Good preaching is a touchstone in Grace Brethren churches. Our movement has historically valued biblical truth – its proper interpretation and progressive application—and the sermon is shibboleth for how a church views the Word of God.
Of course, not all sermons are created equal. Far more goes into a Sunday morning message than pithy statements and a few anecdotal stories. The best biblical exposition blends a mixture of creativity, clarity, candor, charisma, cultural relevance, and Christian insight. Alliteration is negotiable; application of the Scriptures is mandatory.
Good preachers think bigger than a Big Idea or a book of the Bible; they chart a course for making a decade of Sundays cascade into a lifetime of worship.
Moreover, no sermon stands alone. Sermon-crafting thinks diachronically, building on the past, striving toward the future. The best preachers do not think week-to-week or series-to-series. Sermon-crafting fits the biblical text to the body of Christ to form the congregation over the long string of Sundays. Good preachers think bigger than a Big Idea or a book of the Bible; they chart a course for making a decade of Sundays cascade into a lifetime of worship.
Sermon-crafting requires a long view.
I grew up under the preaching ministry of Pastor Jim Custer at the Grace Brethren Church in Columbus, Ohio.
I’ve also sat beneath Dan Gregory, John Teevan, Ed Waken, and various other Grace Brethren leaders. Now I mostly listen to day-old recordings of myself and podcasts of celebrity pastors. I hate to make comparisons, but Andy Stanley might want to listen to me once in a while.
The reality is this: There’s no shortage of good sermons out there. Our Fellowship comprises preachers who start fires from the pulpit with veins protruding; preachers who dissect the biblical text with surgical care and grammatical precision; preachers who weave personal stories and biblical motifs together like Rumplestilskin’s gold.
But I sometimes wonder if our preaching methods betray our value of Biblical Truth.
It used to be one pastor picked one book of the Bible and slogged through four or five verses one Sunday at a time. “When I first started preaching, I spent two-and-half years in John,” reflects Pastor Bob Fetterhoff of Grace Church (Wooster, Ohio).
The new normal in sermon-crafting is topical preaching, spun out in rapid fashion. “Now, six weeks would be considered a long series at our church,” says Fetterhoff. Their sermon series are born out prayer, formed in team discussions, based on key topics (e.g., family, stewardship, evangelism), and booked six months in advance. For good measure, they tackle one theological topic (e.g., Angels and Demons) a year.
Fetterhoff describes this shift from his formal education at Grace Theological Seminary: “Years ago I took a long look at how I was preaching. Jesus never sat down and taught through a whole book of the Old Testament. His style of teaching was oriented around things going on in life. His whole teaching approach was not just ‘life-related,’ but ‘drawn-out-of- life’. We want to speak to what’s banging on the hearts and minds of people, and what God’s Word says about it.”
Topical preaching has stormed the pulpits throughout our Fellowship of churches. We should take note. The largest and fastest growing FGBC congregations prefer topical preaching, which makes a case for its effectiveness. It certainly addresses current needs, pro- vides real helps, points to Scripture, and stretches the preacher. “Topical studies are much more difficult,” confesses Pastor Jim Brown of Grace Community Church (Goshen, Ind.).
(For more on Sermon-crafting from Pastor Jim Brown, Pastor Jeff Bogue, and Knute Larson, go to the first issue of CE National’s Pastorpedia, Oh, and about that Sermon)
Fetterhoff concurs, “It’s much harder to incorporate the whole counsel of God when you’re topical. It forces you to think. All Scripture is profitable, but not all Scripture is preachable in the same setting every week.”
But there may be an unintended consequence of topical preaching. It may teach people a way of reading the Bible that picks and chooses passages, cuts and pastes propositions, and submits the text to the preachers whim (i.e. Pastor Tim) more than the original author’s intent (i.e. Apostle Paul). What links one Sunday morning message to the previous one is a topic, not the Text. If this defines our long view of sermon crafting, we may be slowly reducing the whole counsel of God to a collection of practical answers and advice.
This concept of the whole counsel of God (i.e., Canon) is central to our understanding of Biblical Truth. God gave His Church 66 inspired, authoritative books. The Canon provides diverse forms of literature– history, poetry, wisdom, oracle, parable, sermon, song, and apocalypse, to name a few—that encourage variety in sermon crafting. But our stylistic preferences should not shrink the Canon beyond its received status. We should preach what we received: lines set in paragraphs organized in books laid out in Testaments.
Pastor Adam Copenhaver of Grace Brethren Church, Mabton, Wash., hopes spending two years in Luke-Acts will provide his church “a natural hermeneutic for how to read their Bibles.” He explains, “Few people are equipped to do the complicated work of surveying the Bible and gathering together scattered texts related to a topic, and interpreting those texts to build a coherent, balanced, and faithful perspective of that topic. People read their Bibles in the same manner as the sermons they hear.”
At Grace Church, Ashland, Ohio, Pastor Dan Allan has not abandoned preaching through the Canon of Scriptures. “When I started this 25 years ago, I thought: If I’m supposed to preach the Bible, the whole counsel of God, let’s shoot to do that. I’ve been on course to do that. What I mean by that is I want to get to the place where I’ve done a books study on every book. All but ten.” Allan is saving the best for last: only Deuteronomy, some minor prophets, and Ezekiel remain.
Key topical and seasonal series appear in Allan’s lineup, but he prefers book studies for a variety of reasons. “It’s easier. You don’t have to come up with an outline; the author of the book has provided it. It forces you to cover touchy topics that you might otherwise avoid. And it keeps you from getting stuck on hobby horses.”
I’ll admit: exegetical preachers are guilty of hobby horses, too. Whether I’m preaching James or Haggai, I can typically find a link to the goodness of Buckeyes’ football or the evils of fast food. Moreover, I’m not foolish enough to preach a forty-eight week series in Leviticus. I can predict the fallout: boredom reigns, blood sacrifice returns, and the congregation raise stones to throw at me.
Nevertheless, I prefer a 20-week journey through a book of the Bible to a four-week sprint through a theme. I’m in it for the long haul. Ten years and more than five hundred sermons into my career, this preference shapes my long view of sermon crafting. Book-by-book. Sunday-by-Sunday. — by Tim Sprankle
Editor’s Note: Tim Sprankle is pastor of the Grace Brethren Church, Leesburg, Ind. He blogs at sprainedankle.blogspot.com.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of GraceConnect. If you’d like to receive the magazine, mailed directly to your home at no charge, click here.