Mailbag #60: How to Divide the Text; Making Sunday Accessible for Non-Believers
As a new pastor who wants to preach mainly through books of the Bible, I find it challenging to know where to divide the text. This is mainly because I’m trying to balance not preaching through a book for years but also not giving myself (or other preachers) sections that are too long. I would love some resources on suggestions for this, knowing that of course it often depends on the congregation and the pastor’s/preaching team’s preference. But any tips?
A few thoughts. First, you’re free to pick whatever length of passage you want. This is a matter of judgment. Second, there’s value in preaching different lengths of text. You can see some things when preaching just a verse, and other things when preaching an entire book. Many preachers pick just one length. I think there’s some value in switching it up. Third, texts do have natural divisions or units, and that natural unit varies by genre: in the Psalms a psalm; in the Gospels a parable or sets of parables or a story; etc. Fourth, you might be better at some lengths than others. Fifth, yes, I think you can wary a congregation by spending too long in a book. Plus, you’re not teaching them their whole Bibles. I enjoy sitting under preachers who deliberately rotate their preaching series between Testaments and genres through the course of a year. Sixth, when you’re a young preacher, it might be harder to preach longer passages, but it forces you to work harder at speaking and explaining Scripture, rather than your opinions. There is just more to explain in your time allotment—and there’s wisdom in such self-restraint.
Other than that, brother, I leave it to you.
At our church at the moment we’re having a bit of a discussion about the role of Sunday for those who aren’t believers. Some in our church think we need to do more in our preaching and service leading to make Sunday services accessible to unbelievers. Others believe Sunday should primarily be for the equipping of believers to proclaim the message individually throughout the week. I’ve spoken to many other pastors who see a similar debate among members.
I think it’s probably fair to say that this is a spectrum—nobody would say Sunday should never include evangelistic preaching, nor would any think Christians should be ignored in a seeker-sensitive style service. I was wondering if you had any insight into this issue as our church thinks it through.
Thanks for the question, Tim. I believe the New Testament indicates that the church’s regular Sunday gathering should primarily serve to equip the saints, but that a church should always be mindful of the non-Christians among them and of their evangelistic witness to these “outsiders.”
First, the “church” in the New Testament is not simply an event where individuals come together as an audience to watch a performance. It’s a gathering of Christians who are committed to one another: “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18). It’s like the family dinner table time—a regular gathering defined by who is there, the family. It’s only in the last few decades that Protestant churches have conceived of the church gathering as an event where people come and spectate and then leave. This attractional understanding of “church” is new.
Second, you certainly see the apostles and others entering synagogues or other venues to do evangelism (e.g. Acts 14:1; 17:22–32), but that’s a different kind of thing than a church gathering.
Third, the gathering of the Jerusalem church in the early chapters of Acts is defined by their preaching of the Word for the saints: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…”; “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 2:42, 46; 6:2). Yet the building up of the church through the apostles’ ministry cannot be pitted against its evangelistic effect: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (6:7).
Fourth, Christ gives “pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4:11, 12). When does that happen? In part through one-on-one ministry, yes, but firstly through preaching the Word to the saints.
Fifth, a crucial passage for your question is 1 Corinthians 14. Paul commands them to “strive to excel in building up the church” (v. 12) and “Let all things be done for building up” (v. 26). You see this emphasis on building up the church throughout his discussion of prophecies and tongues. Yet Paul is also mindful of the fact that both believers and unbelievers comprise this assembly:
Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophesy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Cor. 12:22–25)
Permit me to avoid a defining tongues and prophesy for the moment. I think you see the balance throughout this chapter. The church gathers primarily to build one another up with word ministry. Yet outsiders and unbelievers will enter, and that word ministry should convict their hearts so that they repent and worship God.
After all, the Word that convicts and grows the saints is the same Word that convicts and converts non-Christians. In a sense, what this entire debate reveals is that Christians have a poor theology of conversion and sanctification and the Word. It’s the Word alone that gives life. Nothing else does. What do Christians need? The Word. What do non-Christians need? The Word. So a good sermon on Joshua 1 or Mark 1 or Ephesians 1 can be directed at both believers and unbelievers.
The gathering is a gathering of believers. It’s what the thing we call “church” is. Yet the Word spoken in those gatherings gives life to believers and unbelievers.
Very practically, then, every sermon in your church should (i) seek to build up the saints with meaty exposition; (ii) explain the gospel very clearly and simply so that unbelievers can understand it and Christians can be washed again in it; (iii) explicitly address non-Christians (“If you’re here today and you don’t understand yourself to be a follower of Jesus, you might ask yourself what Jesus’ words here mean for you…”). Realize, however, that, wonderfully, God in his power and wisdom might use something you say for the Christian to convict the non-Christian, and something you say for the non-Christian to build up the Christian.
Take a look at my “new” book The Word Centered Church: How Scripture Brings Life and Growth to God’s People. Hope all this helps.