I have yet to read T. David Gordonâ€™s book, Why Johnny Canâ€™t Preach, but Iâ€™m tempted to wonder if part of the reason for Johnnyâ€™s homiletical ineptness is that he feels constrained to preach one paragraph at a time. Mind you, I have nothing against the lectio continuo, that is, preaching and reading through entire books of Scripture rather than building homilies out of the three or four different lessons assigned by the lectionary. The former invites expository preaching while the latter encourages pious thoughts on biblical themes (with lots if illustrations from television series). At the same time, when you hear stories of men spending three years in Romans and think that an average Christian in a lectionary church has heard the entirety of Scripture read during the same time, you begin to wonder about the side effects of devotion to bite-sized texts.
One sign of problems with such preaching is to consider whether a pastor loses sight of the original reason for the book of Scripture through which he is sermonizing. During the first two or so chapters into one of Paulâ€™s letters, for instance, the pastor is generally attentive to the context and the particular problems that vexed the Corinthians. But come chapter thirteen, a minister may have grown weary of reminding the congregation of Paulâ€™s original context and so begin to treat the later passages in isolation from the actual situation in Corinth.
This problem leads to another, at least associated with epistles, which is, are letters meant to be read a paragraph at a time? Maybe some lovers will savor each graph of their belovedâ€™s letter, like the last chocolate in the box. But generally speaking, whether for business or personal communication, we read letters from beginning to end. Why, many New Testament experts have said that Hebrews was regularly read in one sitting to the early church. So how much does expository preaching slow down a natural approach to texts?
Is there a solution? Probably not. But I do wonder if ministers might mix their approach to books of the Bible in the same way that they may vary the genres the choose to preach. Why not every third sermon series decide to preach an entire book â€“ and I mean a longer one like a Gospel or Romans â€“ in six sermons? If a pastor did this and was forced to preach through the entire book only six times, how would that organize his thoughts and presentation? Would he miss a lot? Yes. And given the way that some ministers do word analysis in their sermons, covering a pericope at a time is a sprint through Scripture. So the size of sermon texts is relative, just as speed and exposition are in the eye of the behold. But a six sermon allotment would help the congregation to see the entire book and its main points. If the pastor were so inclined, he could come back to certain passages that deserve greater attention. But again, in order to keep before the congregation the overarching point of a specific book, is a seventy-six week series the way to go?
And if we could preach entire books in greater speed, maybe we could also introduce catechetical preaching, which would give a summary of the entire Bibleâ€™s teaching â€“ if youâ€™re following Heidelberg â€“ in one year.
I also wonder if giving more attention to the high points of the Bible and its books would be a way to prevent some of the balkanization that goes on in conservative Reformed circles when pastors take on pet doctrines or harbor beloved themes. If preachers had to look more to Paul or God to organize their thoughts than to their own abilities to find three or four points in a paragraph, maybe conservative Presbyterians would get along. As it stands, our manner of preaching splits up texts in ways that seldom bring unity to the very words we revere.