IN A SEMINARY COURSE I ONCE TOOK, THE PROFESSOR TOLD ABOUT A difficult life period when his spirit felt empty. One Sabbath he broke from his routine and visited a small, out-of-the-way church pastored by a simple, old man.
The old pastor wasn’t a dynamic preacher; he didn’t use contemporary illustrations or visual aids; nor did he speak on a hot topic of the day. Instead, he led his small congregation, verse by verse, through the deep exploration of a single passage of Scripture. The professor left church that day with his spirit filled.
This is called the inductive study of Scripture; and through the years, as a congregation member, I’ve found it to be a powerful form of preaching. Over the past two years, at the church where I work part-time as a lay pastor, we have walked through the following books together: Ephesians, Ruth, John, Philippians, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and now Malachi. Some books took us only a few weeks; the Gospel of John took seven months.
For a worship service like ours, for which we have a rotation of three speakers, this structure provides needed continuity from the pulpit. But more important, it places the focus on the Word of God, rather than on an individual speaker. When the congregation leaves each Sabbath, we want it thinking about the text, not us.
What may surprise some people is that our worship service, called Connect, is considered “contemporary” in style, with praise music, multimedia, and a relaxed feel. People might expect that a congregation such as ours—which includes many youth and university students—would devote its sermons exclusively to the “relevant” topics of the day in order to hold people’s attention.
And, yes, periodically we do change things up. Topical preaching can be powerful as well. After all, Jesus Himself preached topically. (Of course everything He said became Scripture.) Any sermon grounded in the Word of God can be used for His glory. The challenge with topical preaching is that it’s very difficult, in a 30-minute sermon, to get to the essence of a biblical passage without the opportunity to thoroughly explain its background and context.
The best way to discover the riches of Scripture is to work through it verse by verse, with the aid of the best commentaries and study tools. A straightforward, inductive study doesn’t mean the absence of creative elements—not at all. A worship planning team will enjoy supplementing the preaching with fresh approaches. For our Gospel of John series an artistic church member built a towering arch and each week etched a new name for Jesus (the Word, the Healer, the Good Shepherd, and so on) that matched the biblical passage. We also showed corresponding video clips from the Gospel of John film, a superb word-for-word portrayal. For our study in Philippians we released balloons in the parking lot, symbolizing our freedom and joy in Christ. We concluded Esther with a celebration of Purim, including an Esther drama, Jewish dancing, and a Jewish potluck. (One struggling cook joked that she was going to buy a cake and write “Jewish” on it.)
In the inductive preaching model the text drives the topic (meaning that a brain-weary preacher doesn’t have to come up with a new topic each week). We’re routinely struck by the relevance of the ancient text to our lives today. In Ephesians we find a call to the fullness of life; in the Gospel of John we find the Jesus of one-on-one encounters; in Philippians we learn how joy and hard times can coexist; and in Daniel we sit back and watch the sovereign hand of Adonai guide the nations—because not everything has to be about me.
At a time when half of our church members acknowledge that they don’t study the Bible on their own, inductive preaching can help equip them with the tools—and the desire—to self-feed during the week. Many Christians, including this one, can trace a spiritual awakening to a time when God’s Word became “living and active. Sharper than any doubled-edge sword” (Heb. 4:12).
Andy Nash is a journalism professor and lay pastor. He recently assisted Rainey H. Park on a new book: Love, Kristen: The True Story of the Student Missionary Who Gave Her All. This article was published November 18, 2010.