaching.

These distinctions make you more equipped to bring what is needed and called for in every context. This is important for any communicator to do. Having a grasp on these distinctions makes you that much more effective at reaching your audience and communicating your message effectively.

Are you interested in discovering how to study and prepare with the goal of preaching life-changing messages? Click here to grab my free 21 Day Guide to Creating Killer Sermons.

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