As many churches shifted their regular services at the outset of COVID-19 into online meetings, so too many preachers changed their scheduled sermons to ensure they speak the words needed in this most challenging season. God’s sovereignty is being explained. The need for Christlike sacrificial love of others is being underscored. The hope of resurrection is being celebrated. Yet as good, right, and helpful as all of this is, preachers also need to be thinking ahead, beyond the next couple of Sundays and into the coming months.
It seems quite likely that the pandemic will continue—some experts estimate that it could even be more than a year—and it will not be possible or useful for preachers to bring the same messages over and over during that whole time. What then should we be teaching and preaching over the long haul?
Difficulty of Topical Sermons
As ever, there are many possibilities. We could start crafting some longer, topical sermon series on suffering or trust or prayer. No doubt these would serve people well. But these might only run for four or six weeks. What about after that? What’s the next series? Perhaps we could do a set of vignettes about the faithful heroes of the Bible, explaining how they stayed true to God in their various challenging situations. But then what?
The great difficulty with a diet of topical sermons is that eventually we run out of topics, or we’re unable to find enough unique biblical texts to communicate our desired point. At some point, we’ll have to face the fact that much of what the Bible says seems off-topic with respect to our present concerns. After all, much of it was written for specific times and situations different from our own. We might, therefore, think this means that our people don’t need to hear every part of Scripture.
But such thinking isn’t quite right. The fact that the Bible says many things in a range of contexts indicates to us that God has many things for us to know, in good times and even in times of crisis. It indicates that perhaps what we actually need to know is more than what we ourselves have concluded is important for this time. Perhaps the shape of Scripture itself might indicate to us that the best biblical formation is not only based on a carefully chosen diet of topical teachings, but systematically takes us through the whole of God’s Word—even those parts that don’t seem immediately relevant.
As much as we need preachers to address the pandemic directly in their sermons, the reality is there’s no single sermon or sermon series—no matter how excellent or faithful—that will do the work of years and years of Bible teaching and formation. Crisis care is essential, but it cannot do the work of long-term nurture and growth.
Whole Counsel of God’s Word
If all of this is right, then perhaps in this time of crisis, preachers should resolve to do all that they can to teach Christ’s flock as much of the Bible as possible in the years ahead. Now might even be the time to start casting a long-term preaching plan that will take church members through some of the longer Old Testament books from beginning to end, without skipping any bits, or maybe through a whole Gospel chapter and verse. It might even be a good time for preachers to start thinking about what they would like to teach from the Bible over the next five or 10 years. While that’s a long horizon, it’s quite exciting to think about all that could be achieved with this sort of planning.
After a decade of solid teaching through different books of the Bible, a congregation might have sat under all of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They might also have worked through two entire Gospels, learned half a dozen of the New Testament letters, and progressed through the first eight chapters of the book of Acts over a four-month period.
Whatever the specifics, they will have learned a great deal, and much of it will be in addition to what they would have learned through topical sermons. At first, it may not all seem immediately relevant, but it will be, because it will be deeply formative. The more Christians are formed by Scripture, the better prepared they will be for whatever challenges they might have to face in 2030. There may not be another pandemic then, but there will most certainly be something. And even if there isn’t “anything,” the people of our churches will be more mature as followers of Jesus and live for his glory in good times as well as bad.