When should a pastor read the Scriptural text? As soon as he is ready.
And if you aren’t ready—rather than making the Word of God central to the sermon–something else will take its place.
I am grateful for the resurgence of expository preaching. I believe it is absolutely correct to make the main point of the Scriptural text the main point of the sermon. We’ve all had to endure “sermons” which were no more than the preacher’s opinion; an opinion which, at best, is loosely related to a Scriptural text read at the beginning of sermon time.
The Importance of a Scripture Introduction
But I believe even expository preachers can inadvertently eclipse the text by not spending enough time placing the text. I’m indebted to Bryan Chapell’s excellent work, Christ-Centered Preaching, for developing the practice of preaching a scripture introduction and a sermon introduction.
The purpose of the scripture introduction is to place the Scriptural text. I begin every week by announcing the text and then I attempt to not only create interest for the text but I also work to place the text within it’s context. I think Chapell explains the preacher’s task quite well:
Those eager to read, those scared to read, and those calloused to reading all sit before the minister, who must draw each within the confines of the Word. (Chapell, 250)
But how long does such a thing take? It is here where I probably diverge from a good number of preachers. Chapell says, “if the Scripture introduction labors beyond four or five sentences, it is usually too long”. According to my Logos sermon editor I’ll be twelve minutes into my sermon this week before I read from 1 Peter. That’s a bit longer than normal—but it’s not incredibly unusual for me. And that’s not sloppy it’s intentional.
I believe these four ideas from Tim Pollard are correct:
- People are overwhelmed with information.
- As a result, they filter aggressively, rejecting as much as they can.
- The filter will tend to let in information based on its relevance.
- If you lose them at the beginning, you’re probably not getting them back. They judge quickly and move on. (source)
I’m not for one moment suggesting that God’s Word is not relevant. It is incredibly relevant. But I don’t entertain the assumption that everyone listening to a sermon both believes Scripture is relevant AND understands how it is relevant. Numerous studies have shown that a majority of Americans are biblically ignorant. They aren’t even sure what the Scripture says much less do they have the ability to know why it is relevant.
If Pollard is correct, then what is happening in those first few moments is that folks are aggressively filtering. And they are doing this with only a faint understanding of what the text might possibly be saying. By the time the pastor prays after reading the text a good percentage of the audience has already checked out. Or by the grace of God he is able to get their attention back—but now the driving force is his exposition of the text and not the text itself.
I agree with Chapell if you are laboring (I read ‘spinning your tires’) then you probably are droning on and would do better to just start reading from God’s Word. But what if rather than spinning your tires you were using this crucial time to set up the problem which the text will answer (thus creating interest). And using the time to place your 21st century audience into the world of the biblical author. Your scripture introduction needs to be as long as it takes for you to engagingly position your audience into a place where they are ready to hear that particular text.
I will have done my job in the scripture introduction if at the moment I read the Scripture passage our people can hear the waves of the Sea of Galilee lapping up against the shore as they feel the same nervousness as Peter’s elect exiles facing persecution and wondering if the dishonor they are experiencing is a sign of God’s displeasure. I want them to experience the wonder of being tied to the same story which Peter’s audience was tied to. I want them to feel the anxiety of Isaiah the prophet and the pull of conspiracy theories during the reign of King Ahaz. When we read Isaiah 8 or Isaiah 28 I want them, in as much as possible, to experience that same sigh of relief.
Sometimes you can do that in 4-5 sentences. At times you cannot. But so long as you are building towards that moment take us much time as you need. It’s not time to explain the text. Nor to tell more facts than necessary to paint the picture. It’s certainly not the time to spin your wheels and get your thoughts together. You just need to get your 21st century audience into the lap of the biblical author, to feel what they felt when those blessed words first came upon them.
Then…after you read the text…and you pray…that’s when you start walking your audience back into the 21st century.
This article originally appeared here.