To Preach a Book: Selecting a Book

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

Welcome to a new series on ShortPosts.com, To Preach a Book. I primarily preach verse by verse through entire books of the Bible. This is sometimes referred to as sequential exposition. For my next book, I’m going to write about the process from start to finish. You will be able to follow along step by step. I am not suggesting this is the way to preach through a book, but merely sharing my way. I’m not suggesting anyone copy me. Feel free to take away whatever you find useful.

Where to Start?

The first decision you have to make is what book you’re going to preach. It shouldn’t need to be said, but you can’t decide that on Saturday before you’re going to start the series on the next day, Sunday. I am usually thinking ahead to a couple of books I want to preach, and I usually have a topical series or two in mind for the road ahead as well. When I draw closer to the end of my current series, I settle on the book and will start to do some preliminary work. I will describe the preliminary work later, but now I am focusing on book selection.

I do have a few self-imposed guidelines in place that help narrow down the list of potential books. I tend to preach in an alternating pattern. I alternate between Old and New Testament books. I alternate between different biblical genres of books. I also like to alternate between long and short books. I do this for variety to help the hearers, but also to be consistently preaching God’s truth from different parts of the Bible he has given us. This is part of what it means to preach the whole counsel of God. These are guidelines for me and not inviolable rules. If I do break them, I’m going to have a good, deliberate reason to do so.

These guidelines are helpful in choosing the next book, but a few other factors also help the decision. If I discern particular needs in the congregation, I will consider that in picking a book. Those needs could either be urgent needs, or they could be more long-term growth needs. For instance, if you’ve been working or some situation has caused you to go a long time without food or drink, you have an urgent need to eat and drink and your choices are going to tend toward satisfying that immediate need. You may also have some concerns and need to balance your diet in a certain way for your more long-term health. Congregations have those kind of needs in their spiritual diet as well and I’m going to think about that in selecting a book.

I also consider my own needs. I may settle on a book because I personally need a better understanding of something in that book. I may have come across a passage in a book while I was reading or studying something else. Often, while I’m preaching a book, I will come across some reference or connection to another book, and I really want to explore that.

Thinking about your own experience can help you think about your own needs, but also your own limitations. If you’ve never preached through a book verse-by-verse before, you probably don’t want to start with Daniel, Revelation, or Leviticus. Each book of the Bible presents its own challenges, but some are simply longer and more complex than others. The task can be overwhelming, so try to start with a manageable book.

Envelope Please

I chose the book of Ruth. I was preaching through the book of Acts when I settled on Ruth. Acts is New Testament and was a long series. I ended up preaching 86 sermons in Acts from mid-November 2018 to early December 2019. Ruth is Old Testament and will be a shorter series. I did depart from my guidelines in alternating biblical genres in that both Ruth and Acts are historical narrative books, but they are quite different subject matter and otherwise dissimilar books. It also didn’t hurt that I wanted to write this series going through a book and Ruth is more manageable. I didn’t pick the book in order to write this series, rather I am writing this series now since I’m preaching that book.

History

I began my first pastorate in February 2001. The book of Ruth was the first book I preached through verse by verse. I began that series in July 2001, preaching that series on Thursday nights. I preached thirteen messages in the series and finished it in mid-November 2001. Two weeks after finishing Ruth, I began preaching through another book and have continued preaching through books throughout my ministry.

I have all this information because I began keeping records when I started preaching in 1999. I started keeping those in notebooks and eventually moved to a spreadsheet. I would highly recommend keeping a preaching log and records of your ministry. I have uploaded a template of the spreadsheet I made and use. You can find it here.

Why did I start preaching through books, and why did I start with Ruth? I had seen very little preaching verse by verse through books. Most of what I had seen preaching through a book was chapter by chapter, which was more of a topical series through a book. I had seen very little detailed exposition going verse by verse through a whole book. I knew that Milburn Cockrell preached through books sometimes and I knew that Tom Ross did that as well. I had heard some of their sermons on tape. Yes, cassette tapes. I could see how concentrating on a whole book that way was beneficial.

I began pastoring and preaching three times a week. It didn’t take long before I was at my wit’s end. I was banging my head against the wall every week trying to come up with the perfect sermon the church needed. I would think I had come up with it, only to preach it and be disappointed that it seemed to have no effect. Nothing was different the next week. In just a few short months, I was despairing and knew that I could not continue as a pastor. Of course, this was all completely foolish and shows I had no idea what I was doing and was not ready to be pastoring.

I remember those days of despair and seeing Tom Ross at a Bible conference. I would always seize opportunities at those conferences to ask older and wiser preachers questions. I remember asking Tom for advice. His advice was simple, but very helpful. He said, “Just preach the word and love your people, brother.” I haven’t done either of those very well, but it stuck with me.

I was preaching three topical sermons a week. I would preach messages about the church, the Ark of the Covenant, service, God’s sovereignty, human responsibility, the lepers at the gate of Samaria, revival, etc. In other words, I was all over the place and dealing with various subjects superficially with no order or systematic teaching. I thought about what it meant to preach the word. I knew as a pastor I was responsible to preach the word, which meant all the word and nothing but the word. I was responsible to preach the whole counsel of God from Genesis to Revelation. I knew to fulfill the ministry I had received and benefit the congregation, I needed to preach through entire books of the Bible and explain every verse the best I could. I have since seen many benefits of preaching through books and have become more dedicated to it, so that the majority of my preaching today is going verse by verse through entire books.

I don’t remember a lot about why I chose to start with Ruth. It was short and a story I was already a little familiar with. I also had been given a book that had expositional commentary of Ruth by George Lawson and Esther by Alexander Carson. I had been reading that book and can remember being struck by the providence of God in both those books. I may have also been reading Carson’s History of Providence at the same time. So I began preaching through books and I see today it has been the most beneficial practice to my ministry.

Up Next

In the next post, I will talk about getting started and preparing to preach through a book.

This post is part of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

The School for Fantastical Interpretation

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
~ Isaiah 28:10

Limited time offer

Preacher, are you feeling blue? Do your sermons lack a certain spark? Are you preaching, but not wowing the crowds and holding them in awe? Are you passed over for the best spots at the conferences? Do the remarks you get after your sermons feel mostly like sympathy? Well, today is your day.

Announcing: The School for Fantastical Interpretation (TSFFI). We’ve all been there in the pew as the preacher read his text, which seemed to be a straightforward passage with nothing fresh or new in it. However, by the time he finished, the crowd was spellbound and afterward you could hear many exclamations of wonder at how a passage could have been read hundreds of times but those readers never saw what that preacher found in it. How did he do that? Is it a special gift only few are blessed with? Or, is it a skill that any preacher could learn?

You’ve seen a text become clay in the hands of a master sculptor and been amazed at what he could fashion from it. You’ve probably been exasperated after you’ve tried and failed to reproduce his effects. Now, for the first time ever, the curtain is being pulled back and preachers can learn the skills of fantastical interpretation of the Bible. I know the questions you have. How much? How long? And, where do I sign up? Patience, my friend. Remember that Isaiah said, “he that believeth shall not make haste” (Isaiah 28:16). Everything is a hustle and bustle in the world today.

I’m willing to give away for free this preview of TSFFI. This is a sample of the valuable lessons you will receive. While I cannot guarantee individual results, I do guarantee you will be introduced to the tools you need. After that, it’s all up to you. Let’s listen in on a class already in progress. This class is Foundations for Fantastical Interpretation.

Be a Mentee

Extremely rare are the birds that can soar to the greatest heights apart from some help. Before the dove could pluck the olive branch and return to the ark, Noah had to open the window and let it out. Preachers need to learn at the feet of masters, especially when it comes to the skills of fantastical interpretation. Ideally, you will find a living master of the art who will take you as an apprentice and let you in on all his trade secrets. I have to admit this would be a rare opportunity and not one you can count on. What’s the next best option?

You can sit at the masters’ feet in different ways. For one, you need only to identify such a preacher and then listen to his sermons or read his writings repeatedly. After a while, you will pick up some clues as to how he does what he does. Obviously, taking this course will greatly aid you in this pursuit, but you also must not neglect the fantastical interpreters of yesterday. Read their writings and study their methods closely. You can learn much from them. For example, you can read the wealth of writings left behind by A. W. Pink, especially his earlier writings and the Gleanings series. He was peculiarly adept at finding types and figures under every rock and bush. Granted, you cannot expect to equal his effects, but imitation will bring you a long way.

Build Imagination

Many preachers fall into the trap of merely taking the text at what it says, as though the Bible were written to be sufficiently understandable. That is fine if you want to remain among the lower ranks who take the easier road of preaching, but if you want to ascend, you need to fuel your creative fires. For instance, if you assume the tree Elijah sat under merely refers to a particular type of tree with roots, trunk, branches, and leaves, you are not thinking fantastically. You need to let go and let your mind wander and see what you can come up with.

In fact, to stoke your imagination, you need to practice in passages that provide pluckable produce for fantastical interpretation. It’s harder going in some passages than others, so you want to focus on the easier places as you’re starting out. Parables are a productive playground for the imagination. The Old Testament stories and poetry sections are ready made for fantastical interpretation, and just wait until you get to the prophets.

Here’s an exercise to work on and turn in next class. Find a passage in the Bible that mentions something relevant to a wedding. It can be in the Old or New Testament. It can be an historical narrative or a parable or whatever you choose. Think about all the weddings you’ve been to or seen. Don’t be afraid to supplement your knowledge by learning about wedding customs in different cultures and times. Unleash your imagination and see what symbols, types, figures, and representations you can come up with. How many connections to various doctrines can you find?

Be Obsessive

You may struggle with that exercise because you’re not used to thinking that way. You read “stone” in the text and your mind thinks, “stone,” or “rock,” or some igneous mass. Don’t despair. You just need to train your mind in fantastical interpretation. You have to learn to be obsessive over particular points. If you get your mind always thinking about a few things, you will start seeing them everywhere. At first you will be seeing analogies, but stay at it and you will soon be seeing pictures, symbols, and types all over the Bible. The weeds around Jonah’s head will become a crown of thorns. The food and drink David gave the Egyptian in the field will become communion. The widow of Zarephath will become the faithful church in the last days.

You get the idea. Once your mind has been trained to obsess over a few things, you will be able to find proof texts and pictures where people never thought to look. As your skill increases, you will be able to do this in harder and more obscure passages. You will preach to much greater effect.

Build Reinforcement

Care must be taken lest some become skeptical. There are always naysayers who will object to fantastical interpretation. They see it as taking liberties and complain about white spaces and filling in the blanks. Sadly, you will never convince some and you don’t want to expend too much energy on the recalcitrant. It’s better to head off these kinds of objections and build reinforcements into your messages. How do you do that?

Don’t get lost in the pictures and symbols and such. You need to remind people often that you’re preaching the truth and preaching the Bible. A bold choice here is to tell them if they don’t like what you’re preaching, they can take it up with God because you didn’t write the Bible. Remind them fairly often that you are preaching like Isaiah said it must be done: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). It’s extremely important to talk about context often, not the actual context of the passage, but rather saying the word context often. You can change it up at times by referring to people critically who take things out of context.

Optionally, you can occasionally remind them they are hearing good preaching. But I must warn you: that is an extremely difficult move to pull off. Even the most generous crowd can easily interpret that move as self-serving on the part of the preacher. Yes, some few get away with it, but TSFFI thinks it’s best avoided.

Conclusion

Let me break back in now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this generous preview of TSFFI. Your appetite has been whetted. Your curiosity has been piqued. You have questions. How much? How long does it take? Where do I sign up? Friend, can you really put a price on learning skills generally seen only among the elite? Can you really measure time in months or years for acquiring abilities you never before thought possible? As far as signing up, as they say in the show business, stay tuned.

Preaching in the Can

Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear unto all.
~ 1 Timothy 4:15

Absolutely no selling involved …

What if I told you I could tell you how to turn $100 into $310,867.82? You might be suspicious. I assure you it can be done, and is done more often than you think. Yes, it is completely legal and ethical. It doesn’t even involve ocean front property or bridges. It’s actually pretty simple.

Interested? I have two words for you: compound interest. Simply put, compound interest is the way investments grow at an increasing rate. If you invest $100 every month for forty straight years at 8% interest compounded annually, you will have $310,867.82. However, if you bank $100 every month for 40 years in a standard savings account earning 2.25% interest, you will have $77,880.75. That’s a nice little sum. You will have put $48,000 of your own in during that time and received a profit of $29,880.75, but it is considerably less than the investments. If you stuff a Benjamin Franklin every month into a coffee can for forty straight years, you will only have $48,000. Forty-eight large is nothing to sneeze at, but that is a difference of $262,867.82 less than from investing, and that’s the beauty of compound interest. It multiplies your effort.

Preaching Investments

Paul told Timothy that his profit in the ministry should be obvious (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul wasn’t referring to his financial portfolio. Jesus used the pictures of financial investments and profits to portray the gains that should be made in service while we wait for the kingdom in the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27). Two servants invested wisely and made a profit (Luke 19:15-19). One servant followed the coffee can plan and offered back the original capital. He was chided for not at least putting the money in a savings account, or CD, and at least earning some return (Luke 19:20-23).

As preachers, our pulpit ministry, and all that is involved in it, is being invested in some way and our gains are made according to the method of investment. If your preaching is a scattershot, random string of one-off sermons, your profit will approximate the profit with the coffee can plan. Over 40 years of preaching, you will have preached a handful of sermons about angels, various sermons on prayer, recurring sermons on tithing and church attendance, some parables, some miracles, a bunch of the life of Bible character sermons, various doctrinal topics, a bunch of repeats, etc. You will have done some good for those you’ve ministered to and will have grown yourself in some small ways over such a length of time.

If your preaching follows a more topical expository method, your profit will be akin to the savings account or high-yield CD. Over 40 years you will have produced a sermon catalog of numerous series of expositions of lengthy passages. You will likely have preached through Genesis chapters 1-3, the ten commandments, the life of David, numerous Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, the Upper Room Discourse, some short books like Jonah and some epistles, chapter by chapter through Romans, etc. You will have covered an array of biblical doctrines and preached passages from different genres of Scripture. You will have done good for those you’ve preached to and you will have grown yourself from your studies all those years.

If you are committed to expositional preaching through whole books of the Bible, your profit will be more like the compound interest from smart investing. If you are very disciplined, over 40 years of preaching at least twice every week and covering at least 7.5 verses per sermon, you could actually preach every verse in the Bible. That probably won’t be your approach, but you could certainly preach most of the books of the Bible in that time, as well as topical expository sermons on various doctrines, different series of studies, etc. You will have done much good for those under your ministry and you will have personally grown leaps and bounds in your understanding of Scripture as a whole. Your preaching will grow richer over time and the work you do in one book will pay dividends in other books afterward.

Anyone Can Do It

Do the math with a bunch of twenty-year-olds to show them how $100 can become over $300,000, and you have their attention. It is so simple that many might be skeptical, but they are the youngest and last of the millennials, so skepticism is to be expected along with snarky comments. You explain it really is that simple and assure them that anyone can do it. Compound interest is completely unbiased. But that does raise a question. If it’s so simple and anyone can truly do it, why doesn’t everyone do it? Why doesn’t everyone invest $100 a month for 40 years?

Factors vary from person to person, but we can generalize to four reasons why people don’t save and invest this way.

  1. Inability to think in a long-term perspective. Retirement is so far off and spending $4 every day at Starbucks is so much more enjoyable than brewing coffee at home and putting that $100 a month to work in investments. Besides, all that math is just too hard to figure out. Everybody told me I would never need algebra again after getting out of school anyway.
  2. Laziness. It takes hard work and discipline to do something consistently over such a long time period. The key to compound interest is not magic, but consistency over time. If you double the monthly amount to $200 but only invest it for 20 years, your return will be $109,828.71. That’s a lot of cabbage but less than half with the 40 year plan and only half the monthly amount. It also works the other way for you. If you work harder and are more disciplined to invest $400 a month for 40 years, your egg will be over $1.2 million. Everybody wants a million dollars but very few will be that consistent for that long to get it.
  3. Presuming Social Security and other government programs will be there in the future. Many see no need to deny themselves and work hard to save like that because they believe the government will be there to take care of them.
  4. Assuming they will always be healthy and energetic and able to work until they die. There is no need to plan for the future when the income will always come in from working. Many also assume they will have enough, though they do nothing to ensure that.

What about preaching? I am not here advocating the “one right way of preaching.” I am persuaded from Scripture and experience that the most profitable way of investing your ministry is in the committed exposition of books, just like the most profitable way of investing for retirement is consistently over a long time. Someone may submit Charles Spurgeon as a refutation of my contention, because he didn’t preach that way. Honesty requires me admit that Spurgeon didn’t preach expositionally through books and it’s hard to argue with his profit. If I am allowed a rejoinder, I submit that some people also win a million dollars by playing the lottery, but wisdom recognizes that is not a reasonable retirement plan or expectation.

If that is the most profitable way of pulpit ministry, why aren’t more preachers doing it? Once again, we can generalize to four reasons why preachers don’t preach expositionally through books.

  1. Inability to preach through books. Some who occupy pulpits lack the essential gifts for preaching and teaching in such an orderly and systematic way. I am not referring to those who have the necessary gifting but choose not to preach that way. I am referring to those who are not “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24), as Scripture requires.
  2. Laziness. Preaching expositionally through books is hard work and requires consistent, disciplined study over time to maintain. In short, it ain’t easy. Some preachers simply don’t want to work that hard at preaching. It’s easier to preach in the can and rehash old sermons, come up with three points of what you want to say and then find a verse for it, build a straw man you can burn up, etc.
  3. Presuming in the preacher’s authority. A preacher is given a deal of respect and credibility for occupying the pulpit. The preacher can trade on that by presuming his words carry the necessary authority for the people to believe him. They ought to believe it because I said it and I always preach the truth. They might also presume upon a legacy or tradition that preceded them.
  4. Assuming their congregation knows the Bible better than they really do. When a preacher assumes his people really know the Bible, he sees no need to do the hard work of exposition. He thinks he can merely read a text and make truth statements without actually showing how the text makes that truth statement. Even if the preacher’s statements are true, that’s not exposition. Exposition is simply exposing the meaning of the text. Exposition is explaining the meaning of the passage in its original context and then connecting that meaning to the reality of the text and applying it to your people.

Before You Know It

Retirement will be here before you know it. When it comes is not the time to prepare for it. It’s too late by then. It can be hard to get twenty-year-olds to see that, but that doesn’t change it. Likewise, preachers all have a day coming when their ministries will be over. Age, health, or something will take us out of the pulpit. If nothing else, the grave will end our work (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A day of reckoning is coming. The foundation has been laid and preachers are required to build on it. Paul said we can build on it with “wood, hay, stubble,” or with “gold, silver, precious stones” (1 Corinthians 3:12). We are going to be tried and receive reward or suffer loss (1 Corinthians 3:13-15). Of course, you can preach in the can if you want to, but remember the servant and his napkin (Luke 19:24).

*Be advised: This post is for illustration purposes only and does not constitute legal or financial advice, nor any reasonable facsimile thereof. ShortPosts.com is neither endorsed nor acknowledged by the FCC, FTC, SEC, FDIC, BBB, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, or any other letters of greater or lesser significance. Please read responsibly.

 

Never Trust “An Old Preacher”

He said unto him, I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the Lord, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water. But he lied unto him.
~ 1 Kings 13:18

I heard an old preacher say …

Illustrations can be fun, illuminating, interesting, inspiring, and memorable. People will remember a really good illustration long after they’ve forgotten the sermon. I guess good illustrations are like grandma’s homemade meatloaf; it’ll stick to your ribs. It’s no wonder preachers love to get a hold of a really good illustration.

But, what about when illustrations go wrong? Or, how can illustrations go wrong? I can think of a few ways I’ve seen illustrations bite the hand that feeds them. It’s a problem when an illustration takes prominence over the exposition. When an illustration becomes the main point of the sermon, the cat is serving its owner. Illustrations are problematic when preachers spend more time searching for illustrations than searching the Scriptures for understanding of what God has actually said. But, I want to focus on perhaps the most crucial way an illustration can go wrong.

Prepare to be Shocked

When a preacher preaches to a congregation, they generally expect him to be telling the truth and take what he says to be the truth. In other words, a preacher usually gets the benefit of the doubt. One of the worst train wrecks of illustrations is when they are not true. I realize illustrations will sometimes come from fictional stories to illustrate a point. Generally, that is fine as long as the preacher is not trying to pass it off as some true account. I’m thinking, here, more along the lines of semi-biographical stories that happened to you or someone you heard about. I am also thinking about illustrations from history. Let me illustrate.

Several years ago I was listening to a sermon online and the sermon crescendoed with an illustration drawn from the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. It was a remarkable story well-delivered. It’s funny that I don’t remember what the sermon was about, but I do remember this illustration. The preacher stressed certain details, as they were important to the point he was making. I listened with great interest, though I must confess it was more historical interest than biblical interest. I was only vaguely familiar with the history of this battle and the story was fascinating.

Whenever I hear a story like this, I immediately wonder if it’s true. As frequently happens to me, I was plunged into a lot of reading about the Alamo to understand the history. The key details and, in fact, the crux of his illustration are unconfirmed historically. There were very, very few survivors from within the Alamo, so establishing exactly what happened there was difficult. Though some of the details he shared were new to me, I discovered they are a part of the common mythos of the battle. So he didn’t just make stuff up, but was likely retelling what he had heard or read somewhere. Even though it was likely unintentional, he repeated a story that was untrue, or at least suspect and unconfirmed.

This may seem a minor point. Some would say it’s no problem since the point he was making with the illustration was true. We have to have a higher standard for the pulpit than that. I would hope preachers would never want to lie intentionally, but I equally hope they do not want to lie unintentionally either. If we play fast and loose with the facts of a historical account, how can we be trusted with the facts of Scripture? You will lose credibility by stretching the truth with illustrations.

Let’s Have Tall Standards Not Tales

I recently listened to another sermon online featuring a powerful illustration. In fact, it became apparent early on that the entire sermon was built around this particular illustration. The illustration was also a historical event, though not as well known as the Alamo. He started the illustration by saying he heard this story from an old preacher.

Like I often do in such situations, I listened to the account with interest and immediately wondered if it was true. I had never heard of it before, so I searched to see what I could find. Immediately, I saw that this illustration had been used by a wide variety of preachers for a number of years. I found it used in articles and devotions online. This fact tells us a couple of things right away. First, if the illustration has been used a lot in sermons, it’s probably best not to use it. At the least, it makes your sermon stale and it could be worse. Second, if the illustration has been used extensively by unorthodox preachers, you will be associating yourself with them in some ways. That would be undesirable.

Not only did a search find numerous retellings of this particular story, but comparing them yielded widely varying details of the story. This is a red flag for the veracity of an account. Searching also revealed that quite a number of people had obviously been trying to verify this story, another bad sign. I searched around for a while and could not find any substantial verification for this story. I didn’t find it on Snopes, but my initial conclusion would be this story is a cultic urban legend. It probably has some kernels of truth it began with, but has been so exaggerated and embellished that it hardly bares any resemblance to the original.

Once again, the preacher has lied to people, though it was probably unintentional. With the technology we have today, there is really no excuse for not verifying your illustrations from history. If you are going to use an illustration from history, at least make sure it is a reliable account. More could be said about this instance, but it teaches us another valuable lesson. Just because you heard an older preacher tell a story, don’t assume it’s true and use it in your own sermon. If it’s a story that’s supposed to be true, you need to verify it before using it or don’t use it. Again, we have to have a higher standard for the pulpit than a motivational speaker who doesn’t much care about the truthfulness of their illustrations. They’re only interested in the effect.

The Preaching Secret

And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one man, by whom we may enquire of the LORD: but I hate him; for he never prophesied good unto me, but always evil: the same is Micaiah the son of Imla.
~ 2 Chronicles 18:7

How to not lose friends and anger people.

If you set about the preaching task with determined assiduity, it’s going to happen. You are going to say something that upsets someone, and maybe many someones. After this happens, if you still have the ginger to declare, “Thus saith the Lord,” it will happen again. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to times when the preacher goes off script and pours out offenses on the congregation. I’m talking about when you are preaching a hard passage. If you are determined to preach what the Bible says, as the Bible says it, you will run into hard passages.

Preaching Hard Passages

By hard passages, I don’t mean passages hard to understand like Ezekiel’s wheels. I’m referring to passages that are hard to explain publicly for different reasons. Some passages are hard because they deal with delicate or sensitive subject matter, like some of the laws in Leviticus, events in Judges, the strange woman in Proverbs, the entire Song of Solomon, Isaiah’s ministry of nakedness, etc. Some passages are hard because they deal with a widely debated subject that the congregation could be divided over, like marriage and divorce, women in church, etc. Some passages are hard because they tip sacred cows and rebuke cherished traditions. Some passages are hard because they address some recent or historic problem within the congregation. Varying circumstances could make a passage hard to preach in that place and time. Of course, you have to allow for the outliers, like when you’ve preached some genealogy from the Chronicles and Sister Sally stomps out in a huff afterward. Sometimes you won’t know a passage is hard until after you’ve preached it, because it will step right on someone’s pet sin and they might accuse you of spying on them.

We need to know how to preach such passages without upsetting people. That’s the secret, but we will get to that in a moment. First, let’s think about some wrong ways of preaching hard passages that you’ve probably seen before.

  1. Evasive maneuvers
    This strategy simply tries to avoid hard passages. If you’re a random, shotgun preacher, you can pick your way around the Bible and avoid any passages that will cause trouble. The downside to this strategy is that any length of time using it will stunt the growth of the congregation by leaving them malnourished in the Word, and it will also not fulfill the ministry you’ve been called to for preaching all the counsel of God.
  2. Selective hearing
    This strategy relies on parallel passages in the Bible. Sometimes a passage has a parallel passage in another book and sometimes the parallel doesn’t have the troubling word or phrase. The preacher can select the innocuous version and still deal with the general subject while acting like that other passage doesn’t exist. One of the downsides here is that the congregation probably knows that other passage is there and their interest was piqued when they discovered the subject, because they wanted to know how the troubling parts were to be dealt with. The preacher who doesn’t even acknowledge the difficulty loses credibility with the congregation and his argument is weakened.
  3. Bait and switch
    This strategy involves warming up the crowd with strong expressions of how controversial your subject matter is and how hated you will be for daring to utter it publicly. You have to sell it, “Y’all will probably run me out of here after you hear what I have to say.” That’s the bait and the switch comes in when the preacher proceeds to preach something that congregation well knows and believes. Not only will they not be upset, but they will be cheering him on. The biggest downside here is that you’re not being honest. You’ve made it out like you’re playing the man before Bloody Mary, but really you’ve only preached to the choir and might get the fellowship hall named after you.
  4. The revelation
    This strategy involves properly setting up a message likely to offend by lengthy explanation that the preacher has been given a message from God and has no choice but to deliver it. Various phrases are employed: God gave me this message, God told me to preach this, the Lord laid this on my heart, etc. Effort is made to let the preacher off the hook for delivering a hard message because he was only the messenger. There are a few downsides here. The blow is never really softened in these situations and the preacher only sought to cover himself for a message designed to upset. Aside from this, the preacher has purchased cover for himself at the expense of preaching serious error. When he prefaces his message by saying God has given it to him in some way, he has denied the sufficiency of Scripture and the closed canon. He has dared to speak revelation to the people and the looming threats of Revelation 22:18-19 hover near.

What is the Secret?

Now we’ve come to it. How do we preach hard passages without upsetting people? First of all, we must preach hard passages if we are to preach all Scripture, which is the duty of the faithful preacher. We must understand there is no getting out of it. Second, preaching the whole counsel of God will upset people. Have you read the Bible? God’s Word tends to upset people and when people are upset, they tend to lash out. Since there is a great gulf and they’re unable to grab and pillory God himself, they will do the next best thing. They will seize his preacher and do what they will with him. Read the lives of the prophets and apostles. People got upset when those men spoke the Word of God.

We do want to avoid unnecessary offense and we do want to help the people we preach to. What is the secret for preaching hard passages in the most helpful way? The answer is: expository preaching. Expository preaching is preaching the meaning of a passage in its context. Topical exposition is preaching a subject from selected passages that explains those passages in their context. Sequential exposition is going verse-by-verse through a single passage in a sermon, or through a book in a series of messages. Expository preaching seeks to make the meaning of God’s words plain. Expository preaching endeavors to show people what God has said and meant in the words he inspired to be written.

People will still disagree and get upset with the preaching of hard passages. However, when you demonstrate care for God’s Word and care for their souls in carefully expounding the Spirit’s words, you will have credibility and do the congregation good in the long run.

By Any Other Name

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.
~ Proverbs 22:1
(Though Solomon probably wasn’t referring to sermon tiles.)

What should we call it?

Sermon titles is not a riveting subject. Let’s just admit that up front and get that out of the way. In terms of what is important about a sermon, the title is not high on the list. But, with that said, often the title of your sermon is the first thing people are going to encounter. If you publicize your sermon titles in advance, or if you publish your sermons in written, audio, or video form, the title is the first thing people see. Bad titles probably discourage people from clicking the link when other interesting things appear in their feeds.

Titles are not that important to the congregation you stand before week to week. They are live in-person in front you already. Your introduction is typically more important at that time to gain their attention. Titles are more important on the outside. If you release your sermons into the wild, I’m assuming you do so with the hopes they will be heard. Here is where good titles can interest and encourage people to listen and bad titles can put up a barrier to listening. If you truly view online sermons as outreach, then your target demographic is made up mostly of people who do not know they need your message or even why they need it.

Think about this in marketing terms for a moment. If you are trying to sell a product or service, you have to reach your target audience. If people don’t know what you’re selling, they can’t very well buy it. In order to sell anything, your product has to fit into one of two categories. First, it must meet a need or want that is known to potential customers. In this case, they know what problem they have and are looking for a solution. So you need to get their attention in a way they immediately recognize you have what they are looking for. Second, your product must meet a need your potential customers don’t realize they have. In other words, you’re trying to sell a solution to a problem people have but they don’t realize they have. This is generally some technology or service that makes some task easier for them. They don’t realize there is a better way to do it, so you have to educate them to the problem. Ideally, once they’ve recognized the problem and the validity of your solution, they’re ready to buy.

Selling to the first group is easier than selling to the second. If people are already looking for what you have, you just need to ensure visibility so they find you. However, if people are bouncing about on their merry way, watching cat videos and reading the latest gossips available online, you have to get their attention and quickly get them to understand they have a problem and need your solution. If you’re putting out sermons, your potential audience is some in the first group and many in the second. I realize people will not be comfortable with the marketing comparison I’ve used, but if something as simple as a published sermon title could result in more people hearing God’s word, isn’t it worth some attention?

Titling Do’s and Don’ts

I don’t know any hard and fast rules, but I can give some personal observations. I’ve talked with some who agonize over titles for lengthy times and tinker with subtle things endlessly. I can’t recommend this. Titles deserve some attention, but I still think a good sermon with a mediocre title is better than a mediocre sermon with a good title. You want people to listen and you want them to come back and listen again. Titles can help or hurt. I think about this more than I used to, so here’s my list in no particular order.

  1. Informative
    Titles should give listeners some idea about what they are going to hear. I have used titles like “Colossians #3” in the past. Such a title is not very informative. It could be worse, but not much. A person seeing that knows it is the third message in a series of messages on the book of Colossians, but they don’t have any idea what the message is about. I could have improved the information by rather using the title, “Paul’s Prayer for the Colossians.” That’s still not great, but it would be better than the first one.

    You want to avoid titles that are overly technical, confusing, or too long. You want a brief title that informs the potential listener what the sermon is about. In terms of the information conveyed, you want to keep it simple.

  2. Accurate
    Titles should match the sermon content. Not only do you want to inform, but you want to accurately inform. The title should accurately describe the content of the sermon and the sermon should deliver on the title. If you over-hype or get too flashy with the tile, the sermon will be disappointing. You can also lose credibility so people will not come back to hear more. You want to avoid being too clever so that your title plays on something so subtle that people listen and cannot make the connection.

    In a way of thinking, your title is a promise you are making to the listener. Keep your promise and deliver on it. You want to maintain accuracy, but understating is probably better than overstating. You don’t want to be clickbaity with your title.

  3. Interesting
    Titles should pique curiosity and/or invite people in. You want interesting along with informative and accurate. The title can convey some sense of how the sermon will help the listener. Avoid narcissistic titles. You should not be the hero of your sermons and neither should you be the hero of your titles.

    Sometimes it’s good to use applicational titles. Such titles speak directly to the listener. For example, I recently used the title, “Will You Hear?” I’m not saying it’s the greatest title ever used but it does speak immediately to the listener. The message was an expository message on part of Isaiah 28, but one of the applications of the passage was a challenge to hear God’s word. Again, it’s not the greatest title ever given to a sermon, but it fits the criteria of being informative, accurate, and interesting. It’s definitely a better title than, “Isaiah #42.” Any time you can speak directly to the needs of the listener, you can invite them in to listen.

It’s worth giving time and attention to titles, but not too much. You’re not trying to do everything with a title. I think you’re simply wanting to improve this aspect of the sermon and remove hindrances so more people will possibly listen.

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