In this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible, we address every Bible teacher’s big fear—that we will be boring. Nobody wants to be boring. That’s why an article written by Peter Adam called, “Five Completely Effective Ways to Avoid Boredom in Expository Preaching” caught my eye. For this episode, I sat down with Adam, vicar emeritus of St. Judes, an Anglican church in Melbourne, Australia. We talked through strategies to avoid being boring, which include looking for ways to employ variety and to release the passion inherent in the text we’re teaching.
Adam has written a number of books, including:
- Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching
- Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality
- The Message of Malachi in The Bible Speaks Today commentary series
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Peter Adam: Most Christians and lots of Bible teachers and lots of preachers have hobby horses. So I always say to people who are doing Bible-teaching ministry, “Do you know what your hobby horses are? If you don’t, you’ll be riding them through every sermon.” So perhaps you could ask your wife or your husband, or your parishioners what your hobby horses are and make a vow, solemn vow, to God that you won’t ride them for the next year.
Nancy Guthrie: Do you have hobby horses?
Peter Adam: Absolutely.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible”. I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks. Learn more at crossway.org. Today my guest on “Help Me Teach the Bible” is the Reverend Dr. Peter Adam. Dr. Adam is Vicar Emeritus at St. Jude’s, an Anglican church in Melbourne, Australia, and that still serves as home base for you as you continue a teaching and preaching ministry. You’ve taught theology in seminaries. You’ve served churches in both England and Australia most recently, 20 years as vicar of St. Jude’s Carlton, and then 10 years as principal of Ridley, Melbourne. Reverend Dr. Adam has also written a number of books, including “Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching,” “Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality,” and then “The Message of Malachi” in “The Bible Speaks Today” commentary series. So why don’t you start back a little bit more at the beginning of your story, Peter, and talk with us about how you came to love God’s word and to want to give it out through teaching and preaching.
Peter Adam: Yes. Well, it took a while. I come from a non-Christian family. My parents were lovely people. We would go to church probably twice a year or something like that, but that was definitely it. My mother was a lapsed Roman Catholic and my father a beached Baptist that has never been baptized. But when I was 11, there was a teacher at school, my form teacher whom I didn’t like, who wasn’t a Christian, but his father had been a Christian minister. And when he talked about his father’s life and values, I thought, “Whatever his father had, I want.”
Nancy Guthrie: At 11 years old, you had that impression.
Peter Adam: And I never met him, but just from his son’s description of him. So I went home and I said to my parents, “I want to go to church.” So and my mother was ill at the time. So my father said, “Well, I’ll take you along.” So he went along with me, took me for six months, and then I just kept going. And just trying to understand this…trying to find Christ, really. Then a few years later, my brother went off to medical university to study medicine. So we drove him into the college he was going to stay at, went to his room. And he was going to share the room with a theological student whom he didn’t know and this fellow was sitting on his bed reading his Bible. He was very embarrassed, of course, you know, quickly got up and put the Bible aside.
I thought, “Oh, you can read the Bible on your own.” I’d never seen anybody do that before. I thought it was a book that ministers read. So I began a daily practice of Bible reading. So I read the Bible every day trying to find God and went to church three times a Sunday, I played the organ, I was in the choir. And the church I went to was full of lovely people. There was no one my age and no one ever sat down with me and told me how to become a Christian. So I thought you became a Christian by being a very nice person because they were lovely people. And I knew that I wasn’t reaching that standard as you don’t when you’re a teenager and you don’t at any age. And then by God’s kind providence, I met by accident, a good old-fashioned soul-winner evangelist.
We met on the train. He invited me to his home. He opened the Bible. I was converted in 20 minutes. And I can still remember the pattern of the carpet as I stared down listening to the story of Jesus’ death on the cross in my place. I was just amazed at the wonder of this love, this work of Christ. And I might say he then met with me every Tuesday for three years to disciple me. Isn’t that extraordinary gift.
Nancy Guthrie: Beautiful.
Peter Adam: And he had a number of young laddies, as he called us, whom he’d converted and was discipling and you knew once you were on his prayer list, you’d never get off it. And many years later I preached at his funeral and, of course, the church was full of 300 men, all of whom he’d converted, or nurtured, or something like that.
Nancy Guthrie: Wow. That’s an awesome story.
Peter Adam: So that was just wonderful. And as a matter of fact, his sister who’s now 90 is still alive and I went to her birthday party in January. It was great to see her because she had supported him in his ministry. So that was becoming a Christian. It took a while. But through it, God gave me a great love for the Scriptures. And I was a musician, played the piano and organ. I used to go to a secondhand music shop in the city and they had secondhand theology as well as secondhand music. So I started reading these wonderful Puritan commentaries. So metronome Jude and James, I plowed through. So God gave me a deep love for the Scriptures. I was a great reader, so that was a great help.
And then after I’d been converted, two years, and then my mother had been converted a year after I was, that was wonderful. John Stott was in town doing some Bible studies for a missionary conference on 2 Corinthians. I took my mother along and I thought, “Well, that’s how you read the Bible. That’s how you teach the Bible.” Because the church I went to, we had a Bible verse in the morning, another Bible verse at night, another Bible verse in the morning. So it was isolated Bible texts. And here was John just explaining 2 Corinthians verse by verse, basically. And I thought, “That’s how you should teach the Bible. That’s what I want to do.”
Nancy Guthrie: So how old were you at that point?
Peter Adam: Seventeen.
Nancy Guthrie: All right. So when did you first do it?
Peter Adam: Well, a couple of years later I was allowed to preach at church. I studied music then went to college, was ordained when I was 23. And so I’ve been full-time preaching since I was 23. Yeah.
Nancy Guthrie: So, John Stott first modeled that for you.
Peter Adam: Exactly right. That’s right.
Nancy Guthrie: Then as you began to think about, “Okay. I’m gonna try to teach and preach,” were there some other people who modeled what you wanted to do?
Peter Adam: Well, soon after that I went off to London to do some study and I’d never seen a church which did expository preaching. We didn’t have one in Melbourne as far as I knew. So I went along to All Souls and to St. Helens. And I saw that what I knew should work did work. And for a variety of reasons, I used to go to St. Helens more than to All Souls. And so then Dick Lucas’ preaching, I think, had a big influence on me. The other person I think was John Chapman because he was definitely an Australian preacher. And so that helped me think not how to preach to English people, but how to preach to Australians. So I think they’d be the three big influencers in my preaching.
Nancy Guthrie: So over the years you’ve done a lot of training of people on how to handle the Bible, correct?
Peter Adam: Yes. I’ve tried to do that. Yes. Yeah.
Nancy Guthrie: So has that been mostly… Have you done a lot of listening to young teacher preachers teach, preach, and then critique?
Peter Adam: I have given them feedback? Yes. That’s right.
Nancy Guthrie: Yes. Well, under the Dick Lucas School of that, then we know he’s not shy about that.
Peter Adam: No. That’s right.
Nancy Guthrie: So what do you think are the most typical or common mistakes people who are just getting started teaching the Bible? What are the mistakes we make?
Peter Adam: I meet people who read a Bible passage, think what it reminds them of or an issue that comes from it, and then talk about the issue without asking what does the Bible passage actually say about the issues? So the Bible passages are kind of stimulus for their own thinking. So that’s an obvious mistake to make, I think. Then I was actually in Sri Lanka last year doing a Langham Preaching Conference and they asked me, you know, “What’s the most important message for preachers?” So I said, “Well, I think when you read the Bible passage and think, oh, I know what that means, stop and think to yourself, I’ve read this before, but I’ll read it again, study it again very carefully, going through it, word by word, sentence by sentence, and I expect that I’ll find something I haven’t seen before.” Because that’s my experience. You know, I’ve preached lots of Bible passages many times. Each time I come back to them, I find something new, something wonderful.
Nancy Guthrie: Do you keep your notes and pull that out when you’re preaching on that passage again or do you start fresh?
Peter Adam: I do keep my notes, but I do start fresh. But after I’ve prepared, I’ll then go back out of interest and see what I did last time. Now, I remember doing that with Malachi with about 10 years gap between, and I remember thinking, “First of all, wow, those sermons were awful.” Then I thought, “No, no, this is the good way of thinking about it. I’ve learned so much in the last 10 years. Isn’t that good?” I think most Christians and lots of Bible teachers and lots of preachers have hobby horses. So I always say to people who are doing Bible-teaching ministry, “Do you know what your hobby horses are? If you don’t, you’ll be riding them through every sermon. So perhaps you could ask your wife, or your husband or your parishioners what your hobby horses are and make a vow, solemn vow to God that you won’t ride them for the next year.
Nancy Guthrie: Do you have hobby horses?
Peter Adam: Oh, absolutely. I’ve had two.
Nancy Guthrie: What are yours.
Peter Adam: Well, I remember for years I used to listen to the…it was a radio program on our ABC, which is our national network on a Sunday morning. It was a kind of religion report thing. And it was almost always a liberal version of Christianity. So I’d then hit off to preach and give a, you know, push the liberals back in their place sermon, which, of course, wasn’t particularly relevant to the people.
Nancy Guthrie: To those who you’re listening to.
Peter Adam: Exactly right. Another mistake which I made for many years was that… I love books. I love reading. I love research. So I’d spent all my preparation time working on the meaning of the Bible passage and then end my sermon having explained the Bible passage and may God show us how to put this into practice in our lives, which is code for, “This must be important, but I have no idea why.” So I made a vow. I think it was 12 years ago, probably 15 years ago now, that I’d spend half my time working on the text and then half my time praying for the people I was going to be talking to.
Nancy Guthrie: Half of your time.
Peter Adam: That’s right. And thinking to myself, “What will they think when they first read this passage or hear it read? What will they naturally misunderstand? What do they need to know to understand it? How can I help them over the humps?” You know. “How can I entice them to receive the message?” And I can go on with this. “What would a non-Christian who is present think when they heard this, or what would an uninformed new Christian think? How would they respond to it? What would a mature Christian think? What would a mature Christian who was wandering away think? And then how can I try and engage them in the sermon or in the Bible study to get them on board?”
Nancy Guthrie: Okay. Let me ask you about that. Okay. So you’ve got a time coming up when you’re getting ready to teach. And so you spend some time in the text. Do you go as far at that point to decide kind of what your main points are going to be?
Peter Adam: Yes. I normally try to find the main point of the sermon and then the material from the text which supports that. But this is still provisional. So having done that work on the text, I think I know what the text about. Then I start praying for the people. Because often…
Nancy Guthrie: Okay. Are you thinking about particular people you actually know are going to be there? I mean, because you often would teach in a place where you don’t know anyone in the audience, right?
Peter Adam: That’s right. And that’s much more difficult, but I’ll think about representative people, the kind of person I know. So trying and think of perhaps a 15-year-old who’s brought up in a Christian home and still kind of working it all out. Or I’ll think about a newly converted university student, say, from a non-Christian background, or a Muslim, or Buddhist background. I think of somebody who’s had a bad experience of Christianity, of legalistic Christianity, for example, and then think of someone who’s a fine Christian but needs encouragement or a Christian who’s wandering a bit, become a bit sloppy in their Christian life. And try and think that those kinds… I mean, I’ve listened to many people, so I know those kinds of people. I think, “Well, I’ll try and think of those people.”
Nancy Guthrie: And are you making notes as you’re praying through these different people, thinking about aspects of the way you’re gonna apply the passage to them or connect with that person?
Peter Adam: So I think if I was sitting down doing a one-to-one Bible study, what would I want them to see? And not necessarily, how can I point it out to them, but how can I get them to ask the question and see that the issue is an important one? Yeah.
Nancy Guthrie: I mean, that’s very challenging to me because I think I spend…I mean, the time I spend in prayer for the particular people I’m teaching will be nowhere near half of the time. So that’s very challenging.
Peter Adam: Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I felt immensely rebuked when I realized that I had thought of preaching as a performance, help me to preach well, but if preaching is ministry, then we should be praying for the people… I mean, I was praying for the people, but I wasn’t praying for them in this particular act of ministry. I love George Herbert’s phrase, “Quick-eyed Love” because I think when you pray for someone, often God brings into your mind things they need to know and understand. You know, when you’re just praying for people normally. I mean, just during intercessions, you suddenly think, “Oh, I must give them a call and encourage them with this idea.” So when I’m praying for a congregation, often I think that alerts me to their spiritual needs and what they need to learn from this passage.
Nancy Guthrie: Well, I’m challenged also by the specificity of the way you pray and think through who will be there and to think through their different needs and challenges, perhaps what’s going to rise up in them as an objection so that you address that.
Peter Adam: I might say that this was easier to do when I was a minister of a church or principal of a college.
Nancy Guthrie: You really knew people.
Peter Adam: Because I knew the people. I was working with them week by week, month by month, year by year. Now I have a fly in-fly out ministries, we call it in Australia. So it’s less satisfying, but I think the other side of it is that I’ve been preaching for a long time. I’ve listened and talked to many people. So I probably understand the issues that are going on and I do maintain an active, you know, one-to-one counseling prayer ministry. So I’m hearing people all the time. Yeah.
Nancy Guthrie: Well, one I wanted to talk to you about on this episode was an article I read that you wrote a while ago and you called it “Five completely effective ways to avoid boredom in expository preaching.” And I’m hoping that you can adapt them a bit for those of us who are teaching the Bible. And the reason I’m really hoping that you can do that is all of us who teach the Bible dread the possibility that we might be boring. I mean, that sounds awful. We really want to avoid boredom. And actually, your title says completely affection way, and so…
Peter Adam: Yeah. I should need to explain that, Nancy. I think I’d just read a book, you know, one of those inevitable self-help books, which told you, you know, five simple rules to grow a church or something like that.
Nancy Guthrie: As if it could be that simple.
Peter Adam: As if it could be that easy. So it’s meant to be a slightly humorous title.
Nancy Guthrie: All right. Well, before we dive into your completely effective ways, do you think that some people as teachers are just boring and that other people just by nature are very interesting, or is it really a skill that we can develop?
Peter Adam: It’s both of those things, I think. I was talking to a theological student whom somebody had sent. I’m single and he was single. So his principal had sent him to me to talk about being single in ministry. So I asked him to describe his life. And he said, “Have you any advice?” At the end, I said, “Get a life.” That is, he was so focused on God, and the Bible, and theology, that he had no interests as far as I could see outside them. So I think that people who are interested in life and in other people then become interesting preachers. So my advice to people is, you know, think of the things which interest you and have an… I mean, I love lifelong learning. I think it’s just wonderful. And so I encourage people to maintain an active interest and appreciation of the world around them, to be thinking and reading and observing and thinking deeply about things.
Nancy Guthrie: So being a nonboring and effective Bible teacher not only has to do with studying the Bible but being interested in many things outside the bible.
Peter Adam: Exactly. Right. That’s right. That’s quite right. And one reason I try to read widely and read things I wouldn’t otherwise read is to try and keep my mind alert so I can relate to a wider range of people, even the things which don’t interest me, in particular. But I might say that sometimes people say to me, you know, “We have boring biblical sermons at our church.” I say, “Well, you could be thankful they’re biblical” because if they’re not even biblical, they’re even more boring. At least with a boring biblical sermon, I’m taken to the text of Scriptures.
Nancy Guthrie: Yes. All right. So your number one of your five completely effective ways is “Be grabbed by the excitement, wonderful privilege, and awesome duty of speaking God’s words to His people and His world.” And, by the way, we’ll put a link to this article or a PDF of this article at the website so people can see the whole article. You said three things there, by the excitement, wonderful privilege, awesome duty. And I notice you don’t say just speaking the Bible, speaking God’s words, which reminds me of the title of one of your books, but that has to be a part of that. So talk to us a little bit about what this means.
Peter Adam: Yes. One of the phrases, which I think is unhelpful and quite common in Australia is people saying I just teach the Bible.
Nancy Guthrie: You wouldn’t use that phrase?
Peter Adam: I don’t use that phrase because…
Nancy Guthrie: What do you say.
Peter Adam: … Well, the Bible is a means to an end. So Paul says to Timothy, “Preach the word in season and out of season with great patience and lots of teaching.” So he’s…correct, rebuke, exhort. So people can teach the Bible but fail to preach the word or correct, rebuke, or exhort. So when someone’s doing a boring Bible sermon, I say, “Are you correcting us? Are you exhorting us? Are you rebuking us? Please do it.” But that’s true in a Bible study as well. Though I think in a Bible study part of your task is to get people to see the correcting, and the rebuking, and the exhortation in the passage and identify it for themselves. So it’s a slightly different exercise.
But also, I think, you know, when we read the Bible, God is speaking to us. So I love it in Hebrews 3:7 where the author of Hebrews says…about to quote Psalm 95, “As the Holy Spirit says.” So whenever I read the Bible, God is speaking these words to me. He’s a living author speaking these words to me now. So it’s not preaching an old, boring text, it’s standing in the presence of God, sitting in the presence of God and God is present in His words. And I think it’s the job of the teacher or the preacher to communicate that, not to frighten people, but to excite them and think, “Wow. I’m expecting that the God of the whole universe will address me now.”
Nancy Guthrie: You write in this section that we have to be aware of contemporary social analysis, community needs, human issues, what seekers are looking for. But you say that while this forms the context of our preaching and it shapes our application, it must not create the agenda.
Peter Adam: Yes. That’s right. Yes. A friend of mine who runs a college here in the states talks about a college being theology-driven but market-aware. And I want the Bible study to be driven by the message in the text, but thoroughly aware of the people who are present. I can give an example of that. I was doing a Bible study at University of Melbourne. In Romans, it talked about the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. So I chatted on about how important that was. And then a girl came up to me after and said, “Why would saints need a collection of money? Because they’re all in heaven.” And I hadn’t explained that saints doesn’t mean stained glass window saints, it just means ordinary people. Well, I hadn’t done my homework that day. I hadn’t thought to explain that word. Yeah.
Nancy Guthrie: All right. Number two of your five completely effective ways. Release the eloquence of the text. Let the text speak. Let God speak.
Peter Adam: Yes. I particularly like the contemporary idea of words being speech acts. That is words don’t just have meaning, they do something. So if I was to say, “I think this building is now on fire” to you, it wouldn’t just be information, it would be a preface to, should we leave the building now or jump out the window later on from the 11th floor? So when I say to somebody, “I love you,” well, that’s not just information, it’s actually doing something. Or if I say, “This marriage has ended,” that’s doing something. You know, words are so powerful. You can start a world war with words or you can end one with words. So I think we shouldn’t be just asking, “What does the text mean?” That was what I was trained to do at college. But what is this text trying to do?
Nancy Guthrie: Well, I think in so many Bible studies, that’s what the, you know, maybe there were written questions and oftentimes I’d ask the question, you know, about what does this mean?
Peter Adam: That’s right. And that’s a good question to ask, but it’s only the first question. What does this text mean? And then what is God trying to achieve through this text? What difference, what result is God looking for when He says this word? You know, it’s not always easy to find the answer to that because so much of the Bible isn’t express command. So, for example, in…so I read somewhere, the Bible often shows you rather than telling you. So the patriarchs in the Bible engage in, you know, having two wives and so on. But the text doesn’t ever say, “Don’t have two wives or with David or Solomon,” but you’re meant to think as you read the text, “Actually, more than one wife is not a good idea.”
Nancy Guthrie: It’s not working out well for them.
Peter Adam: That’s not working out very well. That’s probably because of what God said back in Genesis. So it’s often not a specific command, but what’s God nudging us towards in giving us this description of this event in somebody’s life.
Nancy Guthrie: So we look at that text and we would never answer a question about that case, that what that means is not to have two wives, but you’re saying, if we ask the question, “What is he doing? Then is the answer, He’s showing us that two wives are not His plan.
Peter Adam: That’s right. And God prompts us to do things by telling us stories about real people and things that happen. And we do that in everyday life, don’t we? You know, you could say, “Well, I heard last week about a young girl who ran off the road and got hit. So, you duly make sure that you look both ways before…” you know, that’s a common way of communicating and God does that in the Bible as well. Or with Proverbs. My grandmother had a wonderful proverb, “Never trust a man whose eyes are too close together.” And she operated that way, you know, but the Bible Proverbs are rather more useful than that, but they’re just little summaries of an inside into a truth.
Nancy Guthrie: I liked what you said under this point too. You said, “Clear analysis is a necessary part of the preparation, but it should not govern the presentation.” And it made me think… I’m a part of Simeon Trust Workshops, which I know you’re familiar with. And the last one I was a part of, I noticed that a number of the women at the table, because the Simeon Trust does, you do a lot of…
Peter Adam: Analysis.
Nancy Guthrie: …analysis of the text, but that some women coming out of that then assumed that was part of their presentation. So tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that.
Peter Adam: Yes. Well, the example I use is I read a commentary on Romans 12, which had a great analysis, verse 1-2, our relationship with God, 3-8, relationship to ourselves, 9-16, relationship to each other, relationship to our enemies. But the verbs are all active. Present your bodies, renew your minds, join the body, do your ministry, let love be genuine. They’re all… So when people ask, “What is the sermon about?” I think it’s not just about, what is God trying to do through this text? So the sermon from 1 Corinthians 3 isn’t about idolatry or fornication, the sermon is flee idolatry, flee fornication. It’s not what you’re saying, “Isn’t this interesting information about those two subjects.” Well, Romans 12 isn’t we need to present our bodies, it is do it. “I appeal to you that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” And that appeal has to come out in a sermon by the preacher, but in a Bible study, the whole people, everyone who is present needs to recognize the power of that appeal so they all feel personally challenged. I should present my body now to God as a living sacrifice.
Nancy Guthrie: And I can see how, I mean, all of these are points about how to not be boring. If it’s just information about, that’s kind of a yawn. But if that sense of imperative urgency call is in there, that’s what saves it from being boring, right?
Peter Adam: Yes. And what I dread is a church in which the Bible is taught so much that people think knowing the right answer. So…
Nancy Guthrie: That can so much become the ethos of a small group Bible study. The goal is to have the right answer.
Peter Adam: If you name of Moses’ grandmother, who knows the name? “I do.” Then you’re the brightest student present. But you may know all those answers and your Christian life can be an absolute mess, whereas somebody who doesn’t think quickly or doesn’t remember all that could be leading a wonderfully godly life.
Nancy Guthrie: All right. Number three is express the particularity of the text. And I would say, once again, this is another thing I saw in the last Simeon Trust Workshop I was a part of, that sometimes as they wrote their theme statement for what the passage was about, sometimes the critique was, couldn’t that be about any passage, that same one? And so we wanna present something that’s very particular to that text, right?
Peter Adam: Yes. That’s right. And that takes precise thinking. It takes avoiding our hobby horses and it avoids generalization. So I often get people to think, “Well, we know what the general topic is, but what does this verse say precisely on that topic, exactly on that topic? Let’s stick to that.” So yes, Ephesians 5 is about marriage, but what exactly does it say about marriage? Or an example I found recently, the Philippians 2, “Let this mind be among you. Think not for your own interests but each other’s.” Well, that’s often taken as a general call to, you know, obedience, and humility, and serving others, but actually, in the context, it is honoring other people in Christian ministry and looking to their interests and not promoting your own ministry, which puts a very different spin on it. So, again, it’s having the energy to look carefully and make sure that we’re doing exactly what the…we’re communicating exactly what God wants to do for the text and not generalizing it.
Nancy Guthrie: Yes. As you say here, “Generality is boring. Particularity is exciting.”
Peter Adam: So the application, so we need to trust the Bible. We need to trust the Bible, even more, is a bad application, unless that’s exactly what the text says. And if the applications, we need to believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ. Well, the question is, is that what the text is saying? And what does that mean in the text? So otherwise, you preach your way through John’s gospel, you’ll be saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” every time, the question is, what does believing in Jesus as the bread of life, in particular, teach us about what it is to believe in Jesus Christ?
Nancy Guthrie: Number four says employ as much variety as possible, that predictability is deadly.
Peter Adam: Yes. That’s true in Bible studies and in sermons. I visited some friends in England and their daughter said to me, “Our minister preaches the same sermon every Sunday.” So we went to church and she said…as we went and she said, “You’ll see he’ll announce the text, he’ll tell a funny story, he’ll make three points and then he’ll tell another story at the end.” And sure enough, he announced the text, told a funny story, made three points from the text, told a story at the end. And by boring she meant it’s the same shape every Sunday. So I think whether it’s a Bible study or a sermon or whatever it is, it’s important to think now, “How can I do this in a different kind of way?” So I often say, “Why don’t you try doing the application at the start?” Or you could say, with a Bible study, “Well, let’s look through and find the main point of the passage.”
Now, let’s set the Bible aside for a moment. What do you think your friends think about that subject? Or what are the different views Christians have or how might different Christians feel about that subject? So develop that and then say, “Well, let’s go to the text and find out what’s actually there.” Or you could say…another way of doing the presentation is to say, “Well, in this Bible study, we’ll break up into three small groups. We’ll each take five verses each and we’ll come together and share what we’ve found.” So just simple variety, I think, is a great way of helping people to keep interested in the study and/or the sermon.
Nancy Guthrie: Those are great ideas that we can really use in, especially in a small group Bible study. Okay. Your final one is release the passions of the text. And you say, “Here are some relevant New Testament words.” I thought these were interesting words, to call, denounce, warn, rebuke, command, encourage, appeal, urge, debate, contend, persuade, convince, insist, cry out, remind. I mean, those are all such vivid, active words. And I notice what’s not on that list, actually. You know, it doesn’t say inform or impress. So talk with us about how we release the passions of the text.
Peter Adam: Yeah. Evangelicals certainly in Australia often say, “Well, the Bible is the authority, so it tells us what we have to do.” Well, that is true, but often it doesn’t speak authoritatively. So, for example, when Paul says, “I appeal to you,” he isn’t saying, “I’m an apostle, you have to do this.” He does it sometimes. When he says, “I appeal to you, he’s saying, “Look, I beg of you to do this. It really matters to me that you do this.”
Nancy Guthrie: That sounds very different.
Peter Adam: It’s very different. He says, “I’m putting our relationship on the line here and, you know, I’m urging, I’m begging with tears in my eyes that you would do this.” Or again, I think of Psalm 1 where…
Nancy Guthrie: Let me hold you just… So what you’ve done, you’ve restated it.
Peter Adam: Yes. That’s right.
Nancy Guthrie: I mean, the text said, “I appeal to you.”
Peter Adam: I beg of you. I’m trying to think of other words.
Nancy Guthrie: Right. You’re thinking of other words…
Peter Adam: …which said the same thing.
Nancy Guthrie: But also, people can’t see you, but I can see you. And the look on your face changed as you use some of those other words as well.
Peter Adam: That’s exactly right. That’s quite right. Yes. And I was brought up in a very unexpressive family. Everything was understated. I’ve worked hard in my communication with individuals and with preaching and Bible teaching to try and increase my communication of emotion because I can feel something very deeply but speak quietly, but people need to know that it matters to me that they do these things.
Nancy Guthrie: Sometimes I’ve been teaching and I have felt like I was way out there in terms of my expressiveness, with my voice variation and with, you know, with my physical and then I’ll hear a recording of it and see a video of it and I think I look very reserved.
Peter Adam: Yes. That’s right. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? And people often say to me, you know, “You have a nice quiet style.” I think I’m being as bombastic as I can, but from their point of view, it’s just, you know. So I think we have to think, “How are people perceiving what I’m doing?” And work hard at, I try to work hard to help people realize that this really matters to them, therefore, it really matters to me.
Nancy Guthrie: How do we figure out how people are perceiving us?
Peter Adam: Ask people, I think. Yeah. That’s right. Yeah.
Nancy Guthrie: So under this section about being passionate, you have a couple of lists, which I found fascinating. First, you talk about ways we can subdue the passion of the text. And we probably don’t have time to go through all of them, but, you know, the first one says to merely lecture, you know, to teach in an academic tone. And some teachers think that’s what they’re supposed to do.
Peter Adam: Yes. And particularly people who’ve been to college and they had not really heard the Bible taught before they go to college. So they hear a lecture and they get so excited about the Bible, they then adopt that style. Or if they’re used to writing essays and so they on their computer, they write an essay, whereas reading style is very different to speaking style.
Nancy Guthrie: Never exhort is a way to suppress the passion of the text.
Peter Adam: It’s amazing. I often watch the way in which people’s prior training influence the way in which they lead a Bible study or preach. And teachers, I’ve noticed, are very good at explaining things, but they’ve been taught not to interfere in people’s lives. So they often inform but are reserved in their information, so they’re not putting pressure on students appropriately.
Nancy Guthrie: Give me an example of what you mean by this. You’re in a text and so what do you say, Peter, that turns it from information into an exhortation?
Peter Adam: Information would be to explain the text. Now, we all know what that means. Full stop. Exhortation is God not only wants us to know, but to respond, to act, to change. People sometimes say to me, “I don’t remember sermons.” And I say, “Well, I don’t remember sermons either and I preach them.” But I think a preacher is a bit like a coach. And the purpose of coaching is not that people remember the learning, the purpose of coaching is to instill in people an instinctive reaction.
Nancy Guthrie: That’s what we remember, isn’t it?
Peter Adam: Yeah. That’s right. We remember it by doing it.
Nancy Guthrie: You say that to never refer to yourself suppresses the passion of a text.
Peter Adam: Yes. I was trained. Don’t ever talk about yourself, but I realized…and this is way back in, you know, back in the 1840s or whatever it was. But actually…
Nancy Guthrie: I think you’re exaggerating. Is that on here, don’t exaggerate?
Peter Adam: Young people needed to know that you actually put into practice what you were talking about. They needed that authenticity as a bit of self-revelation. So particularly if I’m preaching in a church where I don’t know people at all, I’ll do some just so they think they’ve met a real person not just a voice preaching at them.
Nancy Guthrie: Well, the whole point of this article that we’re working from is to not be boring. And I find when I’m teaching, you know, I can be giving a lot of good information, I can be exhorting, but something happens in the room when I transition to a story about myself.
Peter Adam: Yes. That’s exactly right. That’s right. Or a real story about somebody else.
Nancy Guthrie: Yes. I mean, there’s just a renewed attention that people take note of.
Peter Adam: That’s right.
Nancy Guthrie: All right. I love this. That it suppresses passion to have so much to say that there’s no time to make the best use of it. I mean, how many times do we have a teacher and they’re so excited. They’ve done all of this research and they keep talking about how their time is running out and they don’t have time to get to everything they wanna say. And that can be kind of exasperating to the listener.
Peter Adam: Yes. And exhausting to listen to. So my general practice is that I discard two-thirds of the material I prepare so that the one-third will be effective. So lots of good things I’ve found I don’t get time to say so the one-third can actually work.
Nancy Guthrie: And then we also have teachers who do the next one, you say, which is kind of the opposite, which is have too little to say and just repeat it endlessly, say the same thing over and over again.
Peter Adam: Yes. I remember one awful Easter sermon I heard. I didn’t preach it in which the preacher said that Easter was very exciting. I think it was 35 times he told us how exciting it was, but actually, it wasn’t because it’s very boring to be told that something’s exciting.
Nancy Guthrie: All right. You then have a list of ways that release the passions in the text. One of those is increasing the contrasts in the text. And I found this fascinating. So give me an example of that, because we do know that there are many texts that present a contrast, do this, don’t do this. You were this way. Be that way. I assume that’s part of what you’re talking about.
Peter Adam: Yeah. An easy example is don’t serve God and money. And the reality is that lots of Australians think they can get away with doing both. So I show them in the Bible study, or in the conversation, or in the sermon, what it’s like to serve God and then what it’s like to serve money and how you recognize a society in which money is being served and not God, and thus how the serving of money corrupts our service of God. So we think we don’t need to make a choice. Jesus says, “We do, and here it is, make it now.”
Nancy Guthrie: And you make the contrast between those things very vivid.
Peter Adam: As strong as possible. Exactly right.
Nancy Guthrie: Okay. Now, I don’t know what you mean by this. You say that we can release the passions in the texts through impersonations. Do you do impersonations? What do you mean by that?
Peter Adam: Yes. I’m not very good at impersonations. But I do it in a kind of mild way. I’ll say, “But you might think that’s absolutely ridiculous. I couldn’t possibly live that way. It’s unrealistic. Nobody in the 21st century could think that or do that.” Well, as a matter of fact, it is possible. Now, you can do impersonations. I’ve heard people do this where they preach the sermon from the perspective of Martha, or Mary, or Lazarus, something like that. But I’ve noticed often that the gaps that people fill in become the real point of the sermon rather than the Bible text. So I’m a bit wary of that. There’s a great example of a Puritan preacher doing an impersonation where he says, “But we have grown so tired of the Bible that God will say to us, well, I will take your Bible away from you. You’ll never see it again.” But you’d say, “No. Please, God. Don’t do that. We need our Bible.” “No. I’ll take it away if you refuse to read it.” Or I could imagine from Zachariah when God says, “They would not listen to me, so I’ll not listen to them.” When you could build it up beautifully, couldn’t you? “God, why won’t you listen to my prayer?” “Because you won’t read my Bible.” “But surely if I talked to you, you’ll answer.” “Well, I’ve talked to you and you haven’t answered.” That’s the kind of impersonation I mean, where you’re bringing home the power of the dialogue if you like. Yeah.
Nancy Guthrie: That’s helpful. All right. What do you mean by having a dramatic shape to the sermon?
Peter Adam: Yes. I included that because, particularly when people are writing, you often make your main point first. You’d say, “Well, I’ve got three points to make.” The most important one when you’re writing, you make the first one as the big one, then the others kind of come below that. But actually, in speaking, it’s better to end with the main point to build up to the climax so people know this is the main point of the sermon. What if I fell asleep during halfway through, halfway through, this is now the time when God is bringing His word home to me and I must listen, must respond.
Nancy Guthrie: Well, let me ask you about this. Some people will say that a good way of communicating something is to tell people what you’re going to tell them and then tell them and tell them what you told them, right? That seems to me to not have much drama to it. There is an effectiveness to that and yet it doesn’t…it sounds to me like what you’re saying is you could also set up a question at the beginning that’s quite weighty and heavy that you don’t answer…
Peter Adam: That’s right. Until right at the end.
Nancy Guthrie: Right at the end. That sounds to me like a more dramatic shape of a sermon.
Peter Adam: Yes. That’s right. I’d try and think of a variety of dramatic shapes. So I wouldn’t just find one of them, ride them to death.
Nancy Guthrie: Always do that.
Peter Adam: I’d try and find different ones. So what I like doing on love is I do the contrast between somebody saying, “I love you” today often means I need you. I need you to meet my needs. Whereas actually, I love you mean something quite different. So people say to me, “I want to find a loving church.” They mean a church where I am loved. So I say, “Well, there’s a really difficult church just down the road where lots of difficult people and so on.” So, “That’s the church which needs lots of loving. So why don’t you go there?” Or here’s another one? I often quote a prayer request on the church in the Middle East. Listen to this, “Please don’t pray for us. If you pray for us, you’ll pray for our safety. Please pray with us. If you pray with us, you will pray that millions will be converted and will bear the suffering and persecution that follows with trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now, there is a contrast because I’m naturally praying for the safety of the church in the Middle East, which means, of course, I’ll pray for my own safety when the church is persecuted in the West.
Nancy Guthrie: This next one you’ve actually demonstrated even in our conversation. I think it’s very important. And that is to use pauses and questions. How do you use pauses and questions and why?
Peter Adam: Yes. People often say to me that the best moments in my sermons are the pauses. And that’s because I’m trying to give people time to process things. Because I find if someone talks incessantly at me, I don’t have time to think, “Oh, that was the point that they were making and how should I think about it?” or something like that. So I intentionally include pauses and I find that’s a great way of recapturing people’s attention as well, because I think, “Well, what’s going on with the speakers?” They got scared or something.
Nancy Guthrie: It does, doesn’t it?
Peter Adam: That’s right. And then questions I love. There’s the Greek writer, Xenophon said, “A question is an education. And the moment someone’s asked a question, the tension is they want to find an answer.” So rather than saying, “We learned from verse 1,” saying, “What do we find in verse 1?” And they think, “Well, what do we find in verse 1?” So, questions stimulate attention and they stimulate people to, you know, think of the possibilities and give them the energy then to find. Now, I’m not saying you use a question all the way through because using the same thing all the way through is boring, but it’s good occasionally to put a question in. Here’s a question that somebody asked Jesus, “What answer would you give?” What answer did Jesus give? Why did he give that answer? And what response was he hoping for? Well, there, there’s some lovely questions, aren’t there? To get people into the passage themselves.
Nancy Guthrie: And a question with the pause that lets it sit there. And so, in a sense, rather than going onto something, lets them deal with the weight. I mean, when I think back to some Bible teaching that changed my life, I can tell you what the question was because it so weighed on me and challenged me.
Peter Adam: Can I tell you about my sister-in-law’s conversion?
Nancy Guthrie: Please.
Peter Adam: Helen was not a Christian. I was overseas. I came back she was about to die, had a week to live. She was sitting up in bed looking absolutely radiant. I’d never seen her looking better. I walked in and she said, “I love God, God loves me. I’m ready to die. Would you please read the Bible and pray with me?”
Nancy Guthrie: And she’d never said anything like that her whole life?
Peter Adam: That’s right.
Nancy Guthrie: Wow.
Peter Adam: So my brother, John, was sent off to find his old school Bible, which was dusted down and we read it. And I said, “What happened, Helen?” She said, “I was thinking about the old days and I remembered when I was six going to Sunday school and the teacher said that we could pray a prayer and if we prayed this prayer we’d be Christians. So I thought to myself…” She was then 60. “I could pray that prayer myself now.” So she did. So my point is, and I imagine that when the teacher was teaching, you know, Helen was staring out the window picking her nose or something and not listening. But boy, the power of God’s word is like a seed. So we may see nothing from, you know, the teacher presumably died, a male or female. I don’t know, without knowing that he or she had sowed a seed in her life which led to her conversion and then to her husband’s conversion seven years later.
Nancy Guthrie: Wow. Well, that’s a beautiful place for us to end our conversation. This has been so helpful to us.
Peter Adam: Thank you, Nancy.
Nancy Guthrie: Thank you, Peter.
Peter Adam: And God bless all you Bible teachers and Bible speakers. Please keep on doing it because God’s word is powerful.
Nancy Guthrie: We’re gonna really try to not be boring.
Peter Adam: So will I.
Nancy Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracks. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.