When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. Matthew 13:19
In the famous parable of the farmer and the seed (Matthew 13), Jesus lays out four possible scenarios, different interactions between people and the word of God. Any communicator worth their salt will avoid the first three scenarios and achieve the fourth, “But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (Matthew 13:23).” The difference between the first scenario and the fourth is the idea of understanding. People either understand the word (fourth scenario) or they don’t (first scenario). And much of that weight rests on the communicator, the preacher.
There’s a seemingly subtle but profound difference between knowledge (Greek word ginosko) and understanding (Greek word suniemi). Knowledge implies immediate learning while understanding implies reflection and pondering. You can have knowledge about how to drive a car without the understanding of how a car engine works and fuels the car, how a steering wheel interacts with the axle and how the combustion of gasoline propels the car forward.
Too often it’s easy to preach for knowledge. It’s quicker, it’s simpler, just get the facts out and hopefully they’ll understand it. But the unpardonable preaching sin of Matthew 13:19 isn’t concerned with knowledge, it’s concerned with understanding. If you preached a theologically sound sermon with all the right words, but if they don’t understand it, you are committing the sin of Matthew 13:19. If you tell them the facts without helping them grasp the why behind the facts, you’re teaching for knowledge, not understanding.
Here are five ways to teach for understanding, not mere knowledge, and keep from causing the enemy to snatch the word you preach from the minds and hearts of your hearers.
1. Don’t focus on what you’re teaching, focus on what they’re learning. My wife, who is a public school teacher, got this sage advice years ago. Instead of being consumed with getting through your lesson or through your outline, spend time during the talk or sermon focusing on the audience. You can sense whether it’s getting through or not. If they’re not understanding it, change tracks. You’re not successful when you get through your outline, you’re successful when they understand the word, and sometimes those are two different things.
2. Don’t give the answer before they’ve asked the question. This is a classic preacher mistake. Because we rightfully value Scripture, we jump to it within the first thirty seconds of the message and we start giving the answer to questions people aren’t asking. If you want people to care about the answer in Scripture, you need to get them to ask the right questions first. Utilize the first few minutes of your message to build tension, to throw out strategic questions, to get people thinking. The goal is to get people tripping over each other rushing down to the pulpit (metaphorically speaking) demanding to know the answer to the question burning in their hearts. Before you give the answer, you’ve got to give time for the question to catch fire. (This is the fatal mistake your preacher may be making this Sunday).
3. Tell better stories. There’s a reason Jesus told so many stories. There’s a reason movies still generate billions of dollars each year. We’re wired for stories. If your sermon has all the facts but no compelling stories, you’re in danger of teaching for knowledge, not understanding. Stories help complex and deep truths penetrate the outer shell of our minds. Stories many times are the vehicles that carry truths from mere knowledge to deeper understanding. Utilize stories and illustrations not as time fillers, but as strategic lynch pins of your message. (This is why preachers can learn vital truths about preaching from movies such as Thor: Ragnarok and shows such as Stranger Things).
4. Create environments that foster an atmosphere for deeper learning. For preachers, your sermon begins in the parking lot. If people feel welcomed, loved, accepted, if they’re comfortable in the physical environment you’re teaching in, if their kids are well taken care of, if the music is done with excellence, that all fosters an atmosphere where people are open to deeper learning. But if people are uncomfortable, if they’re unwelcomed, if the service is awkward, if the kids are crying, then their minds have too many walls to try and understand what you’re trying to teach.
5. Check the fruit. The easiest way to check whether you’re teaching for knowledge or understanding is to check the fruit of your audience, of your church. Are they following through with what you’re asking them to do? Are they living it out? If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. If there’s no long-term fruit in your audience, you’re teaching for knowledge. Jesus himself said that when you teach for understanding, “this is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:23).