As an expositor, one must assess both the culture and the congregation in order to determine whether or not to engage certain concerns that arise. Clarity in this matter is essential. How does the preacher gain clarity in his assessment? Let’s consider these nine questions, which will serve as indicators for the expositor—helping him discern the extent of the concern and whether or not it should impact his upcoming sermon:
1. Does the concern affect a substantial portion of the congregation in a substantial way? Does the problem, crisis, or concern on the minds of the church members move them to come to church hoping (and needing) to hear a direct and timely Word from the Lord? Given the sensationalized and never-ending news cycle to which we are now afflicted, the key word is substantial—are a substantial number of people affected in a substantial way?
2. Should this concern be affecting them? Is the distraction a legitimate one? Many church members stumble into worship with earthly distractions. Everything from college football and pop culture personalities and circumstances to the rolling events of the never-ending news cycle all clamor for their attention. The last thing the preacher should do is give these issues legitimacy or draw attention to them. To engage such is to forfeit biblical exposition altogether and become a topical preacher. Just because there is an elephant in the room does not mean one should engage it. Perhaps it needs to be ignored—or shooed out altogether.
3. Does this concern pose a threat to God’s people, morally, doctrinally, or in some other way? The faithful shepherd warns the sheep. This warning most commonly happens through the regular exposition of Scripture, but there are times when a more direct, timely word is needed. Hence, it may be necessary to preach an isolated, expository sermon on the Prosperity Gospel, the historicity of Genesis, biblical sexuality, the Obergfell decision, religious liberty, etc.
4. Does this concern necessitate a pastoral response of comfort? The faithful shepherd not only warns the sheep, he also comforts them. For example, in the context of the Iraq War, I pastored a church comprised of nearly 50-percent military personnel. During the ramp up to the war, when a number of our members were being deployed to combat, I interrupted my series to preach a particularly encouraging sermon from the Psalms. Or, to borrow a more recent event, if one pastored in Paris during their recent terrorist attack, it would be ministerial malpractice to ignore it. Or, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the sermon most needed by the congregation probably was not one of rebuke against the culture, but of hope in God and a reminder that Christ is building his church.
5. Does the preacher need to inform the church of a hazardous issue or circumstance? For instance, is there pending legislation, on marriage, of which the church must be informed? Is there a forthcoming issue that will roil the congregation? Events such as the Ashley Madison scandal, Planned Parenthood videos, the Obergfell U.S. Supreme Court decision, may necessitate the preacher to inform his congregation or interpret the issues for them. Additionally, there may be internal issues which merit direct engagement. Issues like disunity in the church, sexual immorality, or some knotty case of church discipline may necessitate interrupting the sermon series.
6. Is there a clear biblical connection between the concern and a specific text? Does the Bible actually speak to the issue? Just as bad as not speaking where the Bible speaks, is to speak where the Bible does not speak. For instance, as the presidential election approaches, issues like taxation, immigration, states’ rights, the Affordable Care Act, and a host of other issues will dominate the headlines, most of which would be a stretch to engage from Scripture or in the sermon.
7. Has this concern come to the preacher? Though I have argued the need for a preacher to have an antenna, the biggest concerns will surely find him. Are God’s people, in essence, clamoring for a Word from the Lord?
8. Is there a biblical “therefore” to the text and the concern? Does the Bible not only reference the concern, but also speak to it? For example, as to the issue of marriage, we not only point out what it is not—same-sex—but what it is, the conjugal, covenant union of a man and a woman.
9. Are you moved by principle or just wanting to break the boredom? If the impulse to interrupt the series is to alleviate boredom, then the preacher may have bigger issues. If that is the case, you do not have a problem with the length of the series but the composition of the sermons—hence a problem with the preacher himself. Be wary of interrupting the series for anything less than a true congregational or cultural urgency.
How to Engage Pressing Concerns
The wager of lectio continua is that over the long haul, the accrued week-to-week benefit of sequential exposition offsets the weekly flexibility of topical preaching. With lectio continua as the preferred approach to preaching, the proposed steps to engage pressing cultural concerns incrementally and only when truly necessary, away from it. Let’s consider five questions to help frame how we might accomplish this:
1. Does this week’s text speak to, or touch on, the concern? Can you legitimately derive implication or application from the passage before you? If so, the problem is solved. Again, the key is to not bend the text to this end. To do so is to forfeit faithful exegesis. It is always better to change texts than to bend the text.
2. Does an upcoming text sufficiently engage the concern? One benefit of lectio continua is, generally, you know not only what you are preaching in the near-term, but what you will be preaching down the road. In fact, cultural and congregational realities may rightly inform the book one preaches through.
3. Does this concern merit interrupting the sermon series? The greater the concern, as assessed by the previous nine questions, the more likely one should interrupt the series. Picture two ascending and correlating lines. The higher up the concern graph, the more likely the concern will merit interrupting sequential exposition to address it.
4. Can you preach a topical, expositional sermon on the urgent concern?Regardless what one preaches on, or from what passage one preaches, the congregation should be unsurprised by how one preaches. To interrupt sequential exposition in order to let another text speak can reinforce the authority and relevancy of God’s Word. To interrupt sequential exposition for periodic, topical soapbox sermons undermines biblical exposition. It subtly infers verse-by-verse preaching is what one does when there is not a sexy, more captivating topic on which to preach.
5. Is this concern a gospel one, answered in Christ? Remember, the ultimate points of application are found in Christ. Run to Christ at the end of the text and as the solution to crisis and need. As you run to Christ, you can point out the many signs of fallenness and the need for the gospel. After all, so many of our pressing cultural concerns go back to the effects of total depravity and the aftermath of Genesis 3.
The ultimate point of every sermon is Christ’s saving work, and the most profound points of application for pressing cultural concerns are found in him. When preachers run first from the text to contemporary application, they may speed-by the most prescient application point of all, the finished work of Christ. Yet, when they run to him, they apply the text to the deepest needs and longings of the human heart.
There is an old saying, “When heresy moves in across the street, evangelicals tend to move across town.” Though topical preaching certainly is not heresy, when it comes to us most committed to lectio continua, we can overreact against topical preaching by studiously avoiding contemporary concerns and the impulse for relevance altogether. So much so, perhaps we err in running too far the other direction. We argue that the Bible does not need to be made relevant, because, as the Word of God, it is unfailingly relevant. This is true. Though we cannot improve upon the Bible’s relevancy, as we rightly exegete our text, our culture, and our congregation, perhaps we can make our sermons a touch more relevant.
*This article was originally published on 8/24/16*