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preaching article Why I Don’t Go to the Bible to Find a Text to Preach On

Why I Don’t Go to the Bible to Find a Text to Preach On

based on 4 ratings
May 13, 2014

“God’s Word is not a textbook.” That was one of the first sentences I heard in the toughest, best class I ever took in Bible college: hermeneutics from Norman Arnesen at Bethany College.

Professor Arnesen held his Bible up for the class and spoke softly, but firmly.

“Please don’t ever treat this book as anything other than what it is. It’s not a textbook, a rule book or a collection of inspirational quotes. And, whatever you do, don’t ever go to the Bible to find a passage to preach on for Sunday’s sermon.”

I was with him until that last part. Thankfully, he explained what sounded like heresy to me.

“It will be tempting, when you have to preach and teach two or three times a week (this was the era of the Sunday evening service and mid-week Bible study) to open your Bible and search for something—anything!—to inspire your next sermon or Bible study. Please resist that temptation.”

Don’t Lose the Wonder

“You see, the Bible really is God’s Word to us. When we open it to hear God speak to our heart, God will honor his Word and speak to us through it.

“Your task and holy calling as a pastor will be to hear from God, grow in faith, then take what God has shown you and share that experience with the church. 

“When we treat the Bible like a collection of sermon texts, we lose the wonder and the beauty of it. When we read it to find material to preach from, we stop hearing God speak to us. And when that happens, we start dying spiritually. It’s all output and no inflow.

“That’s a dangerous position for a pastor to be in. And it has killed many great ministries. Don’t let it kill yours.

“This class is not designed to tell you how to find the 'right' passage to preach from. What I hope to do is teach you how to take the passage God has touched your heart with and treat it in such a way that you can teach its principles to others accurately and passionately.

“Now, open your syllabus and let me show you how I plan to torture you for the next four months.”

Let God’s Word Speak to You, First

OK, I made that last part up.

But the rest of it is my best recollection of one of the best lessons I ever received in pastoral ministry and preaching.

Since then, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in ministry. But one thing I’ve never done is break the promise I made to God and myself that day in that classroom. I’ve never gone to the Bible looking for something to preach about on Sunday.

When I open God’s Word, it is to ask God to speak to me, and me alone.

I continue to discover new depths every time I do that. Then I take the overflow, I apply the painstakingly thorough principles I learned in that hermeneutics class, and I do my best to share the truths God shows me through the wonder of his Word.

Norman Arnesen and Bethany College are no longer with us. But what they taught me lives on.

So what do you think? Has the Bible become a text book or repository of sermon material for you? What can you do to take it back?

Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.

Talk about it...

Joe Mckeever avatar
Joe Mckeever
0 days ago
Karl, I wrote a similar type article saying "Just because the Bible says something does not mean you need to preach it; ask Him! God has specific things He wants you to preach." To my utter surprise, quite a few readers (preachers) went ballistic. "If it's in the Word, I preach it!" "Preach the Word," Paul told Timothy. -- So, good luck with this!! :-)
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Joe, I completely agree that not everything God speaks to me from scripture is sermon material. God uses his Word to speak privately to me as well. You may have identified a real danger on the flip-side of this coin - allowing our private and ministry lives to become too inter-weaved. It takes discernment to know what parts are appropriate overflow to share with others and what needs to be kept in our own hearts. But the times my preaching has been the most impactful have been when I've spoken most directly from that overflow.
Richard Scotland avatar
Richard Scotland
0 days ago
I follow the Lectionary but I know others who follow it too, but preach the same sermon regardless of the readings that day! Good article, thanks for taking the time.
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Thanks, Richard. My church tradition isn't nearly as formalized as yours, so there's no lectionary for me to draw from. I love that forums like this give ministers from different Christian backgrounds a place to bounce good ideas back and forth.
Byron Morgan avatar
Byron Morgan
0 days ago
There is no doubt that a pastor/preacher needs to keep a healthy devotional life with the Lord and should "hear from God." But to say that we should pick what God has chosen to speak to us about is extremely to subjective. There are two things left out of the equation. First, where does the "whole counsel of God" come into to play. That is part of our charge as shepherds, you know. Secondly, what is the "spiritual diet" that is needed to the congregation (according to their spiritual needs for growth.
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
I agree, Byron. Balance is always needed. But I've found that if my spiritual diet is balanced, then what I pass on will be balanced, too. I usually end up with more than enough to preach on, based on my time in God's Word, so I can be selective and balanced in what I preach on. I don't preach on what I'm feeling at a particular moment. It sits for a while, I keep constant notes and I have a wealth of content to draw on. By letting it rest for a while, I avoid preaching on my pet projects or momentary moods. This helps me speak "the whole counsel of God" with a balanced approach and address needs of the congregation.
Byron Morgan avatar
Byron Morgan
0 days ago
I appreciate what you are trying to say but, in my view, it is still comes across subjective. While it is important that the preacher has his heart prepared for delivering the message, this comes across, to me, too "me centered" (in all due respects.) And remember, as one of my profs, Dr Joe Aldrich, said many times, all of our theology is filtered through our humanity--Meaning no one has perfect objectivity or perfect balance as the Word of God does, i.e. the whole counsel of God. But blessings on you brother. I appreciate the opportunity to interactive.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
You bring up some good points that deserve consideration. But regarding what you wrote, "to say that we should pick what God has chosen to speak to us about is extremely to subjective," I invite you to consider the alternative: On what basis do I have the authority to preach what God has NOT chosen to speak to me about? If God has chosen not to speak to me concerning a certain issue, should I really be preaching on it?
Byron Morgan avatar
Byron Morgan
0 days ago
Bill, "If God has chosen not to speak to me concerning a certain issue, should I really be preaching on it? "---The answer to this question is, yes. Your statement in itself is subjective. Our authority does not come from a subjective impression in which I perceive that God has spoken to me. Don't get me wrong, God does speak to us through his word but that speaking to us is subject to our own human filter. My authority is inherent in the inspired Word of God. Thus, my speaking or not speaking is not confined to what I think is His speaking to me. Much more I could say here but I will stop.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
I apologize for not responding sooner, I didn't notice your reply until just now. I don't disagree with what you are saying, I just don't think you're understanding the author correctly. He is not denying that we should strive to preach the whole counsel of God. And he is not denying that our authority is inherit to the inspired word of God. If those are the conclusions you are inferring from the article, I believe you missed the point! Preaching from the overflow of what God has first spoken to the preacher is not "me-centered" at all. On the contrary, it is completely God-centered, for it recognizes that the preacher has no authority to preach until God has spoken first. Of course our authority "is inherent in the inspired Word of God." It is BECAUSE of what you are asserting that we need to hear God speak to us through that inspired word first, which is what the author is saying. As for the charge of being subjective, I'm not talking about "subjective impressions" about what I "perceive that God has spoken to me." If that is the conclusion you inferred from my comments, I am CERTAIN that you missed my point. My point, as I understood the author's point to be, was that we should not approach the Scriptures as a "sourcebook" for sermons. The primary purpose of Scripture is not to give us something to preach about next week, although I have known many pastors and preachers who approached it that way. Rather, the purpose of Scripture is to hear God speak to us, and as we hear him speak--through the discipline of proper study and interpretation of the Scriptures--from that we preach. That I replied to one of your comments, and that you answered my reply, is a matter of objective fact. It is not subjective at all. Likewise, that God speaks to us through the written Word is just as objective. Like I said, I'm not disagreeing with most of what you're saying. It's just that what you're saying seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what the the author and I are communicating. I hope you enjoy your week!
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Thank you, Bill. You've summarized my sentiments beautifully.
A. G. Benson avatar
A. G. Benson
0 days ago
Deeper and deeper in cow pasture doo-doo, I started to say, but then thought better of it when I reflected on the value of cow patties.
Jeff Strite avatar
Jeff Strite
0 days ago
I understand what Karl is trying to say (and I agree). But I've been very careful to always anchor my sermons in a Bible text. It keeps me from drifting off to my own hobby horses and allows God to talk to me (and ultimately to my audience) from His rationale rather than mine.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
The question is not about anchoring the sermon on a Bible text. What the author is addressing is the more fundamental issue of our attitude towards the Scripture. Do we see it as God's personal word of revelation to us? Or do we see it merely as a sourcebook for sermons? That is the focus of the article. That the author agrees that every sermon should be anchored in Scripture seems like a given to me.
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Yep, you got it right, Bill. Keep that anchor tight.
Keith  B avatar
Keith B
0 days ago
I come away wondering if the author of this article is advocating a verse-by-verse expository type of preaching, or topical preaching based on his devotional life. I have personally seen the value of going a book at a time. My people have told me they are inspired to read ahead, and they keep up with the text when they miss a Sunday. They are also growing in the love and knowledge of the scriptures being able to study through an entire book before jumping to the next passage.
Bill Williams avatar
Bill Williams
0 days ago
I don't think the author is advocating one or the other (expository vs. topical). What he is saying is to treat the Bible as what it is, God's personal word of revelation, rather than as a sourcebook for sermons. One can do that regardless of preaching style.
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Hi Keith. That's a very good question. The main way I preach is verse-by-verse expository. But even if the message is topical, I will usually anchor it from a specific passage and jump around as little as possible. And I always put next week's passage in this week's bulletin and in my weekly Pastor's Email so the congregation can read ahead. Preaching what God's Word spoke to me doesn't mean I preach on a whim-of-the-week. It's usually something I was blessed or challenged by many weeks or months (sometimes years) ago. I takes notes on it, sit with it, pray over it, organize it in a series, study it in depth, then preach on it. God speaking to me from His Word isn't my end point, it's the starting line for further study.
Sarah Person avatar
Sarah Person
0 days ago
Keith's question was my question. You cleared up everything in your answer. Whereas your blog caused me to think you were talking about preparing for an immediate sermon, but you explained that you were talking about your sermon planning. Thank you.
Themba Motaung avatar
Themba Motaung
0 days ago
Thank you Karl,what I seem to get from the article is that the 1st place to go to for a sermon is not to the Bible but to The Holy Spirit for revelation of what God our master wants to say to His flock.once we have the revelation then The Bible for scriptures to back up the revelation.but what I find sometimes is as I go through scriptures.the same Holy Spirit reveal deeper things.if we start with the Bible,we are relying on intellect and knowledge of scripture and make up our own sermons instead of getting revelation knowledge from the Holy Spirit.It is also true that as ministers,not everything God reveals is for the sermon but maybe for the individual,so discernment is key.
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Hi Themba. I'm glad you asked this because that's not my intention at all. It starts and ends with God's Word. All I'm saying is that we need to resist the temptation to treat the bible as little more than a set of sermon ideas. It's always more than that.
Ellison Gordon avatar
Ellison Gordon
0 days ago
Themba I agree with you fully. I was taught that you must always know who you are speaking to , and you must be able to relate to that group in a fashion that they may be able to understand what the Holy Spirit has given to you. The Bible is the guide, it is the pathway in which we follow to transfer this message. The Holy Spirit is the revealer of the facts of the Bible. The Bible is filled
Jeff Gentry avatar
Jeff Gentry
0 days ago
Karl...thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I loved it and sincerely appreciated it.
Karl Vaters avatar
Karl Vaters
0 days ago
Thanks, Jeff. Glad it was a blessing.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.