Monday, July 05, 2010

On Consecutive Preaching

An interesting article by Iain Campbell interacts briefly with the method of text selection for preaching, whether isolated texts from week to week (such as Spurgeon) or consecutive texts through a book (such as Martin Lloyd-Jones). It is a topic worthy of thought for the pastor charged with the weekly feeding of the sheep.

There is a kind of badge of honor that is worn by those who preach like Lloyd-Jones—379 weeks in Philemon, or fourteen and one-half years through Philippians.

Okay, so I exaggerate slightly. But not much. I talked to one pastor who spent six months on the first 14 verses of 1 Timothy … in a church plant. I do not doubt his heart and intent. I wonder about the wisdom of such an approach.

I have always tended to preach consecutively. My very first sermon series in the church that I pastor started in March of 1999 and went for thirty weeks in 1 Thessalonians. Since then I have spent 52 weeks in Hebrews; 30 weeks in 1 Peter; 50 weeks in Genesis; 25+ weeks in 1 Timothy and James, plus a host of others. I am now 17 weeks into Mark’s Gospel.

In fact, you can probably count the number of “isolated sermons” I have preached in my 11 1/2 years here on two hands and two feet. I rarely even preach special messages on holidays.

And to be honest, I like consecutive preaching for several reasons.

  1. It is how God gave the Bible—verse after verse. Can you imagine understanding your spouse by picking out a paragraph from one conversation and then a paragraph from another, and then a third from yet another? No, of course not. We know that to listen to people means to listen to them in order of what they are saying.
  2. It forces a pastor to address things he might not otherwise address because, let’s face it, it is easier to skip some verses than to preach them, whether because of difficulty (not sure what to say about it) or laziness (don’t feel like studying it).
  3. It makes my week easier because I know what I am going to preach. Honestly, I am perhaps the most uncreative person you know. All of my topical series are pilfered from people way smarter than me. If I didn’t have Mark 6:14-32 to preach this coming week, I would be miserable all week trying to figure out a text.

And there are other reasons, which I won’t enumerate here.

But here’s an interesting thought from Campbell:

It is possible that we de-emphasise the authority of Scripture by concentrating over-long on sequential exposition. What would the average attender at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1875 think on hearing sermons on texts from six different books of the Bible in as many weeks? Would he or she not come to appreciate the parallel glory of all parts of Scripture? Does the method of preaching from isolated texts not somehow demonstrate that all Scripture is indeed inspired and profitable, simply by virtue of the fact that week by week, year by year, the preacher's texts are, in fact, drawn from 'all Scripture'?

So which congregation is better served? One that hears 52 weeks in a a row about Hebrews? (My 52 was actually divided by a Christmas series and 10 weeks on Romans 12-15.) Or one that hears 52 weeks in a row from all across the canon of Scripture?

I honestly do not know.

My growing inclination is that a mix is perhaps in order. A well-fed Christian needs to see the depth of Scripture, but they also need to see the breadth of Scripture with its unifying themes. Perhaps wisdom would lead us to have a main series going (such as Mark in my current case) and every 4-6 weeks mix in another text from somewhere else that grows out of what God is doing in our lives outside the current mainstay.

It is at least worthy of some thought.

To quote Campbell again, “As evangelical heralds of God's trumpet, we believe in giving no uncertain sound. But maybe sometimes the trumpet could be more effective if the tune was more varied.


Charles E. Whisnant said...

I am in agreement with your thoughts on preaching. 250 sermons in Matthew and 80 in Philippians for example. And generally a sermon was about 40 to 50 minutes. And generally we had the same group of people coming each week for over sixteen years.

Of course the purpose of preaching is to bring those whom Christ as brought to Himself, to help them come to Chrisdlikeness

Jon from Bucksport said...

Interesting thoughts. I think one thing to factor in is the ability of the preacher. Spurgeon was an exceptional genius at expositing scripture and so most men cannot expect to do it at that level. I would give my right arm to be able to preach like Spurgeon but I am pretty sure I am not going to master that level of exposition if I live to be 969!
As in all things the truth is probably not all one or the other. I appreciate your reasons for preaching serially and that is why I prefer that. What I have become accustomed to is serial preaching on Sunday morning and topical preaching Sunday night. This gives a good balance to these two ideas.

Matthew Black said...

Thank you for this post. I've thought much about it and I totally concur with what you've written.

Mark Ward said...


I've been preaching for 17 years. Currently, I preach 4-5 sermons a week. I try to do like Campbell suggests - do some book-by-book series and then topical or 'mini-series'.

Topical - is typical on Sunday morning
Book-by-book - wed/Sun. night

Topical/book-by-book - for Sunday school. Sunday school should be a wonderful time to build on expository preaching/teaching. Of course, I teach a large young adult class in my church, and I try to be less 'preachy' and more of a teacher. The reason is that this same class will turn around and hear me preach after Sunday school.

Topical messages are well received in our ministry - particularly on Sunday mornings. People have issues - and those issues need to be addressed from behind the pulpit. For the 4th of July, I preached a message entitled "A NATION AT WAR." Should we go to war? Is war biblical? You can listen to this message on SermonAudio. Nevertheless, I hit a topic that we all need to hear. It was somewhat powerful and to the point - but it rallies my people to get behind America and behind our country. We need to hear these kind of messages.

Study "the Black Regiment" preachers during the Revolutionary War - the War was really won in churches across America. The pastor's preached on freedom and liberation from England. And, we as Bible-believing preachers must preach on social issues and cultural issues in our pulpits, at times, to remind our people of the world we live in. And, on the flip side, this can, many times, be done by us preachers, as the expositor of scripture.

Larry said...

Thanks for your comments Mark,

I suppose that where I differ is that I am not sure what biblical warrant I have to rally people to behind America and behind our country. I have no verse for it. I think a commitment to biblical preaching is a commitment to preach what the Bible says.

Michael Fabarez has a book entitled "Preaching that Changes Lives." He says in there (paraphrasing) that too many preachers use the Bible to preach their message, where instead the Bible should use the preacher to preach its message.

Take for instance, "A Nation at War." What biblical basis is there to argue that America should be at war? I know of none. I can't figure out any biblical justification to preach that to a mass of people whose biggest problem is not war with another nation; it is war against sin and war against God.

That does not mean that America should not be at war. But to preach that in church? With all the vast glories of the gospel and Jesus and freedom from sin? For me, I think there is something better to preach. I don't want people behind America. I want people behind the cross and the coming kingdom of God. That is what we are to be working for as a church. Your talk would be appropriate at a civic forum, though I would not use the Bible for it so as not to confuse the issue with the gospel.

To preach on cultural and social issues is necessary when they are actually biblical issues. I have preached on abortion. I regularly mention race.

On July 4th, for the first time in ten years, I kind of preached on the issue by preaching about "A Kingdom Not of This World." My point is that we serve a bigger kingdom. I love America and our freedoms. But they are not as important as the kingdom of Christ which is of another world. And we don't fight for it like the kingdoms of this world fight. We dare not confuse the kingdom of Christ with the kingdom of America.

Can you imagine being an Iraqi, or a Pakistani, or a Frenchmen in your congregation on July 4th? What would they have heard? The gospel for all nations, where there is no more Jew or Greek, Barbarian or Scythian, slave or free? It sounds to me like they would have an attempted defense about why it's okay to go into another nation and kill people.

I think there is a just war, so don't think I am a pacifist. But I would hate to stand up and see someone of another nationality and know that what I have to offer them that morning is a defense of America. I would rather preach something else.

It is most interesting that Paul and the other Apostles lived in a culture and government that was actually oppressive toward Christianity (unlike our own government that is comparatively rather tolerant and actually accepting of it). And never once, in the midst of a government oppression that was imprisoning and killing Christians did the Apostles urge the overthrow of government. They actually urged submission to it for the sake of that gospel, to remove the things that foolish people might say against the church (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17).

So I think the church should not stoop itself to preach anything other than the Bible--the gospel by which men are reconciled to the Father through Jesus Christ.