What My High School English Teacher Understood (That Many Pastors Don't)


For many people, high school English class was the bane of their existence. Perhaps rivaled only by math class, many adults shudder when they think back on their time spent in the classroom. Memorizing vocabulary words, analyzing sentence structure, and writing poetry were enough to make the average kid's stomach turn. But beyond that, one of the most difficult aspects of class was the sheer amount of reading. Getting through the classics, such as The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, and Frankenstein, was a daunting task that challenged even the ablest student. After all, unlike other kinds of schoolwork, there was no easy way around it. Answering questions and writing response papers simply required the diligent, time-intensive, line-by-line reading of the book—or did it?

The Easy Way Out in the Classroom

Looking for a way to alleviate their troubles, "resourceful" students were known to turn to CliffsNotes. Remember those? CliffsNotes are study guide books that give overview summaries of classic literature, thereby removing the burden of actually having to read the book. Rather than going through the painstaking process of reading through paragraph after paragraph to understand the literary piece, CliffsNotes give students an understanding of the key turning points and main ideas—just enough to pass a test or write a paper.

Of course, one of the downsides to CliffsNotes is that they cost money. For some students, the idea of parting with their own cash for a school assignment was enough to sway them to go ahead and read the book instead. Beyond that, driving to the local bookstore to pick up the study guide wasn't possible for the procrastinator looking to solve his irresponsibility the night before a test.

Enter SparkNotes. Remember those? SparkNotes, as the modern "big brother" of CliffsNotes, are study guides that also give literature summaries—plot overview, character analysis, main ideas, and so on. But unlike CliffsNotes, SparkNotes have two advantages: they're available online, and they're free. This allowed even the student with a bottom-of-the-barrel work ethic to mask his indifference through last-minute internet ingenuity. Simply log on, trudge through a few web pages, and voilà—you're a literary genius (at least in your own mind).

To Read, or Not to Read, That Is the Question

As you can imagine, SparkNotes spread like wildfire across high schools when they were first released on the internet. When I was in school, they were the lucrative solution to virtually every student's woes. Why spend hours upon hours reading a dusty old book (proverbially speaking) when you could cruise the 'net for about an hour and come up with all of the information you need? Of course, it didn't take long for most teachers, mine included, to recognize that students were no longer actually reading the books, but instead were simply reading the SparkNotes. It was pretty much a dead giveaway when a student could give a perfect answer to a question, but then have literally no idea where in the book that answer is found.

Rather than gleaning the cognitive development offered by these classic titles, many students in my English class were cramming down a fast-food version of the book, passing the test, and carrying on with life unimproved. This was unacceptable to most teachers (again, mine included).

To remedy this, my high school English teacher did two things. First, she held weekly class-wide discussions covering the assigned reading material. Even though SparkNotes do a great job helping students answer the common questions and driving themes of a book, they obviously don't help with answering random or obscure questions about dialogue and events in the book. Thus, students who were leaning on the crutch of SparkNotes would quickly falter in these discussions.

Secondly, when taking tests or turning in response essays, she included a question that asked, "Did you read the assigned portion of the book? (Yes or No)." This was followed by a blank in which to answer and then sign your name. Needless to say, that quickly elevated the ethics of the situation! An honest "no" to the question would cost you some points; a dishonest "yes" would cost you even more. Even though my teacher usually already knew who was actually reading, this question forced each non-reader either to answer honestly, or totally sear his or her conscience. After all, as students we intuitively knew that the books were meant to be read sentence by sentence, and that SparkNotes were not honest substitutes for the assigned sections.

In the end, my English teacher wanted to make sure that students were actually reading the book and developing their analytical skills accordingly. And that required the diligent, time-intensive, line-by-line reading and comprehension of the book at hand. In terms of cognitive development, there was simply no equivalent workaround.

The Easy Way Out in the Pulpit

Having said all of this, it never ceases to amaze me what passes as "preaching the Bible" these days. Ask the average pastor if he preaches the Bible and you'll get an affirmative, followed by a particular topical series he hand-picked and pieced together.

"Yeah, we're a Bible-teaching church. Over the next several weeks we're going to be doing a series that looks at various verses that teach us how to have a happy marriage."

Or, "Yeah, we preach the Bible at our church. We're currently doing a character study on the great women of the Bible."

Or, "Yeah, our church faithfully teaches God's Word. We're in a ten-week series on controversial passages in Scripture."

Whether it's a series with some level of biblical respectability, or a series that is entirely foreign to Scripture, the bottom line is that anything less than verse-by-verse exposition is not actually "preaching the Bible." And it should be obvious why. The hop-skip-jump mentality of non-expository preaching in the pulpit is a direct parallel to the SparkNotes mentality that characterized my high school English classroom. When literary giants of the past, like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, or Ernest Hemingway, composed their work it was for the purpose of being read sentence by sentence so as to the follow their intended sequence, allowing the book to unravel accordingly. Authorial intent is, by definition, sequential.

And yet, when it comes to the literary giant of eternity, the Holy Spirit, many pastors seem to have no problem delivering a truncated and summarized version of God's Word. And just as with SparkNotes in my classroom, many church members walk away under the illusion that they've adequately and appropriately come to understand the text. Just ask book purists how they feel when their favorite novel is converted into a movie and they'll tell you the same thing: those who walked out of the theater, having never actually read the book, don't even realize how much they missed.

Along those lines, Pastor John MacArthur explains the same concept (which actually shouldn't need to be explained):

If I received five letters in the mail one day, it would make no sense to read a sentence or two out of one, skip two, read a few sentences out of another, and go to the next one and read a few out of that, and on and on. If I really want to comprehend the letter—what is going on, the tone, the spirit, the attitude, and the purpose—I must start from the beginning and go to the end of each one. If that is true of personal correspondence, I believe it is even more important when interpreting divine revelation.[1]
Authorial intent is, by definition, sequential.

To be honest, I suspect that the reason many pastors opt for topical preaching today is for the same reason we used SparkNotes in the past.

To Preach, or Not to Preach, That Is the Question

I often think to myself, if I had read the assigned books in English class the way many preachers supposedly "preach" God's Word, I'd have been unable to honestly answer "yes" and sign my name to my English teacher's probing question. When my teacher told us to read a book, the command was obvious: work your way through the material sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and page by page so as to understand it comprehensively. Yet, the kind of messages that come from many pulpits today fail on this most basic level. For that reason, those who teach topically could, at best, be called "Bible-topic teachers," but not "Bible teachers." It doesn't have quite the ring to it, but at least it's honest.

While other kinds of instruction may be helpful at other times during the week, the only biblical pattern of preaching during the assembly of the saints on the Lord's Day is the verse-by-verse, chapter by chapter, book by book exposition of God's Word (cf. Luke 1:3-4, 1 Tim. 4:13, Col. 4:16). When Paul told Timothy to "preach the Word" in 2 Timothy 4:2, he used the Greek verb kerussó  which means "to make an official announcement," used in first-century times to describe a messenger bringing the news of a king or emperor.[2] Such a messenger was always under the authority of a sovereign ruler, given the task of announcing the decree with which he was entrusted. Serving as a herald meant that he had absolutely no liberty of his own to deviate from the content of his message or negotiate with his hearers, but instead held the sacred duty of announcing official orders from start to finish.[3] Just a herald was under orders to deliver his king's message line upon line, so too is the preacher under orders to deliver King Jesus' message line upon line. Therefore, by definition, biblical preaching means engaging in the diligent, time-intensive, line-by-line reading and teaching through books of the Bible. That is what it means to preach God's Word. There is simply no equivalent workaround.

For that reason, the phrase "verse-by-verse preaching" is technically redundant; just like reading a book in my English class necessarily meant you actually read it line by line, so too does preaching the Bible necessarily mean actually reading and explaining it verse by verse. In reality, the modifier "verse-by-verse" is necessary only because the average understanding of authentic preaching is so low; it's meant to distinguish true preaching from foreign substitutes.

The bottom line is that when pastors neglect verse-by-verse exposition, while claiming to be preachers of God's Word, you don't have to be a distinguished theologian to see the problem. Even my high school English teacher would understand. Maybe they should be required to sign something.


[1] John MacArthur, "Why are you compelled to preach verse by verse through books of the Bible, unlike other notable preachers such as C. H. Spurgeon?," GTY Resources: QA83. Grace to You, accessed January 20, 2018, https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA83/why-are-you-compelled-to-preach-verse-by-verse-through-books-of-the-bible-unlike-other-notable-preachers-such-as-c-h-spurgeon.

[2] Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and William F. Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 543.

[3] Verlyn D. Verbrugge, The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words: An Abridgment of New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House), 2000.

Josh NiemiComment