Most preachers would claim to be, and believe they are, biblical preachers. Trouble is, a lot of “biblical preaching” is only half-baked at best. That is, the biblical part is incompletely developed. Let me share some ways preachers only half-use a text:
1. Say just enough about the text to introduce what you want to say.
This is a common approach. The text is read at the start of the message or before the message. The preacher gives enough explanatory comments to get things going, then focuses in on what he wants to say rather than what the text itself is really saying. Some do this blatantly with a two or three sentence transition between reading the text and moving on to the message of choice. Others may spend longer and convince more listeners.
I was tracking with a message recently and this phase lasted fifteen minutes. But from that point on, the text was never really influencing the message; it was the preacher’s subject of choice that determined the goal and thrust of it all. Shame really, because the comments about the text whetted my appetite, but the message fell so flat.
In teaching I often say that no matter how smart you are, what you can make it say is not as good as what God made it say. In this case I have to modify the saying: no matter how smart you are, what you go on to say instead is not as good as what could have been said if the text were truly preached.
Don’t bounce off the text, leaving it behind in search of your target.
2. Preach from the details, but don’t figure out how they work together to give the main idea.
This is fairly self-explanatory. It is possible to make points from details in the text, but never get to the point of understanding or conveying the thrust of the whole text working together. How do the details cohere?
3. Preach a generic message or idea from what could be any text.
We are all capable of preaching abstracted truths and generic messages and tying them to a text with tenuous connections. Don’t preach a good message from a text. Preach the message of the text.
In this series of posts I am offering ten ways that I see preachers half-using a preaching text. The goal isn’t to critique, but to nudge us all to a higher view of the inspired text, a higher level of diligence in studying the text, and therefore a higher level of impact in our preaching of the text. So we’ve already considered using the text as an intro to another message, or failing to see how the details cohere, or preaching a message only nominally tied to the text itself.
4. Use the content, but ignore the context.
I use the term use deliberately. Sometimes the content of a passage could feel used because it isn’t understood in light of its context. This could be a certain term or phrase that is plucked out of its setting in a sentence and used to make a point. It could be the whole paragraph or section that is presented without awareness of how it fits in the flow of thought in the book.
I remember a conversation I had with a street preacher years ago. There are some street preachers who do a tremendous work of communicating the gospel to a busy and distracted world. This was not one of them. We got into a discussion about the Bible and I asked him what his view of the Bible was. “Oh, the Bible is like a treasure chest filled with jewels and treasures that we pick up and show to the world!” Problem was, he was plucking phrases without context and shouting random references to washing in blood and becoming white as snow, etc. It didn’t communicate. It regularly offended (in the wrong way).
That street shouter was an extreme example, but let’s not be lesser examples of the same error. Let’s be careful to always present a whole text in its context, rather than plucking the “useful” preaching bits and using, or abusing, them.
5. Use the context, but ignore the content.
I suppose this is a less common error, in my experience. But it is possible. I guess this happens more in the gospels. The preacher preaches about the ministry of Jesus in general, but doesn’t present the unique details conveyed by the gospel writer in this particular instance. (Or the preacher may preach the event accurately through harmonizing the gospels, but fail to preach the inspired text of the gospel in question.) Contextually it is possible to say Jesus was doing such and such, but if you’re preaching a particular healing narrative, preach it with good awareness of the detail the writer chose to include.
Editor's Note: Tomorrow we will feature Part 2 of 10 Ways to Half-Bake Your Sermon.