Balancing Scripture and Explanation in Preaching

I believe there is something powerful that happens when God’s word is read aloud among the people of God.

Unfortunately there are times preaching is more about personality than it is about the power that comes from the very nature of God’s Word. If a preacher did nothing but get up and read scripture there would be a lot of people who might wonder what the preacher was even being paid to do, after all…can’t we read scripture at home? Now, if they memorized the whole text and said it from memory that might not cause as much buzz because you would know they put a lot of time in on that…but that goes right back to the point. The temptation is to focus in on the preacher and not the power of God’s Word to transform…whether read from the Bible aloud or memorized and spoken or read individually and silently.

Sometimes I wonder if I am not out of balance in my approach. If I assessed my notes that for every minute of scripture reading I probably have 5 minutes or more of me talking. I guess one could make the case that even Peter used this approach and approximately this ratio in his sermon in Acts 2 (the scripture being his quotations of the Old Testament prophesies concerning Jesus). Is it possible we get in the way? Is it possible that pride can enter into this equation, tempting us to think that God’s word is best understood with more time given to explanation and illustration than scripture itself? I wonder if I don’t too often see myself as the lens that people need to understand God’s Word properly and fear letting it stand on its own.

There is a real temptation to think that what God’s Word really needs is more commentary from the preacher and so we get a whole lot of commentary with very little text. That approach is modeled for us in how we study. Take the average commentary on Philemon…through thousands of hours of toiling over 25 verses (500 words in English and 372 words in Greek), commentators are able to come up with 150 pages of material to explain what is being said. That is half a page/word! I am not saying that is bad practice when it comes to writing commentaries…I am wondering if some of that doesn’t rub off into our preaching.

One of the things I find fascinating about Jesus’ preaching was that he wasn’t afraid to let people misunderstand. There were parables he told that he never explained to the crowds. In John 4, Jesus led them to believe he really wanted them to eat his flesh and drink his blood and when they left, he didn’t try to stop them to explain what he was really talking about. We might call that terrible communication but for Jesus, he saw it as weeding out the ones who were hungry enough to keep listening and those who quickly lost interest. I guess we can rationalize that we aren’t Jesus and so we cannot afford to try that approach.

Is it possible that in our attempts to communicate well, that we don’t muddy the water more often than we would like to think? I also wonder if it isn’t probable that, at times, we honestly think that good communication has more power and punch than the inspired Word of God. Let me be really clear here…I am not being critical of anyone unless it is myself…I am more so asking for feedback and thoughts on this.

How do we find balance between finding more ways to have God’s Word read in the assembly and still make sure people understand what they are hearing…without getting in the way?

Anyone else out there wrestle through this?

10 Responses to Balancing Scripture and Explanation in Preaching

  1. David Himes says:

    Well, Matt, there’s always a chance we can get in the way. But you cannot talk about the Text, at all, without that risk.

    But my larger issue with your post is what is says about your view of the Text. The Text was intended to reveal God to us. All of the epistles of the NT are, in reality, explanations of Jesus teachings and commentary on the implications of Jesus life.

    That also seems to me to be what preaching should be about … explaining the implications of the revelations about God. Quoting the Text is not the only way to do that … and often is not the best way.

    In addition, and I’m sure you appreciate this, many of the most important lessons from the Text would be missed, if all we did was read them. Because they were written in a time and culture with which we are not familiar, we often miss the most obvious lessons that the original audience heard quite clearly.

    After all, the Hebrew writer quoted Jeremiah to remind us that God promised to write the new covenant on our hearts … in stark contrast with ten commandments written in stone.

    • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      Thanks David…I appreciate what you are saying here. If anyone loves explaining the text, it’s me! I have a great appreciation for it and recognize its necessity. This post was more of a process issue for me…to express and ask some questions to help me formulate my own attitude toward how and why the Word is to be preached. There will always be need for explanation. I just wonder if we don’t sometimes drown out the text in an attempt to rescue people from the text or in an attempt to work our magic on the text. I am not saying we all do it. I am not saying that is even prevalent…I am more so wondering out loud. I guess this is more about intentions than it is about actual practice…if that makes sense. Intentions and attitudes about how we see ourselves and our relationship and role toward the text. If we get to the point where we can basically do without the text because we are such good explainers and teachers then we have missed the mark (you know that).

  2. I often think that the very best moments in my preaching are when I simply read the text. The text, well-read, is preaching itself.

    I’ve been thinking lately that we need to recapture the moments of formal scripture reading that exist within our worship. Perhaps allow it to be prefaced or followed by silence, or by some sort of focused attention. The more-liturgical traditions do I little bit better job of this, I think.

    • Mark says:

      I agree with you. I suggest you get a revised common lectionary and read it for that particular Sunday. It may force you to preach on something you don’t want to or that doesn’t lend itself well to a nice three point sermon. However, if it is in the Bible, it’s there for a reason and not so it can be ignored.

      • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

        The lectionary certainly has strengths. I am really new to preaching and haven’t used the lectionary at this point. Instead, I am way more intentional about assessing where the congregation is, what challenges we need to overcome and what direction we are going (based on our values and mission as the church as outlined by scripture). In order to not keep repeating the same themes, I keep track every week in a spreadsheet of all the scriptures I mention by date so I can check myself to not fall back to the same ones.

        • Mark says:

          I can understand your doing that. Most use a 3 year cycle with the lectionary so they don’t have to worry about repeating themselves until year 4. You might poll the congregation and ask what they want to hear or think they need to hear. I am not suggesting constant polling but if a good number want to hear about Jesus from the gospels or just need help with faith in G-d, then perhaps that is a good place to begin.

    • Well-said, Steven. Just last week where I preach, I wanted to be sure people really listened to the Scripture reading (which was done my someone else a little earlier before the sermon). I got up just before that reading and said something close to this: “I’ve talked to a number of preachers at other churches who’ve told me that they’ve stopped using a Scripture reading in their times of worship. They said it isn’t that they don’t value the reading of Scripture–because they do. But rather, their experience has been that the church doesn’t really listen. They catch a whole lot of people fidgeting with this or that, talking amongst themselves, getting the kids situated, and all sorts of things except really seeming to pay attention to the reading of the text. And so they felt like the Word was being dishonored, and so they quit. Now, I’m not saying we at East Point are dishonoring the Word when it’s read each week. But I do want us to remember what we’re doing. We’re listening to words from God. This is a serious time in our worship. It’s a time we should stop other things and pay attention so that we might still hear God’s voice speak fresh words to us.” I plan to say something similar every week until people get sick of hearing me emphasize this! :)

      • Mark says:

        The venerable 1662 BCP has the warning before Eucharist about taking in an unworthy manner. There may some be stern Elizabethan English in there for being respectful to the reading of the Bible.

  3. Mark says:

    I grew up hearing only a few verses of the Bible read at one time, if that. Most of the time I got to hear sermons that were proof texted and almost always were taken from the letters, rarely the gospel. I then discovered liturgical churches where I got to hear the respective OT, psalm, epistle and gospel portions read every Sunday. Their homilies are one point and generally short. Just something to think about or an application of the text to real life. About the time the homily gets started, it is over. For some who want to read a cofC almost-liturgical homily, go look at Naomi Walters’s blog, she has written some good ones, especially for advent.

    I really think the difference originated in what you want the congregation to take home. Do you want the congregation to know all about Paul’s missionary journeys? Do you want them to know why the “c” is not capitalized in the name church of Christ? Do you want the whole congregation to think the same way? The parables and a large part of the Bible can often mean different things to different people. There were 3 gospels written to different groups, but rarely are the differences discussed. Why do we all have to think the same way? The decent brother of the prodigal son is often made out to be the bigger sinner than the prodigal. This gets the decent, hard working, behaving people upset because they feel sometimes like they get nothing for their hard work and good behavior. Yes, there is repentance on the other side and forgiveness, but for those who just worked and kept quiet without rebelling, it can be rubbed in our faces that we are arrogant.

    I have been told that long portions of the Bible can’t be read in the service because it is boring. I have a problem with that. I think that someone was afraid for the congregation to hear the Bible portion read intact and for the reading to stand on its own. This is a tragedy.

  4. John says:

    I am a bit late getting in on this one, but I agree more so with David on this topic. My own thinking is that God gave us talents and abilities, many for public speaking, and to take full advantage of them is to put life into a sermon. I can recall back in the seventies when some churches tried to chisel the sermon down to a low keyed sermonette in favor of more praise time. I think the churches suffered. A small passage of scripture that is presented from a person’s open heart and honest passion is priceless.

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