Is preaching verse-by-verse “cheating?”

There are many ways to preach a sermon.  No doubt, some are more effective than others. Some people preach thematically, some topically, some do series, and some preach verse by verse through books of the Bible.  Each can be effective, but surely some ways are better than others.  By the name of our ministry, you can probably guess which method of preaching we prefer. Personally, I think it’s the best method of preaching.  But would you say it is “cheating”?

Well, the senior pastor of a mega church thinks that preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is cheating. Andy Stanley is the pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA (just outside Atlanta). At just over 30,000 members, this is the second largest church in America.  In a 2009 interview, pastor Stanley was asked this question: “What do you think about preaching verse-by-verse messages through books of the Bible?”  Here was his response:

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible-- that is just cheating. It's cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn't how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There's not one example of that. All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don't feel it, then they won't address it.

When I read this, I really didn’t understand what he meant by “cheating”. He says it’s easy, but just because something is easy does not mean it is cheating. To cheat means to deceive, defraud, violate rules, to act dishonestly. I cannot see how preaching verse by verse “cheats” in any way whatsoever. Scripture does not say preaching has to be verse by verse, but it also does not say one cannot preach that way. So, to say it is cheating is simply nonsensical.

He also says that preaching verse by verse is “easy”. Clearly, pastor Stanley has never preached verse by verse. It may be many things, but it is not easy, at least not if it’s done right. Preaching through a book of the Bible requires a historical understanding of the book being preached. It requires an understanding of the underlying Hebrew or Greek. It requires cross referencing to other Scriptures. It requires studying Biblical commentaries, which aren’t absolutely necessary, but are certainly very helpful.  No, this is not easy. On the contrary, it is hard work.

He next says that verse by verse preaching does not grow people. Before examining this, it’s helpful to know what pastor Stanley thinks does grow people. He relates a defining moment in his life:

I believe the true defining moment of my life as a communicator took place when I was in seminary. I was asked to do a chapel for the high school academy at First Baptist Church, Dallas. So I got the message all ready to go, and I was going to preach on the story of Naaman. And God told him to dip in the water seven times and he would be healed. I had all this great stuff. And I was sitting in my one-room efficiency apartment and I was thinking, "These kids have heard everything. They go to church all the time. They are not going to remember this. This is just another chapel. What can I do so that they can remember this? I am just going to come up with one phrase and I am going to say it so many times that they can't possibility forget it. So I came up with this phrase: "To understand why, submit and apply." That was over 30 years ago and I still remember it. So I told the whole story. And I said the bottom line was: "To understand why, submit and apply." And I said that God is going to ask you to do some things that you might not understand why, but you must submit and apply. I had them say it over and over. Three years go by, and I am working in the college department in the same church and a freshman walks in and says, "I remember you. To understand why, submit and apply." He didn't remember my name. He wasn't even sure where he had seen me before. But it stuck in his head. And I'll never forget thinking, "That is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to take all this stuff in the Bible, and I want to say it so simply that it gets so lodged in people's hearts that in the moment of transition or temptation or whatever it might be, they think: What is that statement? What is that phrase?

On the positive side, it’s good he wants to take what’s in the Bible and get it lodged into people’s hearts. While using a catch phrase can be helpful, I think he turns preaching on its head.  Rather than preach the word and let it do its work by the power of the Spirit, he thinks in his own power (by using catch phrases and appealing to felt needs), he can grow people. That is not what Scripture says. In John 17, in His high priestly prayer to the Father, Jesus prays for His disciples’ sanctification:

“13 But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. 14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.”

Jesus explicitly says we will be sanctified in His word. We don’t need catchy phrases, appeals to felt needs or an engaging environment in which we hear the word. The word does its work in us by the power of the Spirit. Martin Luther stated this very well: 

“In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

It was the word of God that moved people out of the darkness of the false gospel of Catholicism; Luther simply preached it.

Luther referred to Mark 4, which says,

“26 And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27 and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. 28 The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29 But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The seed is the word, and all we need do is preach it.  The Lord Himself will provide the growth.  As we read in 1 Corinthians 3:  

“6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”

Furthermore, Paul tells pastor Timothy to preach the word:

“1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4)

Beloved, if pastors are appealing to “felt needs”, they are going to draw people to themselves who want their ears tickled.  They will seek out those pastors who preach in accordance with their own desires.

In fact, perhaps pastor Stanley’s worst statement is this:

“All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don't feel it, then they won't address it.”

Do you see the pride at work here? This man thinks he knows when Scripture is relevant and when it isn’t in each life of all of his 30,000 plus congregation. Seriously? No one but God knows what each person needs to hear. Indeed, 2 Timothy 3 contradicts the pastor’s statement: 

“6 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible explicitly says all Scripture is profitable, which means it is always profitable. It is always relevant. How can any pastor think they somehow know that some passages of Scripture are and are not relevant to certain stages of life?  They can’t.

This brings us back to the beauty of preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible.  When this is done, the pastor doesn’t need to try to address felt or unfelt needs. He doesn’t need to worry about in what stage of life a person is. He doesn’t need to worry about the culture, or “reading an audience”.  Paul certainly didn’t worry about reading his audience (Acts 20):

“7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered together. 9 And there was a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor and was picked up dead. 10 But Paul went down and fell upon him, and after embracing him, he said, “Do not be troubled, for his life is in him.” 11 When he had gone back up and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while until daybreak, and then left. 12 They took away the boy alive, and were greatly comforted.”

Talk about “felt needs” – people were falling asleep and even dying!  What did Paul do? Healed the boy and kept on preaching! Paul knew that what we all really need is to hear the word of God, which is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. This is how we are sanctified and equipped for every good work.

While it’s not an absolute, generally speaking, the size of a church tends to be inversely related to how much or how deeply the word is preached.  This is exactly as God predicted, as people seek out preaching where they can be comfortable (see 2 Timothy 4 above).  Indeed, the church I attend preaches verse by verse, and we are very small.  As for us, we will continue to preach verse by verse, spreading the seed of the word.  We’ll go to sleep, wake up and watch how God the Holy Spirit brings that seed to full maturity, all to His glory.  We’ll also look joyfully towards His harvest.  Even so, come Lord Jesus!