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Volume 18, Issue 3: Presbyterion

Picking a Text

Douglas Wilson

Preaching, even if it is only once a week, is an arduous and demanding task. When busy pastors find themselves speaking more than this, it can seem an overwhelming task. One of the worst things that can happen—with this deadline fixed at every seven days by the decretive will of God—is to be struck with the preacher's equivalent of writer's block. How do we decide what to preach on?

There are several schools of thought and many different methods within those schools of thought. Topical or expository? Exegetical or applicational? Paper or plastic?
I do not think we can take any "one-size-fits-all" approach, and I would not want anything I write here to be taken by others and applied woodenly as some kind of standard. It certainly is not. But I have settled into a pretty consistent pattern over the course of a number of years, and I have personally found it very helpful. I would encourage any preachers (who are looking for a pattern to follow) to experiment with something like this. Of course, those preachers who are content with the pattern they have don't need to do a blessed thing. Effective patterns of selecting sermon topics are likely to be matched to the particular rhetorical gifts that a preacher has anyway, and so it would be a basic mistake to simply imitate someone else across the board.
All this said, I have sought to have the preaching schedule be basically expositional, going through books of the Bible, alternating between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In between books, I usually make room for short (and occasionally not so short) topical series. The longest topical series I preached was a string of 39 sermons on marriage, which one wit in our congregation dubbed the "forty stripes save one" series. I also preach topical (occasional) sermons if I am preaching on one of our five evangelical feast days (we frequently have joint services with our sister congregation on feast days, so I am not always preaching). When I am preaching, I prepare the sermon in line with the church year for Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension, and the Fourth of July. Just kidding . . . Trinity Sunday. I also insert a short series of ten psalms periodically.
To illustrate this, as of this writing, I have just finished going through the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah (taken together). After a couple topical sermons, I will preach a short series (6-8 weeks) on what constitutes a Christian worldview. After that, I will preach through Psalm 31 to 40. (At the rate that is going, I should be done with the book of Psalms in 2017.) When done with this next decade of psalms, I will, Lord willing, preach through 1 Timothy. After that, a few topical sermons, a short series or so, and back to the Old Testament—right now, probably Amos.
I am fifty-three years old. I have been doing this for about thirty years. There are 66 books in the Bible, and I have preached through about a third of them. That means that if the Lord lets me preach until I am 116, I should be able to wrap this up. Of course, I would then have to start over again, in order to go back to fix all the screwy things I said when I was in my twenties. I have only made it through a third of the books, even though I usually try to take a chapter at a time. Some men can spend three years in Galatians, and all of it profitable. The issue is not to challenge the edification brought by what they say, but it seems to me that every preacher should ache over all the books and passages about which nothing (with this approach) will ever be said.
This approach I have worked out gives the preacher flexibility to address topical needs in the congregation, for pastoral and practical reasons. For example, he can devote a series to Christian education, or the importance of music to liturgical worship. At the same time, the commitment to preaching through books keeps him from riding his personal hobby horses in the pulpit all the time. Conversely, it makes him address hard issues that he would otherwise leave alone. When he sits down for sermon prep, a lump forms in his throat and beads of sweat appear on his brow. He had forgotten about that chapter. I cannot remember how often the Lord has dealt me (randomly out of the deck) what might just as well have been a topical sermon, selected just for the occasion. (Almost as though a higher power was at work.)
This is also helpful in keeping the preacher away from what might be called "genre hobby horses." There is a marked tendency in Reformed and evangelical circles to preach through the letters of Paul, and then to do it again. Then the preacher dies, and the next guy does it again. And of course, all Scripture is God-breathed, and we don't ever want to overreact and exclude Paul. But still, there are vast stretches of white scriptural wilderness that the average parishioner has never snowmobiled in. What about Leviticus? Daniel? Matthew? Revelation (if you are Reformed)? Staying away from Revelation (if you are dispensational)?
In short, the basics of this approach enable the preacher to do what my father taught me many years ago. When you run out of things to say, go on to the next verse.

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