When we have the freedom to pick a passage on which to preach, the decision can end up taking an inordinate amount of time. Which book? Which bit? Typically my suggestion is fairly simple – “Pray, consider what the listeners might need, what they have been hearing lately and what you want to preach. Oh, and don’t waste 80% of your preparation time making your decision.”
But let’s say you’ve zeroed in on a potential passage, but you aren’t sure how much of it to preach. Perhaps a narrative and a subtly connected transition section sit together. Perhaps a paragraph in an epistle sits next to a connected paragraph (almost always true). Perhaps you’re looking at a Psalm, and the adjacent Psalm seems well connected (not unusual). What to do? Here are some factors to consider as you make the decision:
1. Unity of the longer passage – Does it really hold together? Is preaching the longer version going to drive in the focus, or will it dissipate it? That is, will it feel like a higher-calibre bullet that penetrates deeper, or will it feel like buck-shot spraying further away from the target?
2. What time do you have to preach – We can’t get away from this, what you can do in fifteen minutes is very different than what you can do in forty. (Not to say forty is always better, but it is much easier.) So if you are preaching in a situation where time is restricted for whatever reason, then less passage means less explation necessary, which in turn means more opportunity to apply the text.
3. Need of the audience – What do they need? Does the extra bit of passage add something that is really pertinent to them? Perhaps it allows for encouragement alongside rebuke? Perhaps it provides extra clarification on the real issue in the first part of the passage? Perhaps it drives home the truth in some way?
4. Required amount of explanation – Some passages require a lot of historical, contextual, cultural explanation to make sense. Others don’t. If the longer passage adds an inordinate amount of explanation requirement, then it might be better to keep the passage shorter and get to the applicational content as well. Your goal is not to impress people with your Bible knowledge.
5. Your personal preference – Sometimes it will be perfectly legitimate to simply ask, what would I prefer to preach? And it probably will be necessary to study the whole passage for a while before you decide what you would prefer.
I am not saying we can ignore textual unit boundaries completely. Narratives generally don’t like being broken, unless you can give a complete scene as a stand-alone. Psalms generally like to hold together within themselves. But preaching more than a narrow textual unit is often possible, and sometimes will be desirable. Hopefully these criteria may be helpful. There are surely others too…