How Long, O Passage?

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…

6 thoughts on “How Long, O Passage?

  1. Your post makes a lot of sense. The suggestions are reasonable and logical. They also depend (it seems) almost entirely on human wisdom. I’m simply saying let’s not forget to let the Holy Spirit lead. That’s all.

  2. I see. I’m certainly happy to have other criteria suggested and added to the post. While I may often fail to make overt mention of the need for prayer in every post that I write, I hope that people will consider a decent selection of the posts on the site and recognize that I do place importance on prayer in the preparation process.

    Perhaps it would be right to include prayer as one of the list in this post. However, the list consists of factors to consider when making a decision regarding the length of the preaching text. Should we consider prayer? No, we should do it. Somehow, even with its importance, it doesn’t feel like a parallel point in this list.

    If I can be slightly vulnerable here, I find the reference to 1Cor.2:1-5 to be a bit harsh. Paul was contrasting his ministry with the manipulative rhetoric of the secular entertainers of his day. While Paul distanced himself from these men and their methods, he didn’t refuse to engage in thinking about communication. A lot of thought went into his epistles, as evidenced by the amount of rhetorical devices used in his writing, among other evidences. I hope that my thoughts on this site can in some tiny way be more in the trail of Paul than of the godless manipulators. I certainly hope, in some small way, to prompt preachers to engage both their minds and their hearts in their Biblical study and message preparation, rather than affirming a purely pragmatic or purely mystical approach to the preaching ministry.

    Lance, I may be over-responding to a fair point. Forgive me if that is the case. I really do appreciate your engaging with the site and would rather mutually benefit than merely moderate away any discussion. Warmly, Peter.

    • Thanks. You see, I’m one of those people who’s always looking to stir the pot, so to speak. I’m guilty of finding fault in others when its really me who needs a kick in the pants. I don’t know you and I don’t mean to judge you. I’m sorry if I come across judgmental. Its just that I see so many out there who are so caught up in the mechanics of how that they forget the why. They forget to let the Spirit lead them. I’m not talking about prayer per se, but trusting the Holy Spirit to guide you say what needs to be said when you’re saying it. I’m all for the boy scouts and being prepared, and I think that’s the sort of thing you were going for – being prepared. There are many folks out there, pastors, who want a formula. They want to do something, to control it. They don’t trust the Lord to do the something through them. That’s a fine distinction, and in your brief post it seemed to be passed over, but I also understand the post was intended to be brief and to the point. I can definitely appreciate getting to the point. I fail often enough getting to the point myself. LOL. Thanks for the feedback. I’ll try to explain the point of my references better in the future instead of just hoping you hear my heart between the lines. ~_* Thanks for your patience.

      • Thanks Lance, I absolutely hear you on everything here. I agree fully with the danger of controlling the mechanism via some sort of formula, as opposed to being a good steward of the ministry God has entrusted to us (with His empowering presence by the Spirit). This post certainly did pass over that distinction, as you rightly say, because of word count. Thanks again for engaging with the site, and for the really helpful response to make sure we’re on the same page and not experiencing an online conflict! No patience needed on my side. Every blessing!

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