I recall around 20 years ago I spent a week transcribing a series of Bible College lectures for a correspondence school—32 all up—through the book of Romans. This was a tedious task since the speaker (a well-known pastor in those circles) often repeated himself, and used so many clichés (which had to be either paraphrased or edited out due to the sheer number of recurrences).
One thing that surprised me while I was listening to this series wasn’t the way the speaker would quote verses (as they say) “Left, right and centre” in support of his arguments, but the way that the collection of verses he used could well be counted on both hands. In 32 hours of speaking, he used countless verses, but the vast majority of these were simply a recall of his “favourites.”
I knew, as I was typing in the words from the cassette tape playing next to me, that not five minutes into the lecture, the pastor would use at least one of his favourite verses from Ephesians and another from Colossians. I remember mentally rolling my eyes and thinking, “Here we go again . . .” Before the hour was done, at least one of those verses would have made another two or three appearances in one form or another.
Fast forward a few years, and I find myself in a Bible study with a similar Bible teacher, well-studied, well-articulated, but once again choosing to use his repertoire of well-worn passages to repeatedly emphasise whatever point they were trying to make at the time.
I found the same thing when I was setting up a website a couple of years ago. Throughout the myriad of articles, the writer had liberally used his “top 10” Scripture verses in every possible context.
When I was going through the ordination process fresh out of university, I thought I had all the right answers. I believe that I satisfied the criteria and said all the right things during the two sessions I had with the ordination committee. Then, towards the end of the last session, one of the pastors commented on one of the sermons I had submitted to the committee, drawing my attention to the fact that I had never mentioned one particular catchphrase which was a hallmark of this particular Fellowship. It was his opinion that we must always bring people back to a particular theological premise, regardless of the context of the rest of the message.
I’m aware that these people were all doing their very best with what they had been given and with thew understanding they possessed at the time. They all loved God with all their heart and revered the Bible, believed sincerely in the fact that it is God’s inspired book, and paid special attention numerous times to the original languages and how the nuance of certain Greek or Hebrew words could add another amazing dimension to understanding the message of the text. But somehow, they all still reverted to a lazy habit of taking their favourite verses and juxtaposing them against whatever topic they were addressing in any number of varied ways.
Now I know people who would normally listen to these preachers would do so for an hour a week. Like any normal church attendee, they would probably forget 99% of what was spoken. Thus, when the speaker started “expositing” the following week, they wouldn’t comprehend that he has quoted the same five verses every week for the past seven, or that, for some reason, he always seemed to weave in “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” into every sermon topic for the past year.
I use this as a lesson and perhaps a warning to all who claim to speak for God in any capacity: Don’t be lazy and give in to the temptation to fall back on the familiar. Likewise, don’t think you must always bring people’s attention to your favourite (aka “God’s favourite”) sayings. Use fresh expressions—in this instance verses that aren’t frayed around the edges due to overuse—to support and reinforce the truth you are telling. Never go into a group study, lecture, or pulpit expecting to “wing it” because this is the time when you will find yourself falling back on the familiar, the tried and tested.
Let’s face it: God can use anyone, even if they are ill-prepared. But more effective is the one who can stand up and articulate truth with passion, freshness and clarity. Make this your goal, otherwise the only response you may solicit from those hearing your voice may be: “Here we go again . . .”