Word by Word Preaching: Why Not?

I don’t hear this label used as much as verse-by-verse preaching, but I have come across it.  On the surface, again, it sounds like it fits right in with a high view of Scripture and an expository view of preaching.  But again, I think it could lead preachers into some unhelpful practices that aren’t truly expository.

Some thoughts to chew on:

1. Every word is a doorway to endless digressions, but how they are working together is the real issue.  If you have read the Bible or anything vaguely theological, or if you own a concordance, then any word can be the start of a digression.  There are times when cross-referencing is helpful, but it has to be helpful to something specific.  That is, it cannot be an end in itself.  So you have to study the whole passage in order to know what the main idea is, and then determine whether pursuing the thoughts a word might spark would actually help the communication of that main idea.

2. Every word can slow you down, but you need to give the message of the passage.  This follows on from number 1.  Since each word, or even each theologically weighty word, can be the start of a digression in your explanation, it follows that every word can slow you down in preaching.  For instance, I can imagine someone preaching Ephesians 1:15-23 in this way and running out of time before really preaching the heart of the passage in verses 18-19, or the elaboration of the final element in the subsequent verses.  Just because verses 15-17 contain some mighty terms doesn’t change the fact that Paul is really introducing at that point.  Preach them, but don’t miss the message of the passage.

3. Every word should be studied, but not every word should be “preached.”  Some preachers feel it is their duty to offer a concise word study and chain reference guide for every term in the passage that seems weighty.  Study them all.  Preach the passage.

4. Every last word is inspired, but they are not equally weighted.  I would hold to a verbal plenary inspiration position.  That is, God inspired the words (verbum), all of them (plenary).  That doesn’t mean that I treat them as individual data banks and thought units when preaching.  In any sentence, the meaning is conveyed by a combination of the potential meaning of each word, determined by its function and role within the flow of the sentence and broader context.

Study the words, study the details, do the work.  And the work includes the integration of that study.  What is the author trying to communicate?  What are you trying to communicate to your listeners?  Then, preach the passage.

Verse-by-Verse Preaching: Why Not?

Preaching through a passage verse-by-verse seems to fit with a high view of Scripture, so why shouldn’t we settle for that as a preaching approach?

This is an important question.  After all, many people equate expository preaching with a verse-by-verse approach.  But there are some differences.  As I offer some counter points from a genuine expository perspective, please bear in mind that we may still take an apparently verse-by-verse approach at times in our preaching.  Nonetheless, these thoughts need to be kept in mind:

1. Verse-by-verse preaching can flatten out inspired texts and fall into a running commentary approach.  That is, a verse is an artificial division of the text.  The real division is the natural unit of thought that the author was seeking to communicate.  In a Psalm this might be the strophe, or the parallelism, not to mention the psalm as a whole.  In an epistle it would be a paragraph.  As preachers we need to communicate the thoughts intended by the author, which may not happen if we treat each verse as a unit of thought.

2. Verse-by-verse preaching can treat the text as a data source, rather than honouring its intended function.  Following on from number 1 above, when verses are treated as micro-units, then there is a temptation to view the text as a collection of data to be mined for interesting snippets.  This is very different than honouring every detail as part of the whole communication effort.  Every detail matters, but we need to communicate the “distilled thought” of the whole unit, as opposed to selecting highlights from a flattened text.

3. Verse-by-verse preaching can lose sight of the inspired genre and form of a text.  This may be restating the same thought from a different angle, but it is important.  God didn’t just inspire the meaning of the text.  We have to take the genre and form as vehicles in which that meaning is conveyed.  Consequently we must read a poem as if it were a poem, and a section of discourse as exactly that.  It does not help to preach a Psalm and a prophecy and a narrative and an epistle in the same way.

4. Verse-by-verse preaching can lose tension and emotion from a passage.  Not only does it tend toward treating verses as data banks, it can also flatten the emotive force of a passage.  There is often a tension to be felt, or a resolution to be experienced.  Verse-by-verse preaching easily can lose sight of such realities.

Submitted via comment, thanks David: 5. Verse-by-verse preaching tends to reinforce the tendency of many believers to focus on “proof” or “key” verses, rather than learning the argument of the author. Context can be lost and, ultimately, verses come to mean something other than they were meant to.

Bottom line.  For some preachers, a verse-by-verse approach would help increase their biblical content and focus.  However, a strict verse-by-verse approach doesn’t inherently recognize that while every verse is fully inspired, not every verse is created equal.

Selecting Sermon Form: The Preacher’s Strategy – Part 1

Over the next days I will re-assert a basic commitment of expository preaching on this site – there is great flexibility on form.  You can preach a text deductively or inductively, or a combination, or using some variation on these basic shapes.  You can choose three points, or two, or one, or four.  You can go verse-by-verse, chunk-by-chunk, logical thought by thought.  You can preach in first-person, second-voice, etc.  You can follow the Stanley 5-Step (me-we-God-you-we), the “Lowry Loop,” or the “Clowney Construct,” or Chappell’s variation, or Keller’s.  Whatever.  You have freedom to choose your form.  So why do we choose the form we choose?  It’s simple really.  It’s about strategy.  As Robinson puts it, the sermon idea is the arrow, your sermon purpose is the target, and your sermon form is how you think you can best deliver that arrow to its intended target.

Since there are numerous possible variations on sermon form, which should you choose?  It’s simple really.  Whatever will work best.  If you have a goal, then you will choose your strategy in order to achieve your purpose.  I see at least three implications here:

1. Resolute commitment to a good strategy may be foolhardy. Seems obvious, but circumstances change.  It’s true in war.  It’s true in sport.  It’s true in preaching.  If you preach in first person (in character) and you get great feedback, don’t automatically commit to always preaching in first person.  It will become old and lose some of its effectiveness.  Each sermon is an opportunity to choose your strategy according to the factors uniquely present on that occasion.