The Whole Counsel of God
Which parts of Scripture are most popular with Bible-preaching churches? Oli Tucker has spent some time exploring selection bias by preachers. His findings might surprise you!
In a primer by David Helm, he defines expositional preaching as that which “rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text.”1 This is of course a very helpful and concise definition so long as we assume that the text will be preached in light of its context, book by book, chapter by chapter.
Some would define expositional preaching as just that – ‘preaching what comes next’ – in contrast to topical preaching.
Of course, as we all know, herein lies some dangers. Perhaps most notably, the problem of our selection bias; you don’t hear as much on Song of Songs, Revelation and Leviticus as you do on Ephesians. Tell me something I don’t know!
Most folk committed to expository preaching will say that ‘this is not an issue for me because I have a look at what we haven’t done for a while and then I try to do it.’ But is it me, or is that just a bit vague? Especially as we know that our hearts are deceitful, and we know the importance of the charge to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Could we be a bit more scientific about this?
A growing conviction
I was convicted about this again when reading Mike Ovey and Daniel Strange’s book Confident where Ovey spots Jesus’ remark to the Sadducees in Mark 12:24:
“Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
Ovey draws out the implication of what Jesus is saying; if we don’t know the scriptures well enough, we won’t understand them and read them properly.2
So, in some way, if I never do justice or give time to 1 Chronicles I will be underserving God’s people and withholding from them part of the Bible story that they need to understand the rest of the Bible story.
Furthermore, as Daniel Strange points out earlier in the book, we believe God has given us all the genres and messiness of the Bible to speak into the messiness of human life. We need the whole of the Bible to speak to the whole of our human personhood.3 So we should beware our preacher’s selection bias and we should do something about it if we are to be faithful under-shepherds.
An accident in the world of big data
This was when, one social-media-surfing tea break, I stumbled across the web site and smart phone application CrossPreach. CrossPreach seems do two very helpful things. One is that they provide hosting for your church sermon MP3s and a way of integrating them into your website. Second, they have also consolidated church sermon feeds from across (mostly) conservative evangelical churches in the UK so that you can go to one place and find a handful of helpful sermons on Malachi or whatever it may be.
This caught my eye: Could this website give us a gauge on the selection bias of conservative evangelicalism in the UK? Could this give us a way of being a bit more scientific about our blind spots as preachers?
At the time of writing, on the CrossPreach front page you can see that according to all the CrossPreach church feeds there have been 2679 sermons on Genesis since they started their web-site. If we divide that number by the amount of chapters (50) in Genesis we can see that there have been 53.6 sermons preached per chapter of the book. We can now compare that number with bigger or smaller Bible books.
So, take the book of Daniel. CrossPreach records 887 sermons in its database, so out of the 12 chapters of Daniel there have been 73.9 sermons per chapter of the book. That’s a much higher number than Genesis. In other words, we can see clearly here that we much prefer to preach Daniel than we do Genesis. Did you know that?
Have you ever thought about your Bible text selection in this sort of way before? What value could it add? Probably not that much you might say, we all know which books of the Bible we tend to avoid. But while that is true, we are trying to ‘look at what we haven’t done for a while and then make up for what we lack.’ This provokes the question: Do we really know what we lack? Or are we are just putting the proverbial finger in the wind?
What can we learn from the CrossPreach data?
- The least preached book in the Bible is 1 Chronicles (3.83)
- The least preached prophet is Ezekiel (4.56)
- The least preached book of wisdom is Job (6.33)
- The least preached part of the Torah is Numbers (8.83)
- The least preached book in the New Testament is 3 John (22)
- The least preached gospel is Mark (190.25)
The top 19 books preached are all in the New Testament. Ephesians is the most popular book with 428 sermons preached per chapter. The most popular Old Testament books are all minor prophets until Daniel.
Now, of course, there are problems with this exercise. One of them is that you probably wouldn’t preach Job a chapter at a time, therefore Job’s score is probably not quite right. But there’s the challenge for us! Can we find any other ways of seeing whether we are actually preaching the whole counsel of God rather than what may be just a bit of guess work?
You might argue that this is an art and not a science and that there are certain passages of the Bible that we do want to give more time to, for example, John’s gospel with all it’s wonderful Trinitarian content. But, even so, can we be sure that we are not doing that so much to the detriment of the wider Canon in which all of the Scriptures are breathed out by God and useful (2 Timothy 3:16)?
Some tentative proposals
The guys at 9Marks in the States have recently produced a little blog series which includes entries like 6 Reasons You Should Preach Through Numbers. This might be a great help to push us to parts of the Scriptures where we might be naturally reluctant.
You could also look at getting your sermon feed linked into CrossPreach. That way, should someone attempt to do this exercise again the sample size of sermons will be even better. It might also help your congregation to have an app through which they can quickly listen into what they may have missed from Sunday.
The thing that really struck me though, was how little we have preached the material written by the Chronicler. Are we being faithful to God in the way we treat his inspired author and instrument? What could you do to get to know this bit of the Scriptures better and have a go at preaching it?
As with many things in life and ministry we do, at times, need our hands holding over the fire even when it comes to preaching the whole counsel of God and preaching Christ from all the Scriptures. I guess the question this exercise has exposed is: do we know enough to be sure we are actually doing that, and therefore serve our churches well?
P.S. if you are a nerd like me and want to play with my spreadsheet, just ask.
1. David R. Helm, Expositional Preaching (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2014).
2. Daniel Strange and Michael J. Ovey, Confident: Why we can trust the Bible (Christian Focus), 143.
3. Strange and Ovey, Confident, 48–50.