Thursday, January 31, 2019

Preaching everything

The FIEC recently published an article with an interesting look at which parts of the Bible we (meaning 'conservative' type evangelicals) typically preach - and which we typically avoid.  There is apparently not a lot of love for 1 and 2 Chronicles, or 2 and 3 John.  Jonah, on the other hand, attracts attention out of all proportion to his canonical importance.

So how do we decide what to preach, and when?  Karl Barth suggests that you can pursue three methods: you can follow a set lectionary, you can preach through whole biblical books, or you can just select passages as you go.  He doesn't recommend the latter, because it gives you - the preacher - too much control of the agenda.  Most evangelicals, of course, will go for the consecutive-through-books approach, but that raises the question: which books, and when?  It's still possible that the preacher rather than the Scripture is setting the agenda.  So what to do?

My guess is there's no perfect method.  Here's what I do.

1.  I maintain a spreadsheet which breaks down all our sermons by testament and genre (or sub-genre; it is useful to separate Paul's letters from others, for example).  That means I can tell you that in Cowley Church Community between January 2016 and August 2019 (for my spreadsheet extends into the future), we will have preached 32% of our standard sermons from the OT, and 55% from the NT.  (That leaves some others, to be explained below).  Fully 25% of our sermons have been from the gospel of Luke!  A glance at the spreadsheet helps me to see if we're preaching the balance of Scripture.

2.  The 'balance of Scripture', however, does not mean treating all books equally.  I think we have to take a theologically informed approach here, getting ourselves into that virtuous cycle of allowing our reading of Scripture to shape our theology and then allowing our theology to shape the way we approach Scripture.  So yes, the New Testament predominates.  I'm okay with that; I think it reflects the theology of revelation which is made explicit in, for example, Hebrews 1:1-2.

3.  Sharpening that up a bit, I think the understanding of revelation in the NT means that we should always have one of the four gospels on the go.  Jesus is the Word of God, to whom the OT points forward, to whom the NT points back.  The way we do it is to return regularly to our series preaching through Luke; when (if??) we finish Luke, I'd be keen to move on to another gospel.  (Incidentally, odd that the stats seem to show Mark as the least popular gospel for preaching; why on earth would that be?  Makes me want to preach it next.  Would take less time than Luke, anyway.)

4.  Having said that, it's useful to recognise that you, the preacher, like preaching some things more than others.  Perhaps you enjoy preaching an argument rather than a narrative, or vice versa.  Keeping an eye on the balance helps you not to fall into a pattern that just reflects your own preferences.  I suspect it also helps to keep preaching more interesting - preaching narrative as narrative and argument as argument, for example, makes for a much more varied approach; and that's before you even throw in the Psalms etc.

5.  At CCC, we also try to shape the preaching around seasonal celebrations; taking time in the Christmas season to preach about Christmas, taking a couple of weeks after Easter Sunday to reflect further on the resurrection.  That seasonal preaching makes up slightly less than 10% of year, and has the advantage of keeping us further focussed on the central things of the gospel.  We would also usually try to make some of our more 'standard' expository preaching fit the mood of the seasons; we're heading into Jeremiah at the start of Lent, for example.

6.  One problem with the setup of churches nowadays is that the preaching has to do quite a lot.  When I were a lad, everyone went to a 'bible study', which was in reality a biblical or theological lecture, every Wednesday night.  That was a place to do some catechesis.  Nowadays, most of the teaching has to happen on a Sunday if it's going to hit a decent proportion of the church.  So sometimes we feel the need to interrupt our expository preaching to preach some doctrine - still sticking very close to Scripture, but taking a more theological tack.  We did a series on sacraments recently.

7.  There are some issues with our approach.  A series tends to be broken up, with only 6-8 weeks or so given to each part.  That can make it easy to lose the thread of a big book (like Luke!) - but to be honest, patterns of attendance mean you have to regularly recap anyway.  We don't always go in for preaching through a book consecutively; we did I think five weeks in Leviticus, for example, getting an overview of the big themes; I think it was good, but obviously there is stuff you've missed.  I wonder, as well, whether we always help people to read the Bible for themselves, or whether we give the impression that you need to get it all cleared up for you by a professional.

I dare say it's not perfect, but overall that's my approach.

So, how do you do it?


  1. Jonah is a nice prophet to tackle - it's got a clear message unlike those other really weird prophets and it's also not going to subject the congregation to months of weirdness. Phew, let's all breath a sigh of relief.

    1. Yes, my assumption is that much of the decision making is based on what the preacher thinks he can manage, and what he thinks the congregation will put up with...

  2. Helpful Daniel. Is it the sole preacher's call or are several heads better than one?

    1. Good question. We have two main preachers, who would work out a plan in consultation with other elders. Having more than one head on the job also reduces the risk of preaching only your favourites of course.