One of my wife’s hobbies is nutrition. For years she has been studying the matter and is thoroughly convinced that it’s the key to good health. One word that is very prominent in her nutritional vocabulary is “balance.”
I hear her speaking about a good balance between breakfast, lunch and supper. She insists on a healthy balance between carbohydrates, proteins and fats. She’ll say to me, “you’ve really had enough of that this week, you should balance it out with some of this….”
Frankly, I could eat All-American hamburgers every night of the week, but she tells me I need more balance than that in my diet. So our family has good confidence knowing that the design of our nutrition is in her hands. It makes sense when she tells us that developing and maintaining good health requires such balance.
Those of us who are preachers and responsible for designing the pulpit diet of the church could stand to learn such lessons. The same principles are true — good growth requires the proper nourishment, and the proper nourishment requires a healthy nutritional balance. The development and maintenance of good spiritual health requires a spiritually balanced diet.
But that’s not so easy to prepare and there are some great dangers inherent in leaving all such choices to the preacher alone. The preacher is subject to such an insidious temptation to set his own agenda for the pulpit. It’s always easier for us to concentrate on those matters that are our own interests and to avoid the matters that might be more difficult or controversial to deal with.
The bottom line is: if the entire pulpit diet is left to the discretion of the preacher alone it could (unintentionally, of course) become very imbalanced. That’s where the assistance of alert and perceptive lay leaders becomes so important. They can give valuable help to the pastor in assessing the needs of the congregation and how a balanced diet can be designed for them. Reflect on what happened in some of these recent settings:
– I visited some friends at Thanksgiving and while worshiping with them discovered their pastor was preaching a series of messages from Jeremiah. A year later I stopped in again and learned that he was “still stuck in Jeremiah” and they were becoming very weary of it.
– “Our pastor is always dealing with prophecy,” a friend said. “He is far more interested in reading all the little indicators of the signs of the times than helping me with some of my personal struggles.”
– He was very frustrated when he told me, “All we get around here is that heavy doctrinal stuff week after week, until I feel like my head is twice its size and my heart is shrinking.”
– Another said, “We get so much milk and such little meat in our church that I feel I ought to take my head off and put it under the seat. It’s just not needed.”
– Still another complained, “It seems that every Sunday our pastor spends half his time haranguing about all the things that he thinks are wrong with our denomination.”
What is wrong in each of these situations? Concerns that are very appropriate are overdone, or at least perceived as overdone, and an unhealthy imbalance has resulted. Each pastor was dealing with very good concerns (Jeremiah is a good book; prophecy is important; doctrine must be taught; milk is necessary; confronting error is crucial) but each needs to be held in balance with other concerns. My garden isn’t all beans; we’ve made room for lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes. My wife won’t let me have a diet of all hamburgers; she insists on salads, fish, vegetables, etc. The development and maintenance of good health requires a well-balanced diet!
One of the reasons why it’s so hard to maintain a balanced pulpit diet is that it’s so hard to define just what balance is. The material my wife has studied on nutrition points to guidelines that would include about 60% complex carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 20% fat in our diet. And she has charts and tables in books to help her carefully follow such guidelines. Are there any such simple tools for the preacher?
Unfortunately not! I have done a lot of searching and have found very little helpful material for the preacher. I have scoured homiletics textbooks and journal articles. I have interviewed several homiletics professors as well. And, while I know that my search has not been exhaustive, frankly, I’ve gained very little concrete information — only a few suggestions that involve bare glimpses of the direction we’ll have to go to discern balance.
Nor could I get a lot of help from the Scriptures for it never seems to address the matter carefully. I understand why that is so. The writers of Scripture never have a preacher in view who has been engaged in a sustained pulpit ministry to the same congregation over a long period of time.
I will soon have preached nearly 1000 sermons in my present pulpit. The Apostles moved on after a little while in each town. Paul’s three-year stay in Ephesus seems to be the maximum for him. He seems to come close to some guidelines in Acts 20:27 when he explains to the elders of Ephesus that he did not hesitate to “… proclaim to you the whole will of God.” Yet there are no details, no specifics, no guidelines about just what we have to preach to be satisfied that we’re preaching the “whole will of God.” I wish he had. I would love to sit down with Paul and ask him some of my questions about it all.
I also raised the question in one of the meetings of our Board of Elders some time ago. After explaining my concern to them, and presenting some analysis of the passages and subjects I had treated in my preaching in recent years, I asked the big question: “Just what does it take for preaching to be balanced, as you think of it?” It was a good discussion as they wrestled with the question. And they raised some very helpful considerations.
“Balance means remembering all the age groups of the congregation, and the concerns that are unique to each,” one said. Another pointed out that a sermon needs internal balance so that at various points in the same sermon an awareness of all ages and their needs is evident. Still another said, “You can be confident you have balance in your preaching when you look back over a year of preaching and see that you’ve been sensitive to all the diverse needs that are in this church. Some of us need encouragement, some need to be disturbed, and some of us need to be called to Christ.”
Another insisted that we must clarify our definition of preaching first. He believes preaching must present the Word of God for the purpose of: (1) building faith, (2) giving knowledge, (3) calling people to Jesus Christ, and (4) equipping them for service. “When you work at fulfilling those four tasks,” he said, “you’ve got a pretty good balance.”
So I have attempted to formulate some criteria and guidelines by which we can better understand the balance we need. I present these for your consideration and welcome any insights and reflections you may have. As I have done so, it has been helpful for me to approach the matter from six different directions.
Canonical Balance
It is important that the canon of Scripture be among the criteria we consider. My belief in plenary inspiration means that I hold that all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is inspired of God, authoritative, and therefore legitimate material for preaching. My belief in progressive revelation means that I expect God’s revelation to take on greater clarity as I move from the beginnings of the Scripture to the latter books.
Since all of it has authority, it must all be represented. Yet it certainly is true that not all passages of Scripture have equal homiletical value. It is entirely reasonable that I may treat the six chapters of Ephesians with greater concentration than the fifty-two chapters of Jeremiah, for example.
I remember one of my seminary professors indicated to us that a good rule of thumb was to preach a third of the time from the Old Testament, another third of the time from the Gospels, and the final third of the time from the remainder of the New Testament. So I set to work evaluating the last ten years of my preaching. I discovered that 32% of my time was spent in the Old Testament; 26% of it was spent in the Gospels; and 42% was spent in the remainder of the New Testament. I began to see a trend in my preaching selections. It is perhaps easier for me to select didactic passages than any other. I must be careful of that for it could tilt the scale too far one way.
Then I considered the various types of literature that are included in the Scriptures. I have always been taught that the richness of the Scriptures is due, in part, to the valuable literary diversity. Some of the books are historical, others are wisdom literature, others are prophecy, some biography, and still others are doctrinal. I wondered how my preaching would be distributed across those five categories, so I tabulated the same ten years of preaching according to the passages that I had treated and was very surprised at what I found:
– 24% was from historical books
– 15% was from wisdom literature
– 10% was from prophetic books
– 30% was from biographical books
– 21% was from doctrinal books.
I began to see a trend, and some weaknesses. It was understandable that such a concentration was found in the historical and biographical books because God’s mighty acts are performed in history, and we see His works best in the lives of people and nations. But was I negligent in side-stepping the wisdom literature and prophetic books too much? I examined my pattern of devotional studies, and discovered the same trend in the books of the Bible that I select for my devotional reading.
I gained a new appreciation for the importance of doing justice to the full range of the canon of Scripture.
Confessional Balance
In the tradition of our denomination, the congregation worships twice each Sunday, morning and evening, with a different sermon at each service. In addition, our Church Order requires that, “At one of the services each Lord’s Day, the minister shall ordinarily preach the Word as summarized by the Heidelberg Catechism …”
I am convinced there are some real advantages to such a practice. In a day when so many Christians are not well grounded in the basic truths of the Christian faith, such a steady diet of confessional preaching will give just what many need. It’s also good discipline for the preacher because it forces us to deal with passages and truths that we might otherwise ignore.
It also gives us a good sense of historical identity because we sense that many Christians of other generations have professed the same faith, struggled with the same concerns, and lived by the same hope. And besides, there is a large matter of convenience built into such a system, for as the preacher plans his pulpit work for the season the schedule for one of those services is pretty well decided for him by the Catechism.
Yet there are significant disadvantages as well. Preaching confessionally can be very challenging, especially if you are determined to make it fresh, relevant and interesting. It runs the risk of weighting the preaching diet heavily in the direction of didactic and doctrinal material, thus creating its own imbalance. And it certainly can become a test for the pastor who remains in the same congregation for more than five or six years.
Can I cover the same material again and remain fresh? Should I just rely on the sermon material I used last time? For the preacher prone to seek out shortcuts, the traps are all too obvious. For the congregation tempted to be impatient with doctrinal preaching, the load will quickly be too heavy.
How can the preacher preserve the balance of capitalizing on the advantages of confessional preaching while compensating for its disadvantages? I have wrestled hard with that question and have devised a plan for myself that retains the conviction that confessional preaching is essential to healthy nurture for the congregation, yet packages it with sufficient balance to avoid some of its stiffest hazards.
This plan allows for two years to cover the fifty-two Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism. That provides enough elbow room in the preaching schedule to allow for breaks in Lent, Advent, and at other times. However, since our denomination holds to two other major Confessions (The Beglic Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dort) as well as a Contemporary Testimony (“Our World Belongs to God”), I have chosen, with the agreement of our Board of Elders, to include a study of those Confessions alternately with the Catechism.
With such a pattern I can uphold the conviction that Confessional Preaching is necessary for a maturing faith. But I can also provide a balance in Confessional Preaching since some historic Christian doctrines are dealt with more carefully in one confession than in another. I am assured therefore that over a period of time I have presented to the congregation on a regular basis a balanced diet of the historic Christian Faith.
Telic Balance
Jay Adams, in Preaching With Purpose, makes the claim, “There are few deficiencies in preaching quite so disastrous in their effect as the all-too-frequently occurring failure to determine the telos (or purpose) of a preaching portion.” The telos is the original intent of the Holy Spirit when He inspired a particular portion of Scripture.
If the Spirit always had a telos/purpose/intent in mind while doing the work of inspiration, then surely the preacher must have an equally clear idea of that as he aims to communicate the inspired Scriptures to his hearers today. The crucial question for the preacher then is, “what is the purpose of this sermon that I am to preach on Sunday?”
It’s not always so simple to answer a question like that, and we need to wrestle with it in regard to each message. But we need also live with an awareness that preaching as a whole has multiple purposes.
I remember a seminary professor who once said you can reduce all the various purposes of preaching to this — to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable!
Paul (II Timothy 3:16-17) points to the fourfold purpose of Scripture (and therefore preaching) that will thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work through: (1) teaching, (2) rebuking, (3) correcting, and (4) training in righteousness.
Karl Menninger, in Whatever Became of Sin?, points to his understanding of the purpose of preaching when he says that the person in the pulpit has “… an unparalleled opportunity to lighten burdens, interrupt and redirect circular thinking, relieve the pressure of guilt feelings and their self-punishment, and inspire individual and social improvement.”
It is understandable that preaching has multiple purposes because the audience before the preacher ordinarily is an audience with widely varying spiritual states, and even more diverse personal experiences. William Perkins, in The Art of Preaching, told us many years ago to think of six categories of hearers, three of them converted and three of them unconverted. Among the converted, there are those who are young children and need to be built up, those who are under temptation and trouble and need to be supported, and those who are mature and need to advance in the faith. Among the unconverted, there are those who are spiritually indifferent and need arousing, those who are spiritually conceited and need humbling, and those who are humbled, anxious and seeking, and need to be led into the kingdom of God.
With such a diversity before him, and such broad purposes for preaching, the preacher must always remain very self-critical of the purposes of his preaching. He must be engaged in constant review of what he is trying to do. Some need to be convicted of their sin and brought to salvation. Some need to be comforted in a time of doubt and crisis. Others need to be exposed for their wanderings. Still others need to be grounded better in the basics of the faith. Others need to be confronted about their complacency. And still others need to be challenged to more committed service. And so on.
There are no neat and easy formulas to use for retaining such a balance. Constant analysis is required. And the assistance of lay persons who are alert spiritually and in touch with the needs of the congregation will be a precious ally of the preacher who is concerned about telic balance.
Church-Year Balance
A significant rhythm is built into our ecclesiastical year and the experience of that rhythm must be a part of preaching balance. During Old Testament times the Israelites celebrated a year that was marked off by certain festivals and feasts through which they rhythmically observed the great acts of God. In New Testament times, when God has renewed His covenant through Jesus Christ, the Christian Church is still called on to rhythmically celebrate the great acts of God.
So in the experience of all Christians today the eager anticipation of Advent gives way to the celebration of the incarnation at Christmas. And the incarnation lays the foundation for the ministry of Jesus which issues in the time of Lent, and then the triumph of Easter, and the Ascension of Christ, and the coming of the Spirit of Pentecost. Six times of festival, therefore, dominate the spirit and temperament of the ecclesiastical year: Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. The great themes of God’s redemptive work always are portrayed on these six pages of the calendar.
The preacher who is interested in pulpit balance must take this ecclesiastical calendar into consideration in planning his season of pulpit work. A program of preaching, no matter how excellent in other respects, that ignores these events, is guilty of inexcusable deficiencies.
For that reason, many have chosen to follow the Common Lectionary in their preaching. Though I have not chosen to follow it directly, I have spoken to those who have and find them very eager to speak its praises. The Lectionary provides a planned schedule for preaching that is built around these great Christian festivals and is constructed for three years. It does indeed present a balanced treatment of Old Testament and New Testament as well as the Christological events of God’s redemptive plan.
For each Sunday, on a three year cycle, four Scripture lessons are presented from both the Old and New Testaments. Those who plan their preaching accordingly can be assured that they will receive healthy assistance in helping them avoid overemphasizing or neglecting certain themes.
Andrew Blackwood, one time well-known homiletician at Princeton Seminary, took a similar, but slightly different approach in his Planning a Year’s Pulpit Work. He suggests that our pulpit season from September to Christmas should be characterized by “undergirding” and aim to reveal God and His ways through Bible history and preach Christian doctrine. From Christmas to Easter we must aim for “recruiting” and proclaim the beauty of the Gospel and the message of the Cross. From Easter to Pentecost our aim must be “instructing” in which we present the risen Lord and preach biblical ethics. Finally, from Pentecost to September our aim should be “heartening” and we must meet the life situations of the hearers.
So the preacher who engages in the balancing act must always have his eye on the church calendar.
Issue Balance
I am continually impressed, and frequently frightened, with the great diversity of need in the audience that sits before me each Sunday. I look them over while the offering is being taken and I’m preparing to lead them in prayer, and I wonder how I can ever be expected to be in touch with all their needs. “They are too many, and too different, Lord!” I want to cry out.
I see a young lady who comes every month with a new boyfriend; a father who feels guilty over some dishonesty at work; a young couple with wounds of misunderstanding; a lonely widow; grieving parents of a rebellious son; a young father who found a tumor; another who is angry about the heavy blows of life; a family with great joy that needs to be expressed; another couple just starting a family; a father who dreads approaching retirement …. and the list can go on.
My awareness of such diversity has increasingly convinced me of the critical importance of “Situational Preaching” — that is, preaching formed and shaped by the preacher’s careful knowledge of the situation of his hearers. The preacher must be an avid reader so that he will know the world of his parishioners. He must know the personality and record of his congregation so he understands their uniqueness.
He must possess ears that are always ready to pick up insights and signals from others about trends and patterns in the lives of his people. He must be a pastor who is in personal touch on a one-to-one basis with many in his congregation, through pastoral work and friendships, so that he feels their pulse and breathes their concern.
Even then, the task is too great for him alone. He needs the assistance of alert and highly observant laity who will join him in making analysis of the needs of the congregation and community. Their insights help the preacher confirm and verify his own conclusions, but also add a perspective he cannot achieve alone.
Unfortunately, rare is the church with lay persons who see their task that way, and who are equipped to serve their preacher that way. I have conducted some surveys of pastors lately about that matter and discovered, to my amazement, that almost all preachers surveyed would love to raise the level of awareness of their laity concerning the need for such assistance. I’ve tried to develop some tools for use along that line, but most churches have made only a beginning.
So the preacher who aims for an “issue balance” in his preaching has a formidable task. He will have to be engaged in a regular effort to study and discern the pressing needs in the lives of his listeners. He must be praying not only that the Spirit of God will open his mind to understanding what the Word is saying, but also that the Spirit will open his mind to discern what his parishioners are experiencing.
As I became increasingly aware of this, I spent some time analyzing my preaching of the past ten years. As I indicated previously, nearly half of that preaching is confessional in character. The other half of it is usually structured around series of messages that vary from 3-12 sermons each. My analysis revealed to me that my preaching was spread rather evenly across seven categories of content:
– Series for the Church Year (Advent, Lent, etc.)
– Direct Biblical Studies (a book or chapter of the Bible)
– Biographical Studies (a person from the Scriptures)
– Issues of the Christian Life (moral and ethical issues)
– Issues of Christian Belief (various positions of doctrine)
– Life and Mission of the Church (its identity and work)
– Christian Renewal (the life of faith in a changing world)
At the beginning of another church season, I discuss my intentions with the elders and explain that I am planning for another season of preaching. They will often steer me away from one category and toward another. I see now, in retrospect, how valuable their insights have been for maintaining balance in my pulpit ministry.
Methodology Balance
My parishioners worship a lot. We worship twice every Sunday. Approximately 75% of them are present every Sunday morning; 65% of them are present again at night. Both services are preaching services. Therefore the average parishioner hears nearly 75-80 sermons per year and some hear much more than that.
I’m mighty grateful for that kind of faithfulness and loyalty but it also makes preaching to them very challenging. It will take a lot of effort to avoid the rut of “sameness.” Someone has said that the only difference between a rut and a grave is how long you stay in it! To retain a healthy interest level, preaching will require variation in method as well as the other criteria we’ve considered.
To come to church that much knowing you can always expect to find the same method of presentation removes a good bit of the interest in coming. Interesting preaching must not always be so predictable. If my method is always identical, an unwholesome predictability will descend on the congregation and keen communication will be hurt.
Our culture is built on the desire for variety. Art, music, architecture and literature all attest to that fact. Hardly anything stays the same for two consecutive appearances. Yet, sadly, preaching often does. We use the same method, follow the same pattern, think in the same structures, outline in the same way … unless, of course, we are willing to expend the extra energy to step outside of our comfortable and ordinary routine and push the boundaries back to make room for some variation.
Fred Craddock, in Preaching, says “No form is so good that it does not eventually become wearisome to both listener and speaker.” Harold Freeman, in Variety in Biblical Preaching, encourages us to develop alternate methods to our usual ones. Dramatic monologues, he says, have new power to capture attention. A dialogic message can make hearers face the truth in new ways. A narrative message utilizing the art of story-telling can reach previously unreached ears. A segmented message may use several different methods of communication. And other means can also be employed to augment the verbal message.
He made me think about the prophets who used not only a verbal discourse but also a torn robe, a smear of ashes, a basket of summer fruit, a plumb-line, and even a cistern to get the same message across in more communicative ways. And it reminded me of the Master Communicator who could present a verbal monologue, but also a stirring story, and a little child, and miracles — all to enhance his communicative effectiveness.
So I’ve made some attempts along that line, always trying to take into consideration the limitations of my own personal abilities and the limitations of what my parishioners would accept. (Actually inappropriate variation could sabotage instead of enhance communication.) In some series I will work expositionally through a book or chapter, a few verses at a time. In another series I’ll portray the dynamics of the personal life of one of the Bible characters. At another time I’ll treat a number of pressing moral/ethical issues in a problem-solving manner. I have worked my way through the life of Joseph, son of Jacob, in first-person narrative style. I’ve dealt with the great theme of salvation by grace in the form of my life story. I presented my thoughts about Christian education in a “Why My Children Are in Christian School” method.
Seeking balance in preaching is no easy matter. We have more than one isolated criteria to bear in mind. I began my thinking about the matter with the assumption it would be easy to develop several very simple guidelines, but life just doesn’t allow itself to be reduced to simple guidelines, and neither does preaching. Yet the matter of communicating well is so crucial we may never ignore the issue, nor give up the work it demands.
The issue of balance begs for the preacher to remain self-critical — not the Monday morning quarterbacking that rethinks everything done the day before but the kind that is always reviewing and analyzing each season before another one is planned.
It also begs for the preacher to plan ahead. The preacher who works and plans only from Monday to Sunday will be subject to the fickle ploys of whim. Only when he plans a whole season of preaching at a time will he be able to refine his methods and keep an eye on his balance.
It also begs the church for lay leaders who refuse to leave the preacher alone with this task. It’s too big an issue to rest in the lap of one person. To be sure, the final decision about what to preach and what to say in the pulpit belongs to the preacher who is personally accountable before God. But he cannot do that effectively without laity who assist him in pointing out trends and needs that require the attention of preaching.
A. C. Craig of Glasgow University said, in Preaching In A Scientific Age, that about a year or so after he was ordained to the ministry he happened to meet Principal Alexander Martin one day in Edinburgh. Martin greeted him with the question, “well, how’s the preaching going?” And when Craig replied that he was finding it very difficult, Martin responded, “preaching is not difficult, man; it’s impossible!”
Craig goes on to say that, if pressed for an amplification of this, Martin would probably have gone on to say: “Young man, do not imagine that you will ever master the glamorous, elusive art of preaching. If you have the authentic call to it, it will enslave you, enchant you, tease you, confound you all your days: and in the end you will have to say, ‘I have not attained, I only press toward the mark of this high calling’.”

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