Preaching: Raiding or Reading?

I have a very brief post, and it concerns how and what we preach. Observing internet sermons, reading sermons by famous pastors and the like, I see two sorts of preaching (there are of course more and nuances between them — and good lectionary preaching is a combination of both):

Do you think we need to return to preaching Bible books or portions of Bible books? What does your church tend to do?

Bible Raiding. This sort goes to the Bible to find support for an already-decided-upon idea, to get answers from the Bible on the basis of a surface reading of the Bible (what does the Bible say about investments, Bible verses here and there, rather than how does Paul’s teaching on the collection for the saints take root in financial support), and lets what the preacher want to say and what the preacher believes establish what is to be preached. (I’m not against topical preaching; I’m not against themes; but I’m pushing a distinctive here to make a point.) This sort rarely preaches a book from the Bible — a whole book. The major issue here is that sermons tend to be agenda driven — the agenda of the preacher.

Bible Reading. This sort goes to the Bible to see what it says and what it says shapes what the preacher preaches and teaches. “Application” (not my favorite of terms) emerges from a close Bible reading, and often surprises us, but the secret here is gradual teaching of what the Bible says and allowing the Bible’s big story to shape what we see in each book of the Bible. This sort often preaches whole books. The danger here is that the sermons tend to lack focus for the average Christian and get to be intellectual exercises in informing people about an ancient text.

There are problems with each, but there’s too much Bible raiding today and not enough Bible reading.

When I begin teaching at Northern Seminary this Fall, I will emphasize Bible reading.

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  • James Petticrew

    Whilst I probably agree with your general point in connection to the predominance of topical peaching. I do however wonder if there is a deep difference between good topical preaching and biblical theology. Is there are a fundamental difference between a preacher seeking to do justice to what the Bible teaches about sex and a biblical theologian seeking to sum up the New Testaments teaching on Christology ?

  • I preach books, I am currently preaching through Samuel and next up is Luke followed by acts. Most of my colleagues however, use the Lectionary or topical sermon series. I wish someone had taught me to preach the way you are advocating.

    Scot, how does one preach the gospel as you define it when they preach books? The Lectionary, which I don’t like personally, allows one to preach their way through the bible over three years. When preaching books it takes a whole lot longer.

  • Scot McKnight

    Every preacher will have a central set of ideas that “explains” all texts. I am pushing us to use the “gospel” (King Jesus Gospel) as the “regula fidei” approach to reading all texts. So in one way or another each text will gain clarity through the gospel.

    On books… Mark, if we are getting lopsidedly focused on one book to the detriment of the fuller message of the Bible then we need to shift orientation. When I hear someone preaching through Romans for 15+ years then I know other parts of the Bible are being neglected, unless of course there are two services (morning and evening — does this still happen much?)… the best strategies are those that dip into sections of books because of their vital significance or need in a church (say you need stronger morality/discipleship, do Sermon on the Mount; say you need teaching on grace, do Rom 6-8 or Galatians, etc). This means the pastor knows what parts of the Bible address which concerns … and all along teaching the gospel/regula fidei.

  • Craig Beard

    RE: “application” — I prefer “implications.”

  • “but the secret here is gradual teaching of what the Bible says and allowing the Bible’s big story to shape what we see in each book of the Bible.” This is really important. I think to best understand the bible and what it says about God, we have to read the whole thing, not skipping the weird parts, and not being afraid if we don’t understand something or don’t have answers. We struggle with the hard/confusing parts, and gradually gain an understanding of who God is.

  • When I look at some of the great preachers of the past – as far back as Jesus and Paul and up through John Wesley – I see preaching immersed in Scripture, with references and allusions coming fast and furious. What I don’t see is extended exposition of a whole book or long text.

  • Scot McKnight

    Well, Richard, you’re stuck in the 19th Century on…

    Chrysostom? Augustine? Calvin? Luther?

    But Jesus and Paul — I agree. They did not expound Scripture, though Targums show that was at work in Judaism. Read a text and translate/update it into Aramaic… interpreting… clarifying the text itself.

  • RJS

    This is a thought-provoking post. I don’t think it is completely either/or. I think we need preachers who are immersed in the whole sweep of scripture. A pastor commented on a post (I think one of mine, but perhaps one of Scot’s) awhile back that he intentionally reads the entire Bible once or twice a year in order to be immersed in the story. This inspired me, and in particularly it inspired me to follow the lead, although I’ve been listening on my commute not reading.

    If a pastor/preacher is continually immersed in the whole story I expect that topical preaching won’t become raiding and reading won’t degenerate into intensive word studies of single books.

    And, of course, the preacher/pastor should pass on to the congregation, both through programs and example, the importance of being immersed in the whole sweep of scripture.

    My 2 cents for what it is worth as one who is not a preacher, pastor, or Christian teacher.

  • metanoia

    Over the past 3 years, due to the nature of my work, I have visited over 50 churches and observed the former kind of preaching over the latter. Rarely has the topic been dealt with in a good biblical expository fashion. Having previously served 30 years in pastoral ministry, I preached almost exclusively expositorily, whole books at a time. From time to time (on average 4-6 times a year) I took to a thematic approach because of something that was going on in the life of the church or society in general that I felt needed to be addressed.

    In the course of good expository preaching, most of the “urgent, relevant” themes of the day will get addressed, but with biblical depth reflecting the overarching big story. Thematic preaching has a tendency to be a more scattered approach. Expository preaching doesn’t have to turn into an academic exercise if relevant application is made.

  • Phillip

    For a number of years, my preaching colleagues I (three of us rotated) selected one of the lectionary texts for the week, and whoever preached Sunday night would take one from what remained. This had the benefit of forcing me to texts I might not otherwise preach and of helping a church not familiar with the liturgical year to have some sense of the Christian calendar. The downside is that the lectionary leaves out so much of the Bible.

    I don’t tend to do topical sermons for the reasons Scot suggests in talking about “raiding,” at least not a single sermon on a topic. Growing up, I heard many topical sermons that focused on a predetermined point. Some texts were taken out of context and other passages that didn’t fit the pattern were ignored. A couple of years ago, I did a series over several months on the Holy Spirit, where each week I preached from a single text on the Spirit, and tried to be faithful to that text. My thinking was the this approach would show the breadth of the biblical teaching on the Spirit. I did not try to systematize it.

    Currently (we are now down to two preachers taking turns), I am preaching through Matthew. This gives the congregation a sense of the whole book and its message (I hope), and again, I am forced to deal with texts I might otherwise skip. Also, I think preaching through books is helpful because of the decline of biblical literacy in many churches. It helps the church see the whole story/message of a single book.

    Anyway, I appreciate the discussion and look forward to reading other posts. I am always looking to improve my own preaching and my understanding of it.

  • AHH

    One version of the “reading” mode tends to have its own problems. We had a pastor who would do things like spend 30 weeks marching through Acts. So it was Biblically centered, but it tended to be one tree at a time without ever seeing the forest. Probably it isn’t easy to focus on manageable-sized passages while keeping the whole sweep of the book in mind, but I think it needs to be tried more often.

  • Johnathan Knop

    I think that Pastors and laymen just have never been trained to really study the Bible. Even the model today for a “Bible study” is to just have a discussion with very little preperation – just reideration of old material. From my observation, the “typical sermon/preaching” is just a larger example of such (just more of a monolog).

  • Josh

    I have been preaching full time for about a year and a half now, and for the first six months or so I did kind of a mix of raiding and reading. I did several “series” on topics, but I quickly realized the congregation needed more. I received many comments about wanting more ‘bible’, which I thought I was providing. So starting this year I committed to preaching and teaching through books. I worked through Mark between Christmas and Easter, then jumped into 2 Corinthians and have been there since April. I am beginning to see that this will take a while so I am refining my approach, and to go off book at least one or two Sundays a quarter.

    I grew up hearing topical, raiding sermons and see the need for a different approach.

  • Gregory Du Bois

    Good post and good comments have been offered here. But I can add that when I do a topical, I do try to let the Bible teach me on the topic, rather than use the Bible to get my point across. Now I am excited to be embarking on the letter to the Ephesians. I will be putting that into the framework of how Paul preached and furthered the gospel message and God’s worldwide, all-time, historically rooted redemption plan.

  • As a Senior Pastor who does most of the preaching at our church, I appreciate Scot’s original comments as well as what he mentions in comment (3). Whether we’re approaching individual books of the Bible or topics, we do have a framework that we use to approach the text or topic. We need to be conscious of that framework when we approach preaching, whichever direction we go.

    I enjoy blending together both walks through books or portions of Scripture interspersed with shorter topical series. For example, this year so far we have walked through the epistles of John and the book of Ruth, while also taking on topics like prayer from the life and teaching of Christ, basics of spiritual growth, and faith.

    It is important for the pastor to be aware of the full scope of the Bible (RJS – 8), our hermeneutical framework, the real-life situation and context of our hearers, and presenting it in a way that opens the doorways for spiritual growth (not just relevancy).

  • JJ

    The problem with “Bible raiding,” as it is described here, seems to be more a matter of how the preacher interacts with Scripture in preparation for a sermon than how she structures the sermon in which her prior interaction with Scripture is reflected. The deficiency in the finished product is more a matter of content than of form. So, although forms of preaching that are structured around book studies do indeed have many virtues, I don’t think the conclusion that we need to emphasize those *forms* of preaching necessarily follows from the observation that there is currently a relatively common content-based problem in the execution of another form.

    I think there are some interesting points of analogy between this distinction in preaching and the distinction between biblical and systematic theology. Indeed, “Bible raiding” sounds stikingly like *bad* ST in some respects. The necessary response to the existence of bad ST isn’t to conclude that we need to increase the BT-to-ST ratio, however, but rather to affirm that we need to do ST well. Good BT is involved in the process of generating the content of good ST, but BT is not inherently superior or preferable to ST as a finished product. Likewise, good “Bible reading” is involved in the process of generating the content of a good sermon, even if that content is ultimately presented in a form not at all structured around studies of books and portions of books.

  • Andy

    Excellent conversation. I appreciate hearing from others on the subject.

    I preach from the lectionary 90% of the time. I do so always with the gospel – the full gospel of course – in mind. I am most likely to go to a topical approach during Lent or Advent, but the topic is inspired by a larger story from the Bible than from current events or specific issues in the life of the local congregation. It is that I do not leave current events in the world and church life unaddressed, but address them through pastoral letters and in teaching environments.

  • Andy

    I appreciate this conversation a lot. The terminology I was taught was raiding = “Bible Imposition,” and reading = “Bible Exposition.” The bias was obviously towards reading and exposition.

    My church (young, 20-something heavy) tends to align around the “raiding” principle, with occasional “readings” where a small book will be preached. (For example will be going through James this fall.)

    My bias is that the best “reading” happens in a small group inductive bible study, where skilled lay leaders can help folks learn to “read” and see the themes of scripture unfold. It allows a slower pace, interactive conversation, and self-discovery. Pedigogically, interactive discussions (and not the classic sermon model) can allow for greater engagement for “reading” type of learning.

    However (and this is what I was wondering if you could comment upon, Scot, especially as your transitioning to training pastors) are pastors training lay leaders in this? A congregation where this is a reality would give much more freedom for pastors in preaching. And if pastors are able to train their leaders, how are they doing so?

  • Jamieson

    Why do preachers assume that because they are talking, people are learning? How do we know that?

  • aaron

    The other side of the question I think is whether preachers are catering to their own preferences (by reading or raiding) or the preferences of their audience. Obviously, we can’t simply say the things “itching ears want to hear,” but we must also be in tune with the level of understanding of those in front of us.

    Like most in these comments I agree with the premise of this post – we need more reading and less raiding than we have. However if the majority of Christians aren’t capable of understanding reading sermons then we must slowly move from “milk to solid food” to grow them up. So how do we get there? Might it be possible to mix the two? Maybe go 20/80 then 30/70 and so forth until you’re at the right mixture of 50/50ish for the discipled and new converts who are likely listening?

    Many times there is a very fine line between preaching and teaching. Are we preaching for an application or teaching for information?

    I also think it is easier to produce a raiding sermon.

  • MatthewS

    Words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, and paragraphs make a document.

    When I’ve seen the “reading” model used, say where someone was in Hebrews for 5 years, it was a focus on the word level, often tending to commit some of Carson’s favorite word study fallacies. (I’m sure it’s been done well, I don’t mean to accuse everyone who has ever done it.)

    I think one corrective to this is for the preacher or teacher to endeavor to take paragraphs at a time instead of only sentences or words. The microscopic focus on words easily turns into the “intellectual exercises in informing people”. Working with paragraphs in context is how one should get to the “big idea” (Haddon Robinson) in “communicating for a change” (Andy Stanley).

  • MatthewS

    I didn’t clarify that I am mostly in favor of expositional preaching, the reading vs. the raiding model, but I agree with the concern about moving at a snail’s pace with a microscopic focus. My comment above is aimed at that concern.

  • Evelyn

    What hasn’t been mentioned is the idea of doing a whole book in one sermon – there are examples in NT Wright’s Following Jesus (I think it’s that book). It’s so powerful – picking up the main themes, and fitting them into the big story of scripture. It’s a shame it isn’t done more. I’m guessing it isn’t because it is difficult and pastors simply don’t have the time to prepare something like that. Is that the right conclusion to come to?

  • Mark E. Smith

    I’m a lectionary preacher for the most part, because I like how it tells God’s story of the redemption of creation. During the Sundays after Pentecost, I usually do sermon series, preach through a book, etc.

  • Ben Thorp

    I took over organising the teaching programme/strategy at our church last year (I’m an elder, and a regular preacher). We’ve moved from being overly topical/thematic to majority of expositional, with short, thematic series in between, but the thematic weeks are always grounded in Scripture. For instance, we taught though Ephesians earlier on in the year, and we’re tackling the life of Joseph for most of Autumn/Winter. Our most recent “theme” was Prayer, which we did by looking at the prayers of Jesus (Lords Prayer, High Priestly Prayer and the Gethsemane Prayer). We also have “Blank” weeks which allow for a bit of flexibility, and for preachers to select their own topic/passage.

    I think a balance is necessary, but I lean towards expository preaching, because I think it’s easier to stray from God’s Word into man’s word when you’re not preaching from a passage. But it’s difficult, because many people’s experience of “expository preaching” is less about “exposing” people to God’s Word through the Spirit, and more about an exegetical lecture (less a reading, and more of a raiding, but this time raiding commentaries and the preacher’s education than raiding the Bible)