Some thoughts on pulpit methodology

Iain D Campbell

There is a philosophy current among evangelical preachers that one is not really preaching unless one is expounding and explaining a book of the Bible theme by theme, passage by passage, week by week. In some places, as I have discovered, any other method of biblical exposition is highly suspect.

There is, I admit, a valid theological argument underpinning such methodology. If the Bible is given to us as a unit, in the book segments determined by God himself, then we ought to respect this in our biblical proclamation. Indeed, there are some preachers whom I suspect will not be retiring until they have come as close as possible to expounding all the books of the Bible in this way; they will then, truly, be able to say that they have proclaimed the whole counsel of God.

There is also good historical precedent for the method. Calvin famously preached consecutively through books of the Bible for years. Indeed, after one of his forced exiles from Geneva, the congregation was on the edge of their seat wondering what he would say in his first sermon back in St Peter's. Calvin simply walked up the steps into the pulpit, opened the Bible, and continued preaching the same series which had been interrupted three years before.

Others too, like Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, both immortalised and canonised this methodology, preaching some very long series of sermons on some very long portions of the Bible. His eight volumes on Ephesians and his fourteen on Romans give evidence of sustained, regular, systematic, weekly, follow-on exposition through the same book of the Bible. If the great men of the past preached this way, who are we to raise an objection?

The point, however, is that not all the giants did it. One of the most notable exceptions was C.H. Spurgeon, the colossus of the nineteenth century evangelical pulpit. In contrast with the Lloyd-Jones volumes, any volume of the Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit will show that Spurgeon's weekly ministry, with all its attendant power and influence, was generally a ministry of isolated texts and varying themes.

This is further corroborated in Spurgeon's advice to preachers on choosing a text: 'I dare not announce what I shall preach from in six weeks' or six months' time' .... 'wait upon the Lord, hear what he would speak, receive the word direct from God's mouth, and then go forth as an ambassador fresh from the court of heaven'.

Some of the best preaching of my youth was of this kind. I cannot recall hearing a series of sermons through a biblical book in the Stornoway pulpit of the 1970s. Kenneth Macrae's Diary also shows that his method was to preach Sunday by Sunday on isolated texts. It is good, of course, to catch the flow of the biblical story, and vital to be able to set a text in its immediate context. But I think there are ways of doing that no matter the passage or text one is expounding, even if it is not part of a series. Indeed, I think that on several levels, the Spurgeonic method trumps the series method.

For one thing, unless it is done well, consecutive exposition can dull the appetite of God's people for the Word by continuing next Lord's Day simply from where we left off last week. As evangelical heralds of God's trumpet, we believe in giving no uncertain sound. But maybe sometimes the trumpet could be more effective if the tune was more varied. It takes an exceptionally good preacher to enthuse his people for the study on which he has embarked, to maintain their interest and to keep bringing them back for more.

For another, it is possible that we de-emphasise the authority of Scripture by concentrating over-long on sequential exposition. What would the average attender at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1875 think on hearing sermons on texts from six different books of the Bible in as many weeks? Would he or she not come to appreciate the parallel glory of all parts of Scripture? Does the method of preaching from isolated texts not somehow demonstrate that all Scripture is indeed inspired and profitable, simply by virtue of the fact that week by week, year by year, the preacher's texts are, in fact, drawn from 'all Scripture'?

And - most seriously of all in my view -it is possible that by being determined to preach through a whole book we actually end up not preaching at all, but giving an extended commentary on Bible passages. If all Scripture is inspired - including the very word choices and grammatical constructions - are we doing it justice by preaching on successive blocks of material, rather than concentrating on texts-in-context?

This is a discussion I have had on several occasions with different preachers. The last thing I want is to be a slave to a method. I have often preached through a series of interconnected sermons (though always with a determination to keep the series shorter rather than longer), and I have frequently resorted to preaching on individual texts from different parts of the Bible, my congregation not knowing what I shall serve up for them at any given spiritual meal.

I am not trying to advocate a method, simply to raise questions about what appears to me to be the prevailing methodology in contemporary evangelical ministry. I am also wanting to ask whether it is possible that the power which attended Spurgeon's preaching might just be related to his methodology? Might there be some added benefit for our congregations if they came to church next Sunday wondering in what part of the fields of their Redeemer they might be gleaning?

At last, I know that I am committed to two things: to a stand-alone sermon, and to a Christ-exalting sermon. The first is necessary because it is just possible that someone may wander into church, not having heard the gospel before, and hearing it now for the first and last time. In that case, it will not do simply to refer to last week's sermon, or anticipate next week's. Each sermon must be a study in itself, a complete unit, which can be transported out of the church and into the life of the hearer.

But the second is equally necessary, because Christ is the theme of every part of Scripture. If my sermons do not exalt and speak of him, then no methodology will remedy that most glaring omission of all.


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