If Protestantism ever dies with a dagger in its back, the dagger will be the Protestant sermon." In that brief quip Donald Miller puts the ringer on a challenge to both Protestantism in general and to Adventism in particular. Too many preachers have apparently understood Matthew 10:23 to read "When they persecute you in one text, flee to the next."
In the average pulpit, there is too much fleeing from text to text or even away from the text altogether. I recall one pastor who preached to the same congregation nearly every week but had only three sermons. I don't mean that he had only three sermon scripts, but three topics, each of which he worked over about once a month. To be sure, he produced variations and mutations in his limited topical repertoire, but it was all very much the same to those of us who held down the pews. In fact, it was all quite predictable, except for those times when in frustration he added a little spice to his sermonic exercise by "beating up" the congregation.
His three sermons, as I recall, focused on the Second Advent, the Sabbath, and stewardship. Thus you can see that he was a "good Adventist," even if his flock received rather impoverished pulpit fare.
Preaching the Word versus preaching ourselves
How many times we pew-warmers wished our obviously sincere pastor had followed the injunction of Paul to "preach the Word ... in season and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2, NIV) rather than bouncing from one proof-text to the next as he used his few passages to support his ideas. Did God have no "word" for us?
Now, topical preaching has its occasional place, but all too often it has very little to do with preaching the Word. Let's face it, most of us preach to ourselves; we preach to the problems that we fear or the issues that challenge us. In short, we scratch where we itch. In the process, the entire congregation gets scratched where the pastor itches when their real need is to be fed a well-balanced diet of biblical, expository preaching.
The solution to the homiletic disease of preaching to one's self is to "preach the Word." We need to move away from what we want people to hear toward what God wants them to hear. That means biblical preaching in the expository sense. The need is to let God speak as He sets forth His messages through the various books of the Bible. The Bible presents a vast array of topics in varied formats. When we preach expositorily from Scripture, it keeps us away from hobbyhorses and, more positively, helps us preach to the entire range of subjects God wants us to deal with. Don't worry about such topics as stewardship, justification, works, or the Sabbath. They are all embedded repeatedly in passages just waiting to be expounded.
Unfortunately, Adventism doesn't have many role models of sustained expository preaching. Even the Sabbath School lessons generally follow the injunction of fleeing from one text to the next in a manner that gives many the idea that their purpose is to serve readers an extra-biblical agenda rather than to provide class members with a better knowledge of what God has to say to His people. It's almost as if something in our Adventist agenda (an agenda that I am in harmony with) might get lost if we don't help the Bible out a bit. This tendency is even present when we are studying Bible books in their entirety. Thus, for example, a few years ago we found the concept of works being imported into a lesson on Romans 4, where the concept was quite foreign and didn't fit. Paul, of course, expounds forcefully on the topic beginning in chapter 6 and climaxing it in Romans 13 and 14. In fact, the entire book of Romans is couched in Paul's affirmation that he had been empowered to "bring about the obedience of faith" to the Gentiles (see Rom. 1:5; 16:26, NRSV). Balance is found in the totality of the book. If we let God speak in His own time through His Word, He will tell us what He wants us to know in its proper context.
If you haven t figured it out by now, the present essay is a call to increased biblical, expository preaching and less fleeing from one text to the next.
Preaching and priorities
But, you may be thinking, how can we "preach the Word ... in season and out of season" when we have so little time for serious Bible study? Thanks for asking. For a while I thought we would never get to this point.
Here we are dealing with a matter of priorities. What, we need to ask, is the primary function of a pastor? That is the most important question we can ask about our calling. Unfortunately, too many of us have our understanding wrong at this precise point, and biblical preaching ends up being one of the casualties.
I don't know where I picked up the concept, but somehow in my early ministry I got the idea that the essence of being a pastor was baptizing a certain number of people (i.e., as many as possible) and raising financial goals (i.e., as much as possible). With such an agenda I didn't find much time for biblical preaching and discovered pastoral work to be less than fulfilling. In fact, I became a bit disillusioned, even though I became better than average at meeting goals.
It was only later that I arrived at the conclusion that the trouble with many denominations, congregations, and pastors began when they learned how to count. We count baptisms, members, contributions, institutions, and so on as if they were ends in themselves.
Now, I don't imagine God has too much against goals, numbers, or even counting, as long as such exercises remain in their proper places. Part of the problem is that they take on a life of their own and end up at the very center of what many people, pastors, and church leaders see as "doing church." In such cases, goals become the center of what ministry is all about. Ministry becomes tending the machine and even making sure you have ever more machinery. As one head pastor of a large institutional church put it, his function was "running the local franchise of the Adventist Church, somewhat like being responsible for making a link in the McDonald's chain pay off."
I have come to the conclusion that too many of us have it all backward. We need to "forget" the goals and move on to ministry. A pastor has two primary functions: loving God's people and feeding God's sheep. For too long have we viewed nonchurch members primarily as potential baptismal candidates (as numbers) and members as "gospel cows" who need regular milking. Thus we visit people with an agenda. In like manner, the sermon becomes a tool to achieve that agenda.
We need to reverse our priorities. Pastors are called to lie lovers of people and preachers of the Word. Just think, pastors are paid to love people, to study the Bible, and to present God's Word to His children. What a job! What a delight! It sure beats running the local franchise while sporting the name pastor.
I firmly believe that when we get our priorities straight, the goals and numbers will take care of themselves. Many church members are tired of being treated as "gospel cows" on an ecclesiastical dairy farm, and they are frustrated with less-than-biblical preaching. And the large number who feel that way certainly have no burning desire to expose their friends and neighbors to what they believe is less than satisfactory. People are hungry for both genuine Bible preaching and genuine interpersonal caring. Members will bring their friends to church if they consistently hear the Word of God skillfully proclaimed and if they know that they and their acquaintances will be cared about as people rather than treated as goals or numbers.
That means that pastors need to visit their members and those members' neighbors just because they care about them, not so they can promote some hidden agenda. It means that pastors need to become not only lovers of people but lovers of the Bible so they can help people learn to enjoy walking through God's Word. People will come to a church where they are genuinely cared for. They will support the program, and they will bring their friends to hear God's Word and share His kindness.
Expository preaching means regular and serious Bible study. But even in study I fear that most of us too often flee from one text to another and settle for something less than a deep contextual understanding of the biblical text. Again, that fleeing and its resultant shallowness shows up in the pulpit.
The truth is that without in-depth exegetical study it is impossible to consistently present insightful biblical expositions in our sermons. We end up running "on the hoof" and "when persecuted in one text" we have no choice but to "flee to the next." The results may "get us through" the eleven o'clock service, but they may be less than inspired. In short, we cannot preach the Word if we don't know the Word. While getting to know the Word takes time and effort, it stands at the very heart of genuine ministry.
My study of the Bible
Our great need is to flee to the Word that we might be more effective preachers of it. Some years ago I took that injunction to heart in my own life and work. In 1980 I began an intensive, verse-by-verse study of the Bible that I estimated would take thirty years to complete. My first target was the Gospel of Matthew. I devoted an hour a day for a full 12 months. Then followed eleven months with Genesis, four with Ecclesiastes, and so on.
My method was quite simple. Not only did I arm myself with various translations and aids to study the text, but I also selected three well-written commentaries for each biblical book. I read each of those commentaries daily in my verse-by-verse study, not because they had the whole truth but because the skills and knowledge of their authors aided me in unpacking the text in a systematic way. They helped me see things that I often passed over when studying on my own. It was something like sitting down with three articulate friends who held differing opinions. Some days I managed to work through four or five verses, but on other verses I would spend two or three days, always studying in context and in relation to each biblical book's purpose. As I fled to, rather than from, the text, the months passed, and I began to think about the Bible in new ways. My daily walk with God in the text began to affect my preaching and writing.
I might say at this point that my method is only one of many ways of coming to grips with the Bible. It is not so much the method that counts but that we faithfully and consistently give a portion of our time to systematic Bible study.
In my commentary method I was careful to select works that were highly recommended for their textual insight. Thus I asked a few questions and did a bit of research as I moved from one Bible book to the next. I wanted volumes that were insightful, generally faithful to the text, readable, and not overly large (many commentaries today are coming out in two or three large volumes per biblical book). Rather than buying sets, I tended to go for the most helpful individual volumes I could find. Having said that, I will note that I found the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (InterVarsity Press) to be helpful, along with the various volumes in the New International Commentary (Eerdmans) on the Old and New Testaments. Beyond that, I have benefited from William Barclay's Daily Bible series. Even though Barclay quite often strayed from the text, he helped me see practical applications that more scholarly works never stopped to explore.
On a more sermonic level I found the various expository works by such authors as Martyn Lloyd-Jones to be helpful, since they worked systematically and expositorily through the text in a pastoral setting.
The must of Bible study
No matter what our method, consistent Bible study is a must it is a pastoral and personal essential rather than a luxury. In my case it has literally transformed my preaching. Whether it has been a series of sermons on Christ's parables or a recently completed 14-week series on Matthew, I have found a joy in presenting God's Word. Beyond that, people are fed in a way that they yearn for and in a manner not accomplished when we simply flee from one text to the next.
Beyond preaching, systematic Bible study has directed much of my writing. For example, some years ago I noted that the daily devotionals put out by the denomination tended to follow the flight from one text to the next! I decided to write a devotional that would stick to the text while at the same time making "sermonic" applications to daily life. The result was Walking With Jesus on the Mount of Blessing -365 readings that follow the text of the 111 verses of the Sermon on the Mount for a year's exploration of Matthew 5-7. Had I been in a pastorate, the result would have been 10 to 25 expository sermons from that special biblical gold mine.
In the not too distant future I will be developing a similar devotional entitled Walking With Paul Through the Book of Romans. Mean while, I would love to sit in a church where the pastor spent a few months walking us through that crucial book. But such a pastor will, of necessity, have had to walk privately with Paul and his Lord in the text before he or she provided a guided tour for the rest of us. The effort, however, would be well worth it for both pastor and people.