02 August 2011

The need for balance in preaching

by Dan Phillips

Many of you good brothers get to do what others of us long to do but are not Providentially enabled to do: you preach the Word, as your sole focus. You don't preach-when-invited, you don't preach-and-do-auto-detailing, you don't preach-and-be-a-security-guard. You pastor a church, and that's your sole livelihood. You visit, counsel, disciple, marry, bury, chair, guide, "vision"ize...

...and you preach.

You preach maybe 2-5 sermons/messages a week. Maybe two on Sunday, maybe a Sunday School, maybe a Wednesday night, maybe a men's group or some-such. Bi/tri-vocationals are blessed if they can manage 1-2 messages a week (I speak from experience), but you have a bit more freedom in terms of time and opportunities. Sure, you may have administrative and other responsibilities the others don't, but you may have time and support they don't, as well.

My question for your ponderment today is as suggested by the title: do you strive for balance in your preaching?

I have to chuckle at the variety of fire-alarms and flashing lights that word has to set off, so let me get right to defining. Do I mean "balancing" law and gospel, "balancing" social justice and personal ethics, "balancing" theory and practice, "balancing" evangelism and edification, "balancing" Old and New...? What kind of "balance"?

I define "balance" the way the man defines "Gun Control": hitting only what I aim at. So by "balance" here, I mean preaching everything in the Bible, evenly (cf. "all Scripture" is God-breathed and profitable; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

"Impossible! Can't be done!" comes the instant response. Oh, I don't know. Given a long enough ministry, and enough messages a week, and good health... you could do it. But I know what you mean. You can't preach every verse in detailed exposition with just two or three messages a week in a normal 3-5 year stint. That's probably true.

In response, first I'll stray from my point. (Hey, it's my post; I can do that if I want. I mean, as long as it's in the post and by me, it's on-topic, right? Moo hoo wah ha ha ha! Ahem.)

So in straying I'll just mention that I think the 3-5 year model is a pity. I don't begrudge brothers from longing for an ever-expanding scope of ministry as they advance in their abilities, if God gives the opportunity to them. Personal ambition for greatness and fame and adoration is one thing, and it's a wicked thing. Ambition to produce maximum fruit with maximum depth and breadth for the glory and kingdom of God is quite another, and I think it's akin to the apostle's own ambition (cf. Rom. 15:20; Col. 4:3; 2 Thess. 3:1).

Having said that, I do think it's low to take a church, bid them to trust your leadership, and all the while have your eye on the door — like a man dating a marriage-minded woman and pitching woo for a few years while busily scanning the lonely-hearts web sites for Miss Perfect.

Plus, maybe we should re-examine our approach of focusing everything on Sunday morning. Sure, most people are there, at that meeting; I understand that, I don't rail against it. But while you're preaching John or Romans on Sunday morning, you could be preaching Deuteronomy on Tuesday and Proverbs on Thursday. And you could rotate it regularly, so that each series gets moved to each venue.

Okay, enough crazy-talk for now. Back to my actual point. And as I loom in upon it, please, stay focused: I am not talking-about, I'm talking-to. I'm talking to everyone reading this post, and obviously particularly to the pastors reading this post. I'm not covertly making comments about this or that brother-servant. I'm talking to you, not about him.

My point is I think it's a "fail" just to have a long-term ministry based solely on Paul's letters, or the Gospels, or any other portion in exclusion to the rest. Oh, I know that some of the most famous and effective preachers are mainly known for preaching Paul, or the Gospels; or for spending fourteen weeks on a single conjunction.

In reply, let me say what I said (decades ago) to the gent who blamed the Holy Spirit for his teaching long, long, long Bible studies, citing the example of Paul preaching until midnight in Acts 20. "Well then, brother," said I, "you'd better also be able to raise the dead, as Paul did when Eutychus dozed off."

Maybe Right Hon. Rev. Dr. Thingummy can have a profitable ministry belaboring antepenultimate accents and the characteristics of each of the seven horns, a month at a time; but we lesser lights should probably have different goals.

Which goals?

All of it. The whole Bible. Make that, I say, your aim. I know you may well not hit that target — after all, what good target do we ever consciously hit dead-center? But it's best to have a good target, isn't it? I think that is the best target for a preacher.

That's the best way we can follow Paul's example:
"Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:26-27)
Now, I know that the right man could declare "the whole counsel of God" from a single well-chosen verse. But most of us are not that man. Most of us are far dimmer bulbs than that. If we're candid, we know that we have our hobby-horses, our strengths, and our weaknesses. We naturally are inclined to play to the one, and to flee the other.

It just has always seemed to me that the best way to keep ourselves honest is to go verse-by-verse through books, and to do it broadly. "Best," I say, but of course not only and not infallible. Every one of us has it in us to make a bee-line to our favorite subject, no matter what the verse. ("Of course, as we all know, 'Parbar' starts with a 'p'... and so does propitiation. Speaking of which...")

So I urge you pastors — who, I know, are far more familiar with your particular flocks than I — to consider if you can't and shouldn't challenge yourself to strive for greater balance. Do you find yourself just naturally inclining to Paul's letters? Is Romans followed by Ephesians, and then Colossians and Philippians... and that's fifteen years, right there? What about Peter's letters? Hebrews? James?

But supposing you're pretty good in going around the New Testament — what of the other two-thirds of the Bible? Were they not still written for our instruction (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11)? Does that largest portion still have the power to make one wise resulting in Christ-centered salvation and wisdom for Christian living (2 Tim. 3:15-17)? Does it still point to Christ (Lk. 24:27, 44-46)? Does the Holy Spirit still speak to us through it (Heb. 3:7ff.)? Then why not dive in to it at least equally with the NT? When Paul said "whole counsel," do you really think he meant Romans and Ephesians, or the Gospel of John, and not Deuteronomy and Genesis and Isaiah?

You see, when I conceived of this post, I was really going to target the need to preach specifics along with generalities. I might have taken you down the well-trodden path of comparing Ephesians 1—3 (doctrine) and Ephesians 4—6 (application). I was going to scold preachers who preach exclusively on Biblical texts dealing with about justification, election, providence and the like without ever preaching on Biblical texts dealing with marriage, parenting, work, politics and the like.

But then I realized: preach the Word, and that will be taken care of. Preach Romans... and Proverbs!  Preach Leviticus... and 1 John! Preach Matthew... and Zechariah!

Preach the Word to the best of the ability God gives you, and I think you're far likelier to hit balance, as defined by God.

Dan Phillips's signature


James Scott Bell said...

Absolutely agree across the board. Well said.

Gov98 said...

Pitch Perfect!

Robert said...

Great post, Dan. May we who lead worship in our homes (when we're not learning at church) also take up this exhortation and read through the OT and NT with our families.

Frank said...

Thanks Dan! God continues to remind me of His goodness, even in those pesky prophetic books. Perhaps I should share that learning with the folks who I have the priviledge of serving...

donsands said...

My pastor is preaching/teaching through John's Gospel. And as his sermon was brought forth this past Sunday on the words of our Lord about how He must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent, we also had a sermon focused on Numbers 21.

I can remember as a new believer back in 1984 learning about the whole Bible in many ways. But to have a church where the Pastor is balanced is essential.

Thanks for the good words.

Always Reforming said...

I absolutely, 100% agree. However, this conclusion seems hard to press in a Dispensationally minded Church. If we are a "New Testament" Church only, how does the Old Testmant apply to us?

DJP said...

If that's meant as bait, I'll pass it and simply respond that dispensationalism offers no reason not to preach all of the Bible, and every reason to preach all of the Bible.

Stuart Brogden said...

Most pressing question for many preachers. Wonder how John MacArthur would answer, considering his recent statement that he's about finished with a decades-long tour of the New Testament and might consider "the Christological passages" in the Old.

Tom said...

So, if one spends his entire ministry -- say, 40 years -- preaching from the New Testament, is he not balanced in his approach to Scripture?

DJP said...

Reading my entire post, from first word to last, how do you think I'd respond?

David Regier said...

One of my pastor's best series was on Habakkuk, which I don't think I've heard anyone else take on. He does a great job of taking us through the prophets, the poetics, the gospels, and the epistles, preaching the whole counsel as he does so. But he's not doing the 3-5 year model with his eyes on another pastorate.

Doug Wilson pointed out somewhere that man does not live by each word, but every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.

Always Reforming said...

I apologize for my combatant tone. My youth provides me with less tact than I'd like. I'm currently studying the issue of eschatology and many discussions take my brain there. I'm trying to understand Dispensationalism better and respect your opinion/appreciate your interaction. It was my understanding that Dispensationalism represents the Bible as having no prophecy regarding 1) the coming of the Church, and 2) the Coming of Christ for the specific purpose of dying, instead, teaching that He came to bring the Kingdom but was rejected, instituting the Church in the mean time. Is this correct? Am I way in left field?

DJP said...

It's all-good, brother. We just don't do that, here; it's a gentleman's agreement that's served us (and the blog) well.

Tell you what: I'll devote a post to it over on my own blog within the next few days, Lord willing. You can come, discuss, ask to your heart's content. Sound good?

Always Reforming said...

Sounds good. Thanks.

Bike Bubba said...

Amen, and amen. One thing I've noted as I lead my family through the Scriptures (OT and NT) is that the Gospel shines through even in the most "unlikely" places. There will be a turn of phrase, and there, right there, is a beautiful preincarnate picture of the Savior.

As a "dimmer bulb" myself, I have to wonder what many preachers who never get outside the New Testament are doing--there is so much other treasure to be mined!

100 Mile Pants said...

Balancing John and Zechariah currently. Also making it my aim as I teach through John for the congregation to learn more OT than they knew before. That book is so deeply rooted in the OT (and my hearers are not so much) that the goal is very attainable.

That said, Zechariah has been a real struggle for me. And I naturally shy away from the OT more - I am reminded by your post to stick at the task.

CR said...

I want to see if I understand you, correctly. This preaching everything in the Bible, this balance you are explaining, do you mean a pastor should make it his goal to do verse by verse expository preaching through the whole Bible?

If that's what you mean, I don't know that is a necessary for a preacher to do that and I'm glad some haven't. I mean, I think it's great that John MacArthur preached through the whole new testament. But I'm glad e.g., Martyn Lloyd Jones didn't do that or we would not have his gems of his Romans series, Ephesians series and Sermon on the Mount Series. I'm sure the same can be said of Charles Spurgeon. Would we have the gems he gave us.

I don't think the Holy Spirit necessarily guides or wants all men to have the goal of preaching through the whole Bible (verse by verse). He, The Holy Spirit, may be guiding certain preachers to preach and focus on certain books for that congregation and future generations.

Now, all Scripture is profitable for teaching. So, pastors should be preaching through the whole Bible in some way, shape or form, but I don't think it has to be the verse by verse.

CR said...

Ok, yeah, you do say in your post, it is best to go verse by verse and do it broadly. I know that's the way Mark Dever does it in his church and it works well there, because the congregation changes so much I guess because people have jobs that are linked to the political nature of the city and an average family doesn't stick around for a long time, not because they don't want to, but because of the nature of the city and jobs.

So, anyway, I guess I'm glad that MLJ didn't take that route. Some might say the same for Charles Spurgeon and some others. I don't know.

Smalltownpreacher said...

What you have stated I believe is the command of scripture. As a pastor now for 7 years I've preached through 24 books of the bible, Old and New Testament. Longest was Genesis which took a year and a half. Shortes was Zephaniah which we covered in 1 night. Currently in 1 Thessalonians and Malachi. To me, and I stress me, it's the truest way to declare God's word. Give it out as God gave it to us: chapter by chapter and verse by verse. For me, it's the best way to keep me out of things and God at the center

DJP said...

Yay, STP; good on you!


trogdor said...

Not a preacher here, but this really hit home. It's the same reason I need a Bible reading plan - to give me the assignment to read portions of scripture I wouldn't otherwise gravitate towards. For personal reading, as well as for leading Bible studies and family devotions.

The OT/NT books I have the most trouble with are Ecclesiastes and James. So of course earlier this year I axed my Bible study what books they would most like to study in-depth, and every guy named either Ecclesiastes of James. Great. If left solely to my preferences, those would probably be books #65 and 66, although I'd probably go through some of the others five or six times each before getting there. It would be so easy to duck the challenge, but I'd possibly not be serving them well, and would it really help me to teach the stuff I'm comfortable with yet again?

Lee said...

Thanks for your post Dan. I appreciate it. I am early on in my first official pastorate (I recently completed a year long interim but unfortunately with the temporariness of an interim pastorate was not able to spend much time with the one flock to cover as much of the Word as possible) and aim to approach balance in my preaching. In being here a month I am going through a few Psalms and then plan to preach through the book of Colossians. I am teaching through Exodus on Wednesday nights and intend to go through Genesis afterwards. Since my calling is to "preach the Word," then I must preach "all" the Word, including both Old and New testaments. Thank you for this much needed reminder. God bless!