Why I Think Pastors Don’t Preach Through Books of the Bible

(Lisa Robinson)

As a follow up to my post here on reasons I think pastors should preach through books of the Bible, I noted these 7 reasons

1) It connects the book to the whole meta-narrative of scripture

2) It anchors the congregation in one theme or thought for an extended period of time

3) It treats the Bible as God’s disclosure instead of a self-help guide

4) It teaches people how to approach scripture on their own

5) It keeps the pastor from focusing on pet agendas

6) It keeps the pastor grounded in their task to connect people to God’s word in ways that are interesting

7) It confronts everyone with hard truths

My conviction remains firm that expository/expositional preaching through books of the Bible is a good preaching task.  Expository preaching need not be focused on whole books of the Bible, but most certainly is needed in order to preach that way. But this can be done very poorly as Jared Moore cites here with Six Suggestions for Preaching a Bad Expositional Sermon.

1) Do no application

2) Use no illustrations or stories

3) Give excessive exegetical detail

4) Fail to set the text in its canonical horizon

5) Fail to connect the text to the gospel

6) Fail to preach the text with appropriate urgency and weight

Jared’s list gives some clues on why pastors might not engage in preaching in this way, and in some cases are opposed to it. It occurs to me that either they don’t understand how expository preaching is done OR have a misconception about it and particularly as it relates to preaching through books of the Bible.

Expository preaching is a way of taking the text, explaining what it meant in its context, making it relevant for today, providing the congregation with application for how it must connect to the their lives and compelling them to do something. Haddon Robinson offers this definition, which certainly can be applied to topical teaching as well;

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers. (Biblical Preaching, 21)

So when preaching through books of the Bible, there may be a misconception that it means plodding through the book, verse by verse, line by line, giving technical detail that leaves the congregation wondering how in the world this passage connects to them. But this is not how to preach through books of the Bible. Rather, it is taking the theme of the book subdividing it into sections in ways that make sense according to that theme, identifying the big idea, explaining each block and how it connects to that theme and finding interesting and creative ways to connect it to people. The items on Jared’s list are a sure way to make this a bad process.

I’m very grateful that I have had good expository preaching modeled for me with pastors that took the time to design a series around a whole book of the Bible.  I am amazed on how in my current church, the pastor creates a series and combines such a balance between exegeting the text and connecting it to the audience in ways that are relevant and creative.  It takes a whole lot of time, study and prayer to accomplish this. But here’s the thing, they went to seminary and were trained how to do this. They were trained how to avoid the pitfalls on Jared’s list.

After taking my first preaching class this past semester, I have an even greater appreciation for expository preaching and the work that goes into preparing a sermon. The outlines that we had to prepare for taking the text from its proper context to application was tedious, challenging and I confess, at times drove me nuts.  The importance of providing concrete ways to connect to the audience was just as important as staying true to the text.  One of the assigned books was The Language of Love by Gary Smalley and John Trent, which provided an overdose on the significance of word-pictures. Why? Because it must connect to the audience.

So this gets to another reason why I think some pastors don’t preach through books of the Bible – because they don’t know how to in ways that won’t overburden, bore or confuse the congregation. It raises in my mind the importance of education and training for those who dare lead God’s people in biblical truth. That is not to say that the pastor is deficient if they have not gone to seminary because they can be trained by somebody who has gone OR have substantial exposure to what makes for good expository preaching by way of example and the wealth of written resources.  The bottom line is that there is a process to engage.

I should also point out that just because someone went to seminary does not mean they will preach a good message. Unfortunately, I’ve heard of too many cases and witnessed sermons myself that provide such evidence. I believe that practice and good mentoring are key long after seminary.

But I fear that too many pastors have dismissed training as academic and unnecessary. As long as they can preach (in some cases is nothing more than eloquent speech), as long as the audience applauses and as long as they use the Bible, they may reason that is sufficient especially if they’ve done it for an extended period of time. But I wonder how many congregations are being short-changed because of pastors who are too prideful or fearful to submit to a process and instead, insist on feeding their flock a steady diet of fragmented, disconnected verses to make their Christian life better and then call it “preaching the word”. How many congregations are lured into thinking they are getting a “good word” simply because the pastor makes a compelling presentation? No, not every pastor but specifically those who dismiss a process and preaching through books of the Bible as irrelevant.

Just because a pastor goes through a book does not mean he is engaged in expository preaching either. I recently heard one very popular pastor preach through Ephesians 1:5-9 and began eisegeting meaning into the text by making the whole sermon about how our life is a mystery.  Well, Paul clearly defined what the mystery was in Chapter 3 and it had nothing to do with the mystery of our lives but rather the unification of Jews and Gentiles into one body in Christ. The thousands in attendance stood and applauded and it just made me sad. Not only that, why the preacher did not include vs 10, which is the continuation of the sentence from vs. 9, nor want to discuss how we are accepted in Christ puzzled me since that is precisely what that passage is talking about.  But the message was delivered so eloquently and persuasively that made it quite compelling. Needless to say the presentation was very telling of one who relied on years of experience in preaching but never benefited from a solid educational process.

If pastors are to preach the word, preaching through books of the Bible and connecting it to the meta-narrative of scripture is a very good way of doing that.  Because the word has everything to do with the central message of the Bible. And if they don’t know how, they should learn.

12 Responses to “Why I Think Pastors Don’t Preach Through Books of the Bible”

  1. Complementarian. Pacifist. Gary. June 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Well said, Lisa.

  2. Perhaps it is because such preaching does not allow for riding one’s theological hobby horse is why some preachers shy away from expository preaching through an entire book. While I believe there is a place for topical, subject-driven messages, I will quickly point out that they need to come at the urging of the Spirit (of course, all pastors pray a long time before writing their message, don’t they?) and to meet a need in the congregation. My Sunday night labors are currently exposition through Hebrews, Wednesday night exposition through Judges, and Sunday AM a series based on an exposition of 2 Corinthians 9.

    If by “central message of the Bible” is meant the Biblical theology, then the issue gets a little difficult; several have tried to provide a Biblical theology, such as Vos, but the plethora of “Biblical theologies” available shows there is no consensus as to an overarching theology of the entire Bible. Might I humbly suggest that insofar as the homiletical task is concerned, it would be better to work from the spirit of 1 Corinthians 2:2-5, since in the crucifixion of Christ comes the culmination of the revelation of the plan of God.

  3. My pastor does not preach through the books of the Bible. And I’m glad that he doesn’t.

    We use a three year cycle lectionary, so that we do hear all (almost all) of the Bible read in that time, but por pastor preaches the gospel.

    He doesn’t pull the teaxt off the page and hand it (preach it) to us…but rather he pulls the gospel out of the text and hands Jesus to us.

    For without Jesus (and His gospel), what are you left with in the Bible? A lawbook.

  4. Then of course you have Andy Stanley’s take on it, as per his interview with Ed Stetzer:

    “Stetzer: “Question: What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?

    Andy: Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible– that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that.
    All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don’t feel it, then they won’t address it.”

  5. I believe the proper Biblical view of “expository preaching” is perfectly modeled by Ezra and his associates in Neh. 8;
    “They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8.8 NAS95)

    Notice how the “application” came about:

    “All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.” (Nehemiah 8.12 NAS95)

    Application was based upon and motivated by understanding the text as explained [“translated”] by the “expositors.”

    I believe Robinson’s definition of expository preaching that tends to limit the message to “ONE big idea” limits the divine author’s intent of the passage, periscope or chapter.

    One other thought: It appears to me that “preaching to persuade” has placed so much emphasis on the mechanics of homiletics, that the preacher’s words now tend to overpower and cover the biblical text itself. In other words, “preaching” has replaced or covered the expository proclamation of the text, hence the preacher rather than the text is now given top billing in our churches.

    Just one man’s thoughts!

    As Dr. Dwight Pentecost would say: “Selah!”

  6. Lisa Robinson June 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Selah, your last paragraph describes a tension I had in my preaching class. I agree that there can be so much attention on specific application that it forces one to respond to the preacher rather than the word. Not only that, it can force an application that may not be relevant to the hearer.

    In terms of the big idea, I don’t think it need be limiting to authorial intent as long as the biblical authors points are included and discussed. But that’s where it takes some skilled preaching to make sure the theme is consolidated enough but doesn’t circumvent the entirety of the author’s points.

  7. Wow. It amazes me how we can “know” the motives of strangers.

  8. Just reading through the comments wondering if different preaching styles are needed within the Body. We are not all created the same and express our faith in Christ the same, so why should preaching styles be the same?

    Personally, I prefer a mix of exegetical and topical preaching. Sticking with one for too long gets old. My old pastor would preach through a book but stop and do a “mini-series” on a topic. It kept things fresh.

    Scott O: Ouch, rough preparation schedule! God bless you!

    • Lisa Robinson July 10, 2012 at 1:26 pm

      Tony, I agree. In my former church back in MA, the pastor typically went through a book but occasionally took a break for a topical sermon. Sometimes the break would come in the middle of the book. Even at my current church, most of the series are centered around going through a book but there have been some topical series as well, though I don’t recall a single one that was not part of a series in the past 4 years I have been there. So bottom line is I am not opposed to topical sermons but I do think they need to be done in a way that honors scripture. So many that I have heard have been the result of picking a topic, then cherry picking verses to support whatever the pastor wanted to talk about, sometimes even ignoring the context of the proof-texted verses.

  9. Expository preaching is a misnomer.

    Expository Bible Studies have its place. i.e. teaching through a Book, chapter or passage of the Bible.

    Preaching is by necessity a mode of communicating, which is beyond teaching. Preaching is NOT teaching.

    Teaching reaches the head, whereas preaching is designed to reach the heart.

    Spurgeon was able to drive home truth by using Textual preaching (where he would take a text and exegete it- such as “faith which worketh by love”)

    But the most influential preachers of our generation were generally Topical preachers (at least in fundamental and Baptist circles) with their bombastic styles.

    I try to to preach a Textual message (to drive home one truth —since one truth is usually more than the average person can handle) …. obtained by studying the text in an Expository manner (considering the context, authorial intent, with a grammatical historical interpretation) …. preached in a Topical manner (“cry aloud and spare not”).

    A great preacher was asked what is the difference between teaching and preaching… he said preaching is just teaching with a tear in the corner of your eye.

  10. I believe Andy Stanley’s comments are a big problem in churches today. It’s funny…Jesus didn’t approach His ministry or preaching like Andy and his other marketing addicts. Jesus delivered the message of the Kingdom. Repent and believe!

    The truth is I don’t think pastors like Andy Stanley CAN teach verse by verse through the bible. That would require work…studying scripture…praying…all those those things the CEO of a business can’t be bothered with.

    Sorry for sounding so down on this topic, but I’m frankly tired of all of this “relevant” business. It’s making hard for real ministries that tell the real truth of the gospel to get through to people. While all of these so called “pastors” are competing for the spotlight, there are some of us out here really trying to save people and bring glory to God.

    Even research out now shows people have caught on to all of this fake pomp. People want something that’s real.

  11. How is “great” preaching defined and evaluated? WHat is the standard for judgment/evaluation. Is it how many people “like” the message or how much they like the messenger? Biblically speaking, IF the truth of Scripture is PROCLAIMED as it is REVEALED in the text, would it attract people or encourage them to stay away when the messenger who preaches the message as INTENDED by the author – both human and divine – is known to be the preacher. I am thoroughly convinced that “the church” has turned “preaching” into a “hollywood style” entertainment and “motivational” feel-good PERFORMANCE that preaching is now actually “killing the church” – starving it for the Word of God – while replacing it with “the word/gospel of man!” There is therefore, in spite of all the so-called “great” preachers, a “famine in the land” for the Word of God. Selah!

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