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Nothing slows learning more than excessive knowledge. That statement sounds crazy to over-educated minds like mine, but it’s true. I have more theological degrees than a thermostat. My favorite place to be is buried under a mountain of books written by long dead theologians. I love to learn. But excessive knowledge and too much information can actually be a great hindrance to the practical application of biblical instruction in the real daily lives of people.

One of my early mentors, who happens to hold three graduate degrees all from Ivy League divinity schools, told me that he spent the first few years out of seminary unlearning what he had been taught in seminary. At the time I was working toward the goal of a doctoral degree that I have since earned. It sounded crazy to me. After becoming terminally educated and shepherding churches for a decade I get it.

Here is some of what he meant and a few things I’ve learned about unlearning what I learned in seminary.  

1.  God’s message is simple. While it is very true that education is important—and I’m an advocate of teachers and preachers taking the time for Bible College, ministry diplomas or seminary—it isn’t all important. I’ll take a country preacher with an eighth-grade education who preaches to me straight from the Bible over an Ivy League man who doesn’t believe the Bible but knows everything about everything any day of the week, especially on Sunday.

The message of salvation in Christ is not complicated. Don’t complicate the message with excessive academic information.

2. Build bridges; don’t burn them. Academic preparation for ministry should help us build bridges between deep knowledge and practical application. The Greek nuance of a translated English word only has direct value in preaching to the extent that it helps me follow Jesus. While some geeks like me take great interest in the nuance of Hebrew semantics, the purpose of preaching is to build bridges between the deepest meaning of the text and the deep meaning of living a transformed life. If we insist on a lengthy word study in every sermon, which I don’t recommend, make sure that it has a point other than merely satisfying the admonition of a former seminary professor who loves books more than people.

3. People’s spiritual struggles exist in the context of real life. The trouble with too much systematic theology, and I’m speaking from experience, is that it has the great tendency to make the theologian act and think and teach as though theology and life are similarly theoretical. They are not.

The theological implications of what C.S. Lewis has to say on the problem of pain has no direct value to a woman who just lost her husband unless that theology is brought out of the ether into the real experience of her present pain and suffering. It may be helpful to quote a dead theologian but not as a part of an explanation to dismiss her pain. In real life just being present with her as the man of God praying for her and her family, reminding them of the love of God by our presence with them on His behalf is more likely to bring comfort and paint a welcome portrait of God’s love for them in the here and now.

4. Sometimes the terminally educated can be very callous. I am a pastor-theologian with a love for intellectually satisfying answers to hard theological questions. But I’ve got to be careful that in my ministry to those living life in the day-to-day struggles that I don’t push me out of their hearts with seemingly callous answers to their questions and intellectual sermons that bore them away from the love of God. Too much academia in a sermon can accomplish the very opposite of what we want.

We desire people to really the love Bible and the God who penned it. What I’ve discovered is that the best way to do that is to passionately present the plain truth prayerfully. People respond to love. Our seminary and Bible college training gives a great foundation for our preaching. But it makes a better rudder than a sail. Sound theology must guide our teaching. Passion for God’s glory and compassion for people must be at the center of our teaching and preaching.

In addition to shepherding the flock as Pastor of Liberty Spring Christian Church in Suffolk, Virginia. Chris Surber is also Founder and Director of Supply and Multiply in Montrouis, Haiti. 

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Edwin Crozier

commented on Sep 27, 2013

Thanks for this reminder. I'm a little more like the country preacher than the over-educated that you describe. However, that causes me to overcompensate by trying to sound more educated than I am. After all you guys with degrees are a bit intimidating and I want to sound like I fit in.

Kweku Adams

commented on Sep 27, 2013

Nice comment by Edwin...so true where all preachers are called Doctor!

Wallace J Smith Jr

commented on Sep 27, 2013

remember just reach the people, don't be who you're not. People will find out the truth!

Wayne Graham

commented on Sep 27, 2013

this is such a really fun message for us as preachers because often times we lose our focus instead of the chase after people we chase title: doctorate bishop..

Wayne Graham

commented on Sep 27, 2013

this comment is a relevant for us preachers because most of us lose the real site of our calling, God call us to chase ofter soul, but we chase after title: instead what a pity...

Edward Matthews Ogundo

commented on Sep 27, 2013

I agree with you 100. A simple message, preached passionately in truth makes all the difference in the minds and hearts of believers and even non-believers. Theology must surely act as a bridge between theory and our practical every day lives.

Edward Matthews Ogundo

commented on Sep 27, 2013

I agree with you 100 . A simple message, preached passionately in truth makes all the difference in the minds and hearts of believers and even non-believers. Theology must surely act as a bridge between theory and our practical every day lives.

Brad Brucker

commented on Sep 27, 2013

Great article! After the 72 returned Jesus was filled with the Joy of the Holy Spirit and he said, "O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way." Luke 10:21

Julian Richards

commented on Sep 27, 2013

I was upset at bible college when my thesis for my degree was heavily marked down because is was "pitched at a popular, not academic level". My degree was 2 levels below anticipated as a result. However, over the years, I have consistently been encouraged that people tell me (even weeks and months after I've preached a message) that the messages I give are applied to their lives and have made a difference as a result. So I now preach in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2) and whether people listen or fail to listen (Ezekiel 2:7). Thank you for the reminder to K I S S (keep it simple, stupid!)

Wallace J Smith Jr

commented on Sep 27, 2013

Jesus spoke in parables,which sometimes confused His disciples. We can't confuse because then we've lost the people. Speech 100, direct and consider your audience. Don't leave them behind in the dust!

Dr. Ronald Shultz

commented on Sep 27, 2013

I fought getting more education for 20 years because there were so many churches that told me I was too deep in the Word after just a BRE. Two more degrees and I would have to preach in Chinese. I consider myself a country preacher so if I am too deep a lot of you city boys are in deep kimchee. I did try to be not so deep at one church and after they told me I had their teens and new converts on the edge of their seats they said they were not going to call me because I was too shallow. OY! I am afraid that most of our congregation would not be able to fight their way out of a wet theological if we put a slit in it to help. That is a sad commentary on them and us.

Keith B

commented on Sep 27, 2013

There's a line to walk. On one hand, the person that barely comes to church once a month isn't going to be impressed if you can put the Greek up on the screen and show why Paul used one word instead of another. But on the other hand, we don't want to dumb it down so much that we aren't encouraging growth. You need to know your audience to figure out what they can handle.

Mark A. Barber

commented on Sep 27, 2013

I agree to a point. However, most preaching is already dumbed down to the point that the congregation never grows. Research shows a child learns language much quicker and with more comprehension if he hears adult conversation. Baby talk leads to slower learning. This means that we ought not to dumb it down to give some practical meaning that underwhelms what the text is saying. A baby learns language through repetition of properly structured speech. you do have to let a ladder down on occasion to help one up to the next level. I feel the same is true of congregations. At the same time, we can do without a lot of theological speculations.

Johnny Wilson

commented on Sep 27, 2013

I understand the sentiment described in this opinion piece, but I'm tremendously offended by someone (I don't care how many degrees she/he has from which Ivy League schools!) who states that she/he had to "unlearn" everything he/she learned in seminary. I don't want a medical doctor who "unlearned" everything she or he learned in medical school when I need a diagnosis and treatment. Either seminary is worthwhile or it is not. There is a difference between providing the tastiest meat and serving the whole roast, but I'm not sure it's helpful to speak of "unlearning." It's no wonder pastors aren't respected when some of us "despise" ourselves.

Mark Armstrong

commented on Sep 27, 2013

Thanks for the article. I have an MTh and its always tempting to throw the fruits of research around in a sermon like confetti. I find it helpful to distinguish between working to understand the text (exegesis) and working to preach the text (homiletics). My theological degrees equip me with exegetical tools which help me understand and distill the big idea of the text. But this is a different exercise to writing a sermon where I am audience focused and therefore craft my sermon to suit my hearers. A well crafted sermon is the result of a preacher who knows his text very well. I value my degrees and enjoy the challenge of moving from text to hearer.

Gail Surrago

commented on Sep 27, 2013

Thanks Pastor Chris for another enlightening article. Because I go into Muslim nations it important for me to be able to deliver a practical but also theologically sound message. So for me education is important, and because I always speak through an interpreter keeping the message simple is also very important. By having to combine the two out of sheer necessity, I really do get to teach - not just preach.

Alan Parrish

commented on Sep 27, 2013

I have found in my studies that studying the Hebrew and Greek leads to a much deeper understanding and gives several applications for one set of Scripture. However, I simply make the point and mention the meaning of the Greek, instead of trying to throw the Greek word out there. It often comes across as intimidating and almost lecture-like. Sadly, people have enough trouble staying awake during great sermons, much less my own piddly ones. For example, I just finished a sermon study on the concept of God as the potter, and if I were to use the entirety of what I was given, I would be preaching a year long series on it! It isn't "dumbing it down," but, rather, providing enough in the way of spiritual milk to the "baby Christians" without shoving a plateful of meat down their throats. We have to remember that the body is made up of many members and, while deep thought and theologically-rich preaching is best for some, others desire a CliffNotes version to write on their slips of paper and stick them in their Bibles for later ponderings. Perhaps you can offer study guides for those more inclined to enjoy a deeper experience.

Dennis Cocks

commented on Sep 28, 2013

We must strike a balance between spiritual milk and meat. Both need to be put on the table. John 3:16 is a wonderful truth. It may be the greatest verse in the Bible. But Hebrews 5:12-14 says "For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." There is so much to learn on the road to spiritual maturity. God wants His people to move from the milk of the Word to the meat of the Word. So in order for them to accomplish this, we need to feed them the meat.

Chris Surber

commented on Sep 28, 2013

All great feedback. Thanks so much. Blessings!

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