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How do I choose the text or book I should preach next? Are there important factors to consider in choosing a text? 

Part of the process of preparing to preach expository sermons is selecting your text. While this may sound self-evident, there are important factors to consider when selecting a passage to preach, not the least of which is discerning the spiritual state and needs of your unique congregation.

For many preachers, however, choosing a text occurs on the Monday or Tuesday prior to the upcoming Sunday. This is not helpful or wise. You won’t have the time you’d like and need for important factors such as studying the text and context, meditating on its truths for you and your hearers, finding compelling illustrations, and identifying meaningful applications. 

Further, the last thing you need is to be stressed out because you’re not sure the text you’ve chosen is the right one at the right time. To offset this tendency and temptation, I offer two assumptions about preaching followed by three suggestions about selecting a text to preach.

Two Assumptions

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1. You’re pastor first, preacher second.

I assume your primary identity and role in the church is to be a pastor. Thus, you’re first and foremost a shepherd, not a teacher. While preaching and teaching may be one of the most important parts of your ministry, it is subservient to your role as a shepherd of a flock.

More precisely, you’re an undershepherd of Christ, the chief shepherd of his people (1 Pet. 5:1–4). Therefore, everything you do as a pastor/shepherd—be it preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, or disciplining—is part and parcel of what Jesus has done and is doing in the lives of your people, which is to know, feed, lead, and protect the flock.

Selecting a text is part of your shepherding ministry, discerning prayerfully the unique needs and concerns of the flock entrusted to you by the chief shepherd. Everything else you do in ministry flows out of that reality—you are a pastor. 

2. You’re called to preach the whole counsel of God.

I assume you’re convinced that the ministry of the Word—primarily through preaching expository, gospel-centered sermons from all the Scriptures—is a vital part of your ministry.

With a long-term perspective, you’re committed to preaching and teaching all the Bible says and not just select texts that support your hobbyhorses.

You’re committed to present Christ from all of Scripture, knowing that only through him can lives be recreated and renewed. So you proclaim him, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that you may present everyone mature (Col. 1:28). 

Three Suggestions

With these two assumptions in mind, here are three suggestions for selecting texts.  

1. Begin with prayer.

The Bible records that the first leaders of the fledgling New Testament church devoted themselves to two primary tasks: preaching and prayer (Acts 6:4). Following the example set by their rabbi, they knew prayer was an essential part of their ministry (Mark 1:35–39).

Paul also understood the necessity of prayer for his ministry. His letters reveal the priority he placed on prayer not only for the growth and maturity of believers (Eph. 1:15–23), but also for his own preaching ministry (Col. 3:2–4). He knew without the power of God his preaching would be fruitless.

So spend time seeking the Lord through prayer for wisdom in choosing texts. Wise pastors know discerning the needs of their congregation requires help from the God of all wisdom. We cannot discern the hearts of our hearers without the aid of the Spirit who searches hearts.

Some pastors may want to spend time praying and reflecting alone while others may want to pray with fellow leaders in the church. Some may want to spend a few days in prayer prior to planning the sermon series for the year. Others may want to use a day each quarter to pray and discern.

Whatever method you choose, be intentional in setting aside time to pray as part of your selection process.

2. Try different patterns.

There are a couple of patterns you may want to consider. 

First, try lectio continua. Literally “reading continuously,” this pattern of text selection essentially follows the biblical text as it has been given. This practice of reading and preaching in sequence from contiguous passages of Scripture, usually through an entire book, has been around since early Christianity.

For most preachers this means preaching through an entire biblical book or smaller sections of a longer book (e.g., the Joseph narratives in Genesis 37–50; the Psalms of Ascent in Psalms 120–134). Many preachers throughout history have followed this pattern so their congregations would be able to hear and feed on the whole counsel of God.  

While you still need to wisely determine the length of the portion of Scripture based on issues such as genre, this method not only removes the stress of deciding what to preach next but also provides a helpful model for your congregation as they read, interpret, and apply Scripture for themselves. Moreover, issues and topics emerge naturally from the text rather than making it seem like you have specific theological axes to grind or hobbyhorses to ride.

This pattern allows you to present all the Bible has for your congregation as you faithfully preach week by week and year by year. The challenge is that certain series may become too long and unwieldy if you’re not careful.

You need to wisely determine when and if a break from a series is needed to address an urgent need in the congregation. Also, make sure you provide enough context for those who didn’t have the benefit of sitting through the series thus far. 

Second, try the topical/textual pattern. Here, the preacher focuses on an idea or topic and preaches from a text or several texts that address it. This pattern gives a wise preacher the ability to address specific topics and issues the congregation may be facing in their own life or in society at large.

It’s imperative, however, that the preacher ensures he’s being faithful to the text(s) and allowing its primary truths to be communicated. Thus, if after studying the text he preacher discovers it doesn’t address the desired topic, he will need to find a text germane to the topic.

This method has certain advantages. First, it allows the preacher flexibility in choosing topics from passages that will meet the needs of his congregation. Second, it provides a built-in unity to the sermon as the main topic will be the focus of the entire sermon. Third, it helps the congregation see how the Bible as a whole addresses topics of importance for their spiritual life.

Preachers need to take care that they don’t allow certain topics to dominate their preaching emphases and series. One can easily fall into the temptation of preaching topics of interest only to him. Strictly using the topical/textual approach may not allow the congregation to grow through the preaching of the whole counsel of God. A balanced approach of using multiple patterns of selection can offset this.  

3. Ask a series of questions.

Like a parent who carefully discerns the best foods to give their children for growth and development, pastors need to wisely determine their church’s spiritual nurture and maturation needs. Pastors must analyze factors such as their congregation’s varying levels of biblical literacy as well as the general needs and specific problems that are part of the church’s history and culture. 

Since each congregation has unique characteristics and needs, this task is both an art and a science requiring much wisdom. Especially for pastors beginning their ministry at a new church, it’s vital to think carefully about not only what to preach but also why. Here are some questions that may help: 

  • What parts of Bible have been preached before? What has not? 
  • Has there been a balance of preaching from Old Testament and New? 
  • Has there been a diversity of genres (narrative, poetry, and so on)? 
  • What texts or topics do your fellow leaders recommend?
  • Are there any specific topics that may be helpful for the congregation right now (for example, suffering, stewardship)?
  • Are there sinful patterns emerging from your counseling ministry that may demand a special series? 
  • Is there a balance of topics regarding exaltation of God (worship), edification of believers (discipleship), and evangelism to unbelievers (witness)? 
  • Is there a balance of doctrinal topics covering the major areas of theology?

Choose what you will preach next wisely, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. Your congregation will benefit from this often-overlooked aspect of shepherding.