(This post is the second in a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here.)
Sunday is over and another sermon is in the books. Now it’s Monday and you can take a break, right? Well, many preachers do take a “break” on Monday, but their minds never stop working, never stop thinking ahead to the next sermon. To modify a famous sermon from S. M. Lockridge, “It’s Monday, but Sunday’s coming.” And one of the first questions you end up wrestling with invariably is this: What am I going to preach on?
If you’re doing an expository book series, someone may say, “Well, that’s easy. Just preach the next paragraph. You’re text is already selected for you.” And in one sense, they may be right. As I argued in Part 1 of this series, you should begin your text selection process by simply determining the next consecutive thought unit. But the text selection process doesn’t end there, and it may not be as simple as it sounds.
Identifying the next unit of thought requires some work. You need to pray for wisdom and study the passage looking for its natural divisions. Beyond that, you need to confirm your conclusions by comparing the paragraph divisions of several modern English translations and by consulting the sections in various original language text editions. And just to make sure you’re not overlooking something, you should consult a number of reputable secondary sources (like commentaries and reference Bibles) to compare their outlines.
And even after all this work, you may encounter conflicting evidence. To continue the example from Part 1, if I am preaching from the beginning of 1 Peter 5, some sources advocate 5:1-4 as the next unit while others 5:1-5.
But even if you come to a conclusion about what the next thought unit is, identifying the next consecutive thought unit is not the end of the text selection process.
There are several additional factors that should influence your final decision.
1. What translation are you using?
What translation are you preaching from, and what (by-and-large) is your congregation looking at? If you’re using the NKJV to preach from and the majority of your congregation is looking at the same, well, then, maybe 5:1-4 would be the best choice for a preaching text.
This consideration, however, is probably the least influential for me. But perhaps it would play a small role in helping me make my final decision.
2. How much time do I have?
Like it or not, time is a factor. And like it or not, we can’t always cover what we’d like to in one sermon. (And frankly, in many cases, that’s a good thing, because what we’d like to cover and what our people are able to handle are often not the same.)
In the case of 1 Peter 5, the difference between 5:1-4 and 5:1-5 is not significant. Covering one more verse is certainly manageable.
But in other cases, when the difference consists of multiple verses, time may be a deciding factor in how much you choose to take on.
3. How would the divisions affect the theme and emphasis of the sermon?
In the case of 1 Peter 5, if I preach 5:1-4 I am only going to cover the responsibilities and the reward of elders.
To include v. 5, however, would be to cover the right response to those elders.
So in terms of theme and emphasis, yes, even one verse can make a difference.
4. Who is my audience and what is my purpose for preaching this message?
All of the aforementioned considerations and questions are subject in the end to this one fundamental question: What purpose do you have for preaching this particular message to this particular group of people?
By the end of the text selection process, you should move from thinking in terms of a thought unit (only) to thinking in terms of a purpose unit (see Jay Adams Preaching with Purpose, 26).
For example, if your purpose is to help your congregation understand the role of a church elder, then 5:1-4 might be your best choice. Perhaps a whole message could be preached the following week on 5:5 (informed by the immediate context) which focuses on the believer’s response to spiritual leadership.
However, if your purpose is to help your congregation see how humility should govern every relationship in the church from the top down, then 5:1-5 would be a better choice, because it fits your purpose better. (Keep in mind when I say “your purpose,” I am assuming that your purpose as a preacher is informed by and consistent with the biblical author’s purpose for writing the text in the first place.)
1. Is it ever legitimate to have a preaching text that is not a thought unit?
For example, could I take as my text 1 Peter 5:2-3, knowing that the actual unit most likely consists of verses 1-4 at the very least? I would say yes, so long as your handling of those two verses is done in relationship to (and in a way that is consistent with) the larger unit and not apart from it.
Again, your prayerfully-informed perspective and purpose as a pastor, knowing, as you do, the needs of your particular flock, will guide you in making the final decision here.
2. Is it ever legitimate to have a preaching text that consists of more than one thought unit?
What about the other direction? Can my preaching text be larger than the one basic unit of 5:1-4 or 5:1-5? Absolutely. Because 5:6-11 continues the theme of humility, I might decide to incorporate those verses and preach an entire message on 1 Peter 5:1-11.
Obviously the bigger the chunks the faster the series will progress (“and end!” says your congregation).
Bigger units also necessitate less detailed exposition of the minutiae. That’s not necessarily a problem if your purpose is to do more of an overview of the book and keep the series moving rather than spend a great deal of time bogged down in the individual details.
Personally, I’m a strong advocate for both kinds of preaching. Big picture preaching and little picture preaching are both valuable and should be combined in pastoral ministry to give people a well-rounded diet of Scripture.
So avoid the temptation to arbitrarily choose your next preaching text simply because it constitutes the next thought unit in the book. While that is a good place to start, make sure that in the end your text is selected with a clear and compelling purpose.
Question: What other steps do you take to determine the length of your preaching unit in an expository book series? What questions do you ask yourself? What are the main factors that help you make your final decision?