Preaching Cross-References?

How much should the preacher use cross-references?  Yesterday Dave wrote this in a comment:

In an effort to avoid falling prey to the errors you outline here I kept myself from using many cross references. When reviewing the sermon, my pastor said his biggest advice was to use more cross references!  Do you have any hints on how to balance preaching the text and using cross references?

Dave, my advice is don’t use cross-references.

That should be the default. It will keep you in your passage and help your message stay focused. If there is a need for cross-reference, then do so, as much as is needed. For instance, if your passage is building on an earlier one, you might cite it. Or if the idea in your passage seems unusual in some way, it may be worth proving from elsewhere. I can’t think of many more reasons to cross-reference.

I certainly wouldn’t add cross-references to satisfy others who assume there should be lots of them.  If someone advised me to use them more I would be inclined to ask why, what would they add, what is the reason for the advice? Some people think a sermon has to have lots of cross referencing, or three parallel and alliterated points, or application just at the end, etc. These are all strategy decisions that should be made on a case by case basis, not given as a standard guideline.

We have to keep in mind the down side of cross referencing in order to make an informed choice:

1. You lose focus on your passage.  Some of those listening to you will hear a cross-reference and instantly have a clear view of that passage’s context, content, argument, occasion, etc.  Most won’t.  As they start thinking about that passage and whatever thoughts it triggers, they will not be contemplating the passage you are trying to preach.

2. You overwhelm listeners with scattered information.  Some will try to turn to any reference, even after you’ve moved back to your preaching passage.  Some will try to take notes of the references.  Either way, their attention will be diverted and the potential for concentration burnout increases.

3. You lose depth in explanation of your passage.  If they don’t understand the preaching passage, will going somewhere else really help explain it?  Sometimes it might, but typically it means explaining another passage.  Why not stay here and present it more clearly?

4. You lose time for application.  If they do understand the preaching passage, why abdicate your role of applying it to them by going elsewhere and half explaining another one?

As a default, I suggest we use zero cross-references.  Then when we do cross-reference, let’s do so on purpose.  A sniper’s bullet, not scattered buckshot.

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4 thoughts on “Preaching Cross-References?

  1. Counterpoint: A cross-reference may provide inspired commentary. If an interpretation is based on that inspired commentary, then I believe it is important to cite the authority, rather than making myself the authority. In doing so, I’m teaching the importance of letting Scripture shed light on Scripture, as well.

    Of course, this falls under your closing: “when we do cross-reference, let’s do so on purpose.” Not really a disagreement, just you gave no examples of “doing so on purpose.” Cross-referencing does have its uses.

    • Thanks Jon. I did give two examples of doing so on purpose:

      For instance, if your passage is building on an earlier one, you might cite it. Or if the idea in your passage seems unusual in some way, it may be worth proving from elsewhere.

      I agree that if your explanation is based on other Scripture, then it might be good to cite your source. What I often find though, in listening to sermons that like to cross-reference, is that those citations don’t interpret the preaching text. Often there is just a piling up of superficially similar texts, but no real light shed on the preaching text itself. In theory I agree with you, in my experience this is rarely done well however.

      There are more good reasons to cross-reference, such as answering questions that are likely to be in listeners’ minds (such as preaching on Acts 2, it wouldn’t be too unusual to nip over to 1Cor.12-14 to compare and contrast the nature of the tongues speech). My post is trying to push back on the assumption that good preaching should have a certain amount of cross-referencing in it. I think we’d do well to have a default of zero, and then only add purposefully.

      Thanks for interacting, what a privilege to speak God’s Word to others!

      • So you did. It was too early in the post, my memory faded, I guess. I think I had a better excuse than that, but I forgot what it was. 🙂

        In general, I agree, although I wouldn’t single out cross-references. Our illustrations should be “on purpose”, quotes of others should be, even “memorable outlines”. Does it distract from the text itself, or add to people’s understanding of it?

        But you’ve made those points elsewhere, I think, so you aren’t singling out cross-references. So I’ll quit, probably two comments too late. 🙂

        Blessings to you.

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