Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Oh, how I love selected parts of your law!

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching [...] I give you this charge: Preach the Word.
—2 Timothy 3:16–4:2
When was the last time you heard a sermon on Zephaniah? Or Philemon? How about the second half of Daniel?

We pay lip service to the inspiration of the whole of Scripture, but I wonder whether we really believe it. Do we use the whole Bible, or do we just pick out the bits we like? One way of gauging this is to look at what passages we preach on: if we take seriously our charge to use all of Scripture for teaching, then you would expect to find that, over time, our sermon texts would bear that out. We should probably not expect a completely flat distribution: it is perhaps reasonable to expect sermons to cover the gospels more often than Leviticus, since the gospels more clearly and directly reveal Jesus. But if we believe that all Scripture is God-breathed, then we should not expect to find that some parts of the Bible receive all our attention and some are essentially ignored.

Finding good aggregated statistics on what is preached in churches around the world is difficult, simply because churches don't publish their sermon plans in any systematic fashion. But there are ways of getting a useful indication.

The Gospel Coalition web site is an excellent resource for finding, among other things, sermons preached in evangelical churches worldwide. I use it all the time, and I have found it invaluable. As of September 2011, it lists around 34,000 sermons, most of which can be downloaded and listened to. That is a vast number—more than there are verses in the whole Bible. It also acquires its material from a large number of churches and an even larger number of preachers, and thus one would expect it to be representative of the state of evangelical Christendom as a whole, and not susceptible to the biases and tendencies of one particular church or minister.

So what does its database reveal?

Below is a Wordle, showing how often each book of the Bible is represented in the database. The size of the font is proportional to the number of sermons taking its primary text from that particular book.

What do we preach on? (PDF)

The image is quite striking. The New Testament dominates to a remarkable extent: only Genesis and the Psalms can compete, and even they are some way down the list. The minor prophets are almost non-existent.

But there are other points of interest. It is perhaps not surprising that we spend most of our time in the gospels; but notice how far behind the rest Mark lags. And who would have expected such a difference between Ephesians and Colossians?

Of course, some books are much longer than others. One would not expect a series on 2 Thessalonians to contain as many sermons as a series on Exodus, simply because there is less material to cover. A sermon series that went through the entire canon at the rate of one chapter per week would quite sensibly spend one week on Obadiah and nearly three years on the Psalms. So perhaps we should weight the entries according to the length of each book.

This second Wordle does just that. Each book is weighted by taking the number of sermons on that book in the database divided by the number of words in the book (in an English translation). This should have the effect of controlling for book length: if books were favoured simply according to their lengths, the Wordle would have all entries in the same size font.

Taking book length into account (PDF)
Notice what has changed and what has not. The Old Testament is still largely absent, and has faded even more now that Genesis and the Psalms, two of the longest books in the Bible, have all but disappeared (see if you can spot them). Jonah is the only one that catches the eye.

But what has happened to the gospels? Mark is now able to keep pace with the other gospel writers—perhaps we soft-pedal him only because his gospel is shorter than the others—but all four have been left in the shade. Word for word, we spend far longer on the epistles (which now dominate the image) than we do on the gospels.

What about choice of passage within a book? Do we demonstrate there that we believe the whole book is inspired, or do we cherry-pick the "good" bits?

This graph shows, for each chapter of Isaiah, how many sermons there are in the Gospel Coalition database taking that chapter as the primary text.


The keen-eyed will observe that the graph is not flat. Some chapters receive significant attention, whereas others are passed over. Three chapters, in fact, have no sermons on them. The six most famous chapters in Isaiah are probably chapter 1 ("Though your sins are like scarlet..."), chapter 6 ("In the year that King Uzziah died..."), chapter 9 ("To us a child is born..."), chapter 40 ("Comfort, comfort my people..."), chapter 53 ("He was pierced for our transgressions..."), and chapter 55 ("Come, all you who are thirsty..."). These chapters are represented by the six biggest peaks in the graph; and on average, there are 50.2 sermons for each of these six chapters. For the rest of Isaiah, there are 6.8 sermons per chapter.

Isaiah is not the only book to show wildly uneven treatment. There are 106 sermons on Psalm 1; sixteen Psalms are covered in only one sermon, and Psalms 64 and 70 have no hits at all. There are 199 sermons on Acts 2 (Pentecost) and 24 on Acts 12 (Peter's escape from prison).

It would be easy to make too much of this. There may be any number of reasons for some of these effects. For instance, any responsible sermon series that goes through Isaiah must take in Isaiah's commission in chapter 6; and it would be unreasonable to expect every series to cover every chapter. So it is unsurprising that chapter 6 gets more hits than any other. And there is good reason for giving greater prominence to the clearer parts of Scripture, so it may well be appropriate for Ephesians to receive more air time than Ecclesiastes. Perhaps 2 Chronicles receives less attention because it duplicates much of the material in 2 Kings.

But I am not convinced that all of it can be explained in such terms. What is striking is not that the distribution is uneven, but that the unevenness is so stark. It surely cannot be right that you are over 13 times as likely to hear an exposition of Matthew 5 (the start of the Sermon on the Mount) than of Matthew 19 (divorce). One can hardly make out that divorce is pastorally irrelevant today.

So why is this happening? Let me suggest three reasons.

For one, familiar bits of Scripture are easier to understand. Preaching on a text involves understanding it in its context; that, of course, is much easier to do if you already know the context. So whilst preaching on Ephesians 2 might involve some wrestling with the text to understand the finer points, it is unlikely to require significant blood, toil, tears and sweat to come to terms with the overall message of Ephesians. But now imagine that you have been asked to preach on Nahum 2. You have a good deal of work ahead of you before you start trying to unpack chapter 2. Who was Nahum? Northern kingdom or southern kingdom? What time period? Who were his primary audience? Can I even find Nahum without looking in the index?

Secondly, for exactly the same reasons, familiar bits of Scripture are easier to explain. A typical church will not need reminding every week that Acts details the growth of the early church after Jesus' ascension. But start a series on Ezekiel, and you have a lot of historical background to fill in before you can get to the text itself.

Thirdly, familiar bits of Scripture are easier to preach without rocking the boat. Honestly, who wants to preach on divorce? Or hell? Or the Canaanite genocide? Much easier to tackle something light and fluffy. The last thing you want to do is to raise difficult pastoral issues.

This is a dangerous game to play. The clear message we give off is that most of Scripture is theoretically inspired but not really worth bothering with. Zephaniah simply has nothing to say to us. Titus is boring. Matthew's worth preaching on, but do skip the tricky bits.

Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
—Deuteronomy 8:3

Do we really live on every word? Or do we eat the middle and leave the crusts? Stop playing with your dinner and eat it properly.

7 comments:

  1. Very valuable observations, nicely presented by means of the Wordles.

    One thing would help preachers counter this to some extent - to follow M'Cheyne's Bible reading calendar themselves, which takes one though the whole Bible in a year, the OT once, and the NT+Psalms twice, originally structured around private and family devotions, with two passages per day for each slot.

    See mcheyne.info for further details.

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  2. I'm not sure that an ideal preaching schedule would give equal time to all parts of scripture. Actually the information rate varies from section to section (e.g. Numbers 1 and Romans 1). Also, the NT seems to favour particular books (top four: Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah), which seems to give biblical precedent for focussing on some particular sections. Consider also the New Testament focus on Psalm 110. I agree that there is a problem that certain parts of the Bible are being ignored. The Wordle shows some parts are underemphasised, but we shouldn't be looking for all parts of the Wordle to be the same size.

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  3. Hi Peter/David,

    Yes, I wasn't advocating a flat distribution, and I'd tried to make that clear in the post. My contention was that although it's hard to know exactly what a good distribution should look like, it certainly shouldn't look as wildly uneven as this.

    It's clear that some parts of Scripture are particularly useful for explaining key points of doctrine—which is what the NT writers found with Psalm 110. The problem isn't that we have favourite bits, but that some other bits get more or less overlooked.

    Thanks for the comments.

    James

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  4. James,

    "although it's hard to know exactly what a good distribution should look like, it certainly shouldn't look as wildly uneven as this"

    So, go on then, how about a guess at a less uneven distribution?

    I attempted to extract the source data you have for Isaiah from the site but got bored and ran out of time. My intention: rank the chapters of Isaiah, or books of the Bible, by number of available sermons. This should give you an exponential distribution. If so, fit it and see what the paramters of the curve are.

    And then tell us what parameters you think would be sufficient.

    Frankly, if you split any book into equally-sized chunks, statistically a lot of those chunks will contain no particularly interesting bits that are not better borne out by another chunk.

    Dare you to write a sermon on Isaiah 16. It seems to make lots of references to long gone groups, a passing possible prophecy about Jesus almost in the same breath as saying someone else will come to grief in 3 years.

    On the plus side, if it turns out to be any good, you can title it 'a sermon without deviation from the most boring chapter of Isaiah'. Although Isaiah 20 has no sermons either, it has arguably more material for a talk; God speaks, and there is mention of bare buttocks.

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  5. While Timothy says 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching' he does not say that it is all of equal value.

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  6. You're right, they should preach more of the scripture "ie: old testament" that shows how God is "... jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

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  7. In this context, Donald Knuth's book 3:16 is relevant. Don looked at v16 of chapter 3 in every book of the Bible to see what doctrine could be gleaned from a systematic sample. He also looked at some of the statistics of these verses.

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