Editors’ note: The following is adapted from Kevin DeYoung’s contribution to The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Baker Academic, 2015), by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. This article is a part of a series on the pastor-scholar, which will conclude tomorrow with the opening of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Atlanta. 

Previously: 


If I’m not mistaken, our church is known around town as the “theology church.” I don’t say that to pat my own back. After all, taking theology seriously is no guarantee of spiritual fruitfulness and Christlike maturity. Being known for faith, hope, or love might be safer than a reputation for theological erudition. Still, all things considered, I’ll take “theology church” over the “church that recycles batteries,” the “church with the Xboxes in the youth wing,” or the “church with the gnarly fog machine.”

Developing a church grounded in good theology—and one that is hungry for more of it—starts with the pulpit. When I arrived at University Reformed Church in 2004, I inherited a strong legacy of robust, expositional preaching. I’ve tried to continue this tradition with lengthy series to date through Genesis, Leviticus, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Ecclesiastes, the Minor Prophets, Mark, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, and Revelation (just to name the major endeavors).

Few churches will grow deep in the Word if they only swim in the shallow end on Sunday morning. This doesn’t mean I aim for the professors and doctors in my congregation. My target audience is the college freshman—someone who is (hopefully!) in the habit of thinking and open to careful teaching, but who may need help with new terms, new names, and new concepts. In other words, I assume people can learn, but I don’t assume they know what I’m talking about.

Good Content Is Not Enough

I’m sure people in my congregation would say my preaching is very theological. I think by this they’d mean they can tell I’ve worked hard on the text during the week, that I try to be a careful thinker, and that I’m not afraid to weave in church history, systematic theology, and even a few ten-dollar words now and then. But good theological preaching should not be confused with smarty-pants preaching. It’s entirely possible for a world-class intellect preaching world-class theology to instill in his people nothing but a world-class boredom for theological reflection. Good content is not enough.

There are at least two other things that must accompany theological preaching if it is to produce a theologically minded people.

First, there must be passion. People don’t hear everything we say. They hear what we are excited about. There is a way to talk about the Chalcedon Definition that communicates, “This is important for smart people who like to know more than less intelligent people.” And then there’s the way that says, “I can’t believe we get to look at this! We are in for a real treat this morning!” It’s like that story about Ben Franklin and George Whitefield. When someone asked the decidedly unevangelical Franklin why he kept going to hear Whitefield when he didn’t believe a word the evangelist was saying, Franklin replied, “I know, but he does.” Theological reflection will never matter to God’s people if they know it doesn’t matter to God’s preachers.

Second, we must bring the best theology down to the heart and up to the glory of God. If I give a learned sermon from John 10 on the ins and outs of definite atonement, the committed Calvinists will cheer and the rest will squirm. But if I can show how Christ’s dying uniquely for the elect is an expression of his particular love for the sheep and his unconquerable love for his bride, and if I can show that God is glorified by not just making us saveable on the cross but by saving us to the uttermost, and if I can make the sermon sing with the wonder of the death of death in the death of Christ—if I can connect this difficult doctrine to our hearts and to God’s glory—then I’m helping people care about theological precision enough to get all the marrow they can from their meaty Bibles.

More than Preaching

Of course, there is more to think through in the life of a church than just preaching. We work hard to weave theological instruction and reflection into every aspect of our church. We want to think theologically about all of life, especially our ecclesiological life together. We try to think theologically about the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the order of the service, and even the placement of the announcements. How can we expect people to think theologically about their vocations if we as ministers don’t think theologically about ours?

And how will God’s people grow in theological discernment and literacy, how will they be affected in their affections with the riches of God’s Word, how will they learn to think God’s thoughts after him, how will they form a theological people—unless we have a theological church? For us in our confessional Reformed context, this means we structure our new members’ class around the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Most of our new members are strangers to the Three Forms of Unity, but invariably they consider it a highlight of the class to read for themselves these theological formulations that have nurtured the faith of God’s people around the globe for centuries. Recently we devoted an entire year to preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism for 52 Sunday evenings.

We Are All Theologians

There’s more I could say about our leadership training course, our vetting process for elders and deacons, our college ministry, our small groups, our children’s program, and all the rest. We don’t do anything out of the ordinary—unless focusing on the Word, being rooted in a confessional tradition, catechizing our people, and being unapologetically theological are unusual.

Our superficial world needs substantive churches. Our shallow culture needs depth in worship. Our secular society needs a whole lot of good, holy thinking. My ministry as a pastor and our ministry as a church is based on the assumption that we are all theologians and the conviction that if this is the case, we might as well try to be good ones.