I believe that the Bible is not a metal-tweezered promise box from which we can select our favourite passages and promises at random.
I believe that the pulpit is not a stable in which I get to show off my favourite hobby horses to a weary congregation.
I believe that the authority of the preacher is always secondary to the authority of Scripture as revealed by God.
I believe that the Scriptures are God breathed in their entirety, and that their structural integrity is part and parcel of how we come into contact with what God has said, and how God has said it.
Consequently: I believe, heart and soul, in systematic expository preaching. I am relieved of the stressful duty of deciding on a weekly basis what is going to be profitable, or palatable, or practical for the congregation in which I serve. The Scriptures as an authoritative body of truth, and as an organic whole, shape the contours and content of what I preach. I am not left clueless as to what people might need to hear.
With all of that said, there is still a measure of decision and choice entailed in the task of preaching. I may not leap randomly from text to text each week, but in any given year we might be engaged in the study of the Old Testament or New Testament, in narrative or poetry or epistle, and behind that fact lies the process of choosing a series in which to immerse ourselves. If expository preaching can help avoid the whim of the preacher or the people, how can it be discerned what we should devote perhaps weeks, months or years of preaching and listening and learning to as a group of God’s people?
For me the selection of a series is a multi-layered affair, and here I want to share some (but not all) of the factors which help form my thinking as to what we should study and for how long:
Logical factors: there are certain features of choosing a series which are decidedly pragmatic. If I am preaching an Old Testament series in our morning services, then it may be prudent to take a New Testament series in our evening service. Alternatively, if one of our services is working hard on narrative, then the other might lend itself more helpfully to epistolary or poetic materials. Here the key is balance, seeking to take into account what we are studying, or have been studying, and for how long. A strong diet of the fibrous truths of a book like Romans, might be offset by the lighter textures of the Psalms, or a rich section of Old Testament narrative.
Logic also takes stock of the circumstantial elements of Bible teaching. Preaching an Easter series during Advent might be deliciously subversive, but it is unlikely to make much sense to those under the sound of our voice. A long series in Revelation might seem like just the ticket on paper, but if it is proving difficult for many Church members to understand, or assimilate and apply, then we do well to pay sensitive heed to these issues.
Pastoral factors: for me the task of preaching and pastoring go hand and hand, and I feel little envy for those whose pulpit ministry is not earthed in the real-life issues of caring for people’s souls privately. As a teaching elder it shouldn’t be difficult to get a sense of a congregation’s spiritual temperature and dietary needs. If there is clearly confusion on the central tenets of the gospel, then it is pastoral wisdom to address this by focusing on areas of propositional truth which shed light on what we believe and why, or on the core facts of Christ’ life and mission as elucidated in the gospels. If there are complex and widespread pastoral problems among a congregation then the comfort of God’s promises and the liberty of plaintive prayer which the Psalms facilitate might prove beneficial and consoling to the Christian hearer.
Affective factors: this final factor is the most difficult to articulate. For me as a preacher there is just a prayerful sense of what we ought to study, and where God is leading my heart. It might be that my own interaction with Scripture has brought me face to face with truths which cry out to be preached, or that there is an abiding, repeated impression in my consciousness that God is leading me to teach in a certain section, or a recurrence of passages of Scripture which cannot be mere coincidence. These things are ‘felt in the blood, and felt along the heart’ (to quote Wordsworth) and cannot easily be quantified.
Perhaps a recent example might make this more clear. Over a recent period of leave I found my heart more and more compelled by the force and glory of God’s love for us as His people. Much of my thinking was driven by readings in 1 John 4. Would this, I wondered, make a suitable summer series for me return to the pulpit with? On the following Sunday a visiting speaker touched on these very themes as he shared at Communion, and there was a sense of it being sealed that this was where we ought to spend a few weeks together. I would fear to make these affective factors the sole means of seeking out a series of studies, but they are important nevertheless.
As with all else in life, I am glad that I am not ultimately sovereign over series of studies in our church fellowship. The Chief Shepherd loves His sheep, and has commissioned his under-shepherds to faithfully feed them on the rich fare afforded to us in Scripture. What a blessing to expose our hearts and consciences to what God says for Himself, to us His people, on the pages of Scripture.