The Danger of “Practical” Teaching

Can you believe this? In fifth grade Sunday School I had to learn them all: Genesis…

Exodus…Leviticus…Numbers…Deuteronomy…through those pesky minor prophets, Micah…Nahum…Habakkuk…and on through the New Testament books…all the way to Revelation. Not only did we have to learn the books of the Bible, we were also tested on a list of the kings of Israel and Judah and, of course, the prophets. Our hero at the time was our classmate, Peggy Corneil, who could recite all three lists backwards and forwards. Amazing mind, that Peggy!

By present standards, this kind of curriculum would be considered wholly inadequate. The measuring line by which we measure such things as Sunday School curriculum and small group materials is the degree to which it is considered "practical.” This is the gold standard question: "To what extent is there a life application attached to whatever we teach?”

Pastors and others in ministry know this all too well. The pervasive value behind whatever goes on in the church is its perceived practicality. Every time a sermon is preached, a bible study is taught or a small group is administered, the pastor stands against the proverbial door and the congregation measures his or her growth against the standards of this one core value.

And what goes on in seminaries is no exception. The current market, in fact, places traditional theological education up against para-church organizations whose central mission is cultural relevancy and a commitment to practical daily living. A whole cottage industry of manuals, CD/DVDs and three ring notebooks are geared toward ways in which biblical principles are linked to a myriad of life contexts, be it family life, leadership situations, or relational complexities.

Seminary curriculum is increasingly expected to meet this litmus test of practicality. Did I hear an alum/pastor right a couple of years ago when she stated that her seminary failed her because we did not offer an entire course on developing church capital campaigns? Apparently, she was in the middle of funding a new building, and she felt inadequate with the pressures that were being placed on her by her church. Gordon-Conwell just did not measure up to her expectations.

There is much to be said about relating biblical and theological truths to daily living. A dynamic life of faith is nothing, if not connected to the warp and wolf of our lives. But perhaps we need to rethink what we mean by "practical.” All of those lists of the books of the Bible, kings, and prophets certainly didn’t connect easily, in my fifth grade mind, to a life being played out at Garfield grade school. At the end of the day, I could not readily make out a life application related to my little world.

Those lists were not practical in that immediate application sort of way. But I have been feasting off of the knowledge of that fifth grade class for over forty-five years, all the way through my seminary education and into ministry in the church and the seminary. To be honest, I am sure I would miss a few of those kings and prophets right now, but the residue of those lists still cling to me. The larger backdrop of my life has been measured unconsciously against my fifth grade education.


Dr. David Horn

David Horn, ThD
Director of the Harold John Ockenga Institute
Director of Semlink

Share this article on…

More Articles

Our Basic Need

In her first novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character Hazel Motes that “there was a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that

Read More »

Models of the Church

When I was in seminary, Professor Rick Lints made a memorable statement. After lecturing on the Reformation’s conception of salvation, he asserted that “This generation

Read More »

The Crux of Gospel Preaching

The acclaimed Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti was a nervous wreck before every performance. Perhaps this would be the day that he would finally fail?

Read More »