I recently heard a pastor say that he preaches straight through books of the Bible without interruption because he believes that his people need to hear the “whole counsel of God.” Incidentally, he has been preaching through Romans since Obama’s first inauguration. For those who have trouble doing math in their heads, that means that he’s been in Romans for a really long time–in fact, for most of this century. And he still has chapters to preach and miles to go while his parishioners sleep.
Frankly, I have some reservations about such a practice. One wonders how much of the “whole counsel” a congregation is really hearing if the lion’s share of sermons come from a handful of chapters in a single book per year. This becomes especially problematic when the texts require a significant amount of understanding of other texts (as most do). So this is what one might call a criticism.
When I criticize the wisdom of spending years expounding a single book I should not be heard as criticizing exposition. I am criticizing a particular approach to exposition. It wouldn’t be helpful to read my comments as though they were a manifesto for every imaginable exegetical monkeyshine out there. To the contrary, any text should be rightly divided. I simply question the propriety of an approach that divides them as thinly as one might slice roast beef. Preaching texts that are whittled down to only a few participles a quarter can hardly be described as “meaty.” Actually, that makes for pretty thin soup.
Congregations are different so I am not superimposing any particular model upon all of them. I only ask that the same courtesy be extended in return. I have friends who pastor families that move with some frequency (think of churches near military bases). These pastors have found that shorter series are much more effective since new people coming in haven’t missed the first six years of the study, and they will likely be able to complete it within a number of weeks or months. This ensures that these families get a steady but diverse diet of Scriptural teaching.
Unfortunately, many who practice the consecutive exposition approach are not all that effective at illuminating the “big picture” of the metanarrative. It really is true that some understanding of almost every book is necessary to understand almost any book. A minister who spends all of his study time, precious as it is, in say Romans rarely has the time to study all of the canonical themes that run through the book making it part of the larger story. His task is made increasingly more difficult by the fact that many in his congregation may not even know that Abraham preceded David, or why that even matters to Paul. This sad state is more widespread than we would wish to believe.
Some suggest that the answer is to add more services, more studies, and more sermons to the mix. Again, for some congregations (and pastors) this may work. If so, godspeed. But I would imagine that for many this would simply compound the problem. Everyone will not attend all of those services, and the minister’s time for study and preparation is limited. Instead of having more time to prepare one very good sermon, he now has less time to prepare three or four poorer sermons.
Some might say that multiple ministers can do what a lone pastor cannot. True enough. But it doesn’t follow that multiple ministers can necessarily overcome the fact that they are speaking to singular minds. There seems to be the underlying assumption that most congregations can actually bear up under three or four deep sermons per week. Working men and women are doing well to concentrate on and comprehend one hour’s worth of exposition. In most cases, three hours is tilting at windmills. The minister who thinks that this isn’t true is probably fooling himself. In short, I don’t think that the problem is solved simply by multiplying it.
I think that balance is wise. Alternating between first testament and second testament, complex books and simpler ones, narrative and didactic texts, as well as thematic studies, seems to me to be a better course of action. The Christian Calendar is also helpful here if we will allow it to be. Roughly half of every year is taken up with the works and words of Jesus, beginning with Advent and concluding with Pentecost. Preaching on texts related to those themes allows the ministers to mine the Scriptures from cover to cover and offer a holistic account of the overarching story. In most cases, each of these seasons is only a few weeks (sometime only day) long. From Trinity Sunday (following Pentecost) until Advent, consecutive exposition can be done through books or extended passages. This seems to offer the best of both approaches, as well as allow the ministry of Jesus—the center of revelation—to chart the course for the Church’s study. This is only a suggestion but it is a considered one.