There was a time when a fellow pastor might ask me, “So what are you preaching through these days?” The key word was through. The assumption was that I was preaching through a whole book of the Bible.
Nowadays, I’m usually asked, “So what are you preaching these days?” Through has been dropped. The assumption that exposition and lectio continua—the commitment to preach serially through whole books of the Bible—go hand in hand is not always commonplace, even among theologically robust pastors.
Particularly Effective Method
I don’t think exposition demands lectio continua. It’s quite valid to argue that one can preach a topical series and yet do exposition on individual passages that support it. But I’d argue that lectio continua is a particularly effective means of preaching not only to spiritually mature Christians, but also to people ensconced in our modern world.
I’m concerned that many pastors are retreating from this method, not because of lack of commitment to exposition, but because they’re concerned lectio continua can’t bear the weight of modern ministry needs. Many of my fellow pastors are firmly committed to exposition as a matter of treating individual passages, yet they may not feel lectio continua, as a default method, is sustainable or even wise for our day.
Here are some questions and arguments I often hear against preaching through whole books of the Bible:
- Lectio continua is not an ideal preaching method to hit all the important topics. My average congregant is only in my area for a few years. How can I faithfully catechize them in all the Christian faith?
- We no longer run adult Sunday school classes, so the sermon is where people get most of their instruction. Therefore, shouldn’t I use the sermon to teach systematic theology, worldview, and the storyline of Scripture?
- I can’t find a clear biblical command that requires lectio continua. Most preaching in the Bible seems akin to a topical approach.
- I’d love to geek out on lectio continua, but the average person today wouldn’t benefit as much from that as from a topical series.
These objections are reasonable and must be taken seriously. But I think the assets of lectio continua are far greater than its possible liabilities, for five reasons.
1. The Holy Spirit inspired the structure of both single passages and also entire books.
This affirmation is vital, since knowing structure is an important part of arriving at the meaning of a text. While one-off expositions can unpack close context, whole-book preaching forces the preacher to consistently point to the macro-structure or melodic line of a book. But when expositions aren’t set within the overall context and structure of a book, it’s easy to miss that macro-structure—and also (therefore) the emphasis and meaning of individual texts.
2. It teaches people to read, study, and teach Scripture in a way non-sequential preaching doesn’t.
I like cooking shows. I also like to eat. But the act of eating is deepened when I understand the process by which my meal came about. Topical preaching, even when done expositionally, can undermine one of the most important parts of good preaching: training people to be students of the Word.
Topical preaching, even when done expositionally, can undermine one of the most important parts of good preaching: training people to be students of the Word.
By shaping a thematic series according to logical and practical categories, often based on theological training and a good eye for cultural needs, a pastor can inadvertently teach people that he’s the only resource for insightful and rich teaching. Lectio continua shows that God’s Word is packed with relevant themes and doctrines that naturally arise as the book unfolds.
3. It allows you to leave the teeth and the tension in individual passages.
When using a text to support a doctrine or theme, it’s tempting to bring in systematics or your pet framework to provide the balance in each sermon. Whether the tension is law and gospel, hierarchy and equality, justice and mercy, or truth and compassion, lectio continua frees the preacher to let the emphasis of the text stand, knowing the tension will be balanced or resolved as the book unfolds.
4. It’s a practical means of catechizing and teaching thematically.
Preaching through books of the Bible offers myriad opportunities to do biblical theology, touch on doctrine, reflect on church history, teach a worldview, and apply ethical matters. The added benefit is you’re able to explore a theme or doctrine as originally expressed within the inspired emphasis and structure of the book.
5. Should we rest the weight of all our catechesis on the pulpit?
Is this the role of the pulpit? I realize many churches choose not to have adult learning classes outside the worship service due to various constraints (for example, facility limitations, cultural factors, and so on). But there are other venues in which to teach on topics and themes. Midweek seminars and studies are a viable option, even for busy urban settings. Small groups, which many churches now emphasize, are a fruitful context for studying truths arranged thematically.
The pulpit is most liberated to be all that God intended when the gospel is proclaimed within its biblical context.
I would encourage pastors not to put the full weight of the church’s teaching ministry on the pulpit. The pulpit is most liberated to be all that God intended when the gospel is proclaimed within its biblical context.
Staple in the Diet
I don’t think all pulpit ministry needs to be lectio continua. My church takes seasons to preach thematically. Advent is always a thematic study. In the summer we often choose a topic or hit the highlights of a Bible book, rather than doing a comprehensive serial study. We break from our series during missions emphasis week.
If you now preach thematically 75 percent of the year and do lectio continua the remainder, here’s my suggestion: perhaps you could switch to 50–50 next year, then to 25–75 percent the following year?
I’m not condemning topical sermons as theologically soft or antithetical to exposition. But I would argue that lectio continua is a both/and approach. It’s both rooted in the text and a fruitful way of speaking to the hearts and minds of late-modern people—given how the Spirit of God has inspired Scripture, not just that he has inspired it.
Previously in this series:
- How Do I Prepare My Heart to Preach? (Kent Hughes)
- What Should I Preach Next? (Julius Kim)
- How Do I Handle an Unbeliever’s Funeral? (Phil Newton)
- How Do I Preach Expository Sermons from Proverbs? (Dan Doriani)
- Should I Learn Hebrew and Greek or Is Bible Software Enough? (Kevin McFadden)
- How Long Should My Sermons Be? (Hershael York)
- What Do I Say at a Funeral for a Person I Didn’t Know? (Phil Newton)
- How Long Should It Take Me to Prepare a Sermon? (Dave Harvey)
- 8 Lessons Calvin Teaches Us About Preaching (Ray Van Neste)
- How Can Expository Sermons Avoid Being Wooden and Uncreative? (Colin Smith)
- How Should I Respond When I Deliver a Dud? (Hershael York)
- What Role Does the Spirit Play in My Preaching? (Dave Harvey)
- Should I Preach the Longer Ending of Mark? (Danny Akin)
- Should I Pause an Expository Series for Palm Sunday and Easter? (Phil Newton)
- Should I Always Call for Repentance and Faith? (Steven J. Lawson)
- How Should I Preach Ecclesiastes? (Zack Eswine)
- How Can I Help My Congregation Listen to Sermons in a Culture of Distraction (Sebastian Kim)
- How Do I Preach Difficult Doctrines without Splitting the Church? (Hershael York)
- How Not to Preach an Easter Sermon (Steve Tillis)