Balanced Preaching: How to Write Balanced Sermons and Bible Studies

Perhaps the most important concept for pastoring a church is balance. The importance of balance shows up in nearly every area of the local church and to ignore balance is to head for ruin.

With regard to a pastor’s workload, the pastor must find a healthy balance between the twin sins of too little and too much. At smaller churches, such as mine, pastors often have little oversight; while working in my office, I am nearly always the only person in the building. Pastors of smaller churches must always fight against sloth by holding ourselves accountable. A good work ethic is thus indispensable in a pastor. However, on the other hand, there is always more to do. We average around 50-55 people on Sunday mornings at my church; I could work for 50-55 hours a week and still not finish everything that could be done. Pastors must not only fight against lethargy in their work, pastors must also be masters of prioritization. In others words, pastors must find balance.

Balance is also crucial in the pastor’s ultimate responsibility: preaching. Pastors must, for example, achieve balance between the genres from which they preach. While I adore the refined theology in John and Romans, I would be doing my congregation a great disservice if I never mentioned the profound dialogue between God and the prophet Habakkuk in the book that bears his name. Similarly, preachers must find a balance between being too animated and too dry. While passion is appropriate for one handling the gospel, passion unrestrained tends towards fanaticism.

One of the most important elements a preacher must balance is how he speaks to his congregation’s hands and to their heads. What I mean by this is that a sermon on a single passage of scripture can go numerous ways, some better than others. Give any passage to enough preachers, and some will mine beautiful theological treasures while others will see points of application to the nitty-gritty events of everyday life. Unfortunately, some will go so far to one extreme that they fall into error.

Sermons that focus too much on the hands are typical of prosperity preachers; these sermons proclaim that if you do x, then y will follow. Often times they take true claims from the Bible and distort them; for example, if you will give money to God, then he will repay you. Or, if you pray for healing, God will heal your loved one. Both of these are based, at least to some extent, on a biblical idea; however, what’s left out is the doctrinal meat driving the promises of God’s word and the theological framework within which these claims make sense. The reason is that these teachers have focused on the person’s hands to the exclusion of the heads; in so doing, they take promises from God’s word, divorce the promises from their theological setting, and attempt to reduce Christianity to a checklist. Obviously, too much focus on the hands is a bad thing.

In contrast, some preachers go to the other end of the spectrum and focus on the head to the exclusion of the hands. These sermons differ by quality; some men, imagining themselves sagacious scholars, have shown themselves to be fatuous fools. Others have taught solid doctrine and educated their fellow believers. Though there is an acute need for solid theological instruction in the local church, theology is not mathematics; theology is meant to be much more than mere head knowledge confined to the abstract. To treat theology as an exclusively intellectual exercise tends towards legalism. While this error is not as maligned as its twin, it is an error none-the-less.

A biblical anthropology tells us that we must aim for the middle of the spectrum. On a biblical view of humanity, the hands and the head are both important. We preachers must never reduce Christianity to a list of good actions to perform; similarly, we must never teach that if people will merely believe doctrines x, y, and z, they will get into heaven. True Christianity is a combination of good actions and good doctrine. In preaching, the goal must be not only to move the congregation toward action, but also to engage their intellect; or, put another way, preaching ought to develop new thought patterns in the individual which then lead to a holier lifestyle. In other words, good preaching must strike a balance between the heart and the hands.

This all leads to a somewhat obvious question: How do we write balanced sermons (or Bible studies)?

Though you can buy many books on how to write a sermon or Bible study, here are a few extremely short pointers.

First, to write balanced sermons, we must begin with a solid understanding of the biblical text. I am convinced that any life application worth making must be firmly rooted in doctrine and that any doctrine worth teaching must be rooted in the biblical text—our praxis as Christians must flow from doctrine, not doctrine from praxis. But what exactly counts as a solid understanding of the biblical text?

Though that’s a layered question, I am convinced that a solid understanding of a biblical text is the original audience’s understanding of the text. Here’s why: God chose to reveal himself to the original audience. He spoke through their language, assumed their culture, and spoke to their situation. To get at the timeless nugget of truth at the center of any biblical passage, we must be able to enter the original audience’s world. If we attempt to interpret a passage without heeding the original culture and context, we increase the likelihood that we will misunderstand the passage altogether.

Thus, to write a well-balanced sermon, we must start at the bottom by considering what the text meant to the original audience and author. To do so, we must force ourselves to leave behind our own cultural expectations and other assumptions and assume the cultural setting and scenario of the original audience. Then we will be able to see what the nugget of truth in the passage is, extract that nugget from its cultural setting, and apply it to our audience’s cultural context. In other words, God is teaching something timeless in the passage we’re working with; however, God’s timeless teaching is wrapped in the original audience’s culture and scenario. Writing a sermon is all about unwrapping God’s timeless teaching and applying it to the modern believer.

As a caveat, the original understanding of a text is not always the understanding that we must take, though it is usually the understanding we must assume. In some rare cases, the way that we understand a passage of scripture changes as God reveals more of himself. For example, Christians interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus; the original audience, however, would not have interpreted this passage as applying to Christ.

Second, once we’ve properly understood the text, we can then consider the doctrines and philosophical positions to which the text speaks. The easiest way to perform this step is to have a prior understanding of Christian theology. Numerous books and resources that teach Christian theology are available on Amazon. If you plan to write Bible studies or sermons on a consistent basis, it’s well worth your time and money to purchase and read a solid book on Christian theology. If you’re writing a Bible study or sermon and feel overwhelmed by the theology, commentaries or sermons from other pastors can help you stay afloat in the vast sea of Christian thought.

Finally, after understanding the doctrine to which the passage speaks, we can then focus on application. Christian theology nearly always has some application to everyday life. Consider, for example, Romans 9-11: These chapters cover some of the deepest theology in the entire Bible and are the subject of numerous theological debates. Paul concludes this profound section with a hymn of praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”[1]

To locate the life application, consider the following question: What do I want my audience to do with this knowledge? In writing sermons, I compile a list of a few statements using actions verbs that I want my audience to perform. For example, in preaching on Exodus 33 last week, I had two application points: First, I wanted my audience to realize that God is the greatest treasure. Second, I wanted my audience to pursue God because of who he is, not the things that come from following God.

As a pastor, I see the primacy of balance. I have to find balance in how much I do each week and in what I do each week. In my preaching, I must always fight to achieve balance.

[1] Romans 11.33, NIV

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