Titling sermons is pretty common among pastors. It has been this way for a long time. And for whatever reason, most people never tend to think any deeper about it.
The reason why I have trouble with putting titles on sermons is that it gives the audience a predetermined conclusion even before opening their Bibles.
What ends up happening when someone puts a title on a sermon is that it allows the audience to be passive in their reception of what is being proclaimed. The audience can sit back and accept the premise without feeling the need to check out the passage themselves to see if what is being said is correct. It, therefore, doesn’t require the listeners to need to be engaged at a deeper level to discern the true context of the passage or to learn what other things may or may not be in the passage.
Even though each of us go to the Bible with our own thoughts, opinions, and previous things we have been taught, our goal should be trying to push all those things aside in order to learn as much as possible from each passage. Our thoughts, opinions, and prior beliefs may have shaped and formed our understanding of faith, but if we are really trying to be teachable, we must be willing to adjust our beliefs and actions from what we learn from the Bible; without allowing other things to dictate our interpretations.
Over the years I have often described that most of what is being done by pastors and churches is backwards. Most begin with an idea and then try to find verses, passages, illustrations, anecdotes, and stories to formulate their sermons. They start with a concept and then try to make it relevant to the times we live in. That is why we see so many sermon series’ dealing with the trends of the day. This is very dangerous to say the least.
When people begin to try to fit themselves and other trends into Scripture, they only use the Bible to bolster their ideas and try to give credibility that it is “Christian”. The reason this is very dangerous is that these sermons are often geared toward a certain end without careful concern over the context of a passage. Or worse yet, they twist Biblical faith to fit their man-made agenda. Verses get plucked out and used for whatever purpose the pastor or leader wants to use them. They often don’t let God’s Word actually speak, but use verses in a way that is no different than a text message, social media post, or quote from any other random source.
I would suggest that we must be much more careful than this; even when it comes to simply giving titles to sermons. We should not lead people to any preconceived assumptions, but rather let our understanding come from our reading and studying of the Bible alone.
If we begin with reading and studying the Bible, even going through entire books of the Bible verse-by-verse, we are not only careful to see the true context, but also the intent for which the book was written. It also allows us to see the bigger picture of how things fit together in the Bible as whole. On the surface, it may seem really unappealing to those that don’t have a love for God’s Word. That is why much of what we see today in sermons and churches is trying to appeal to the masses, but misses letting God’s Word tell us about who God is and what it means to follow Him without other worldly gimmicks. People learn that the Bible is just one source among many and therefore never learn to read, study, or actually rely on God’s Word as the true source of knowing God and what true faith looks like.
Most Bibles today also don’t seem to help in the area of giving titles to passages. Because of publishers and others involved, Bibles almost always have sub-headings of each section. Not only were there not chapters and verse numbers in the original texts, but these sub-headings were also people putting their own “previews” on these sections. Chapters, verse numbers, and sub-headings may help to quickly find certain passages, but they can also distract from seeing the continuation from one section to the next and may lead the reader to a misunderstand or misuse a verse, passage, or even book of the Bible.
Something that may be helpful is to distinguish between verse-by-verse expository preaching and theological/apologetical teaching. Verse-by-verse expository preaching seeks to go through a passage from beginning to end by explaining the text to the audience. Theological/apologetical teaching, on the other hand, is often seen more during conferences or other intentional teaching times; studying a certain aspect of doctrine or apologetics about things to be on guard against. If doing more expository preaching, which I would encourage should be a large majority of the time during our church gatherings, we should be careful in letting the Bible lead us to understand faith, not people’s sermon titles, agendas, or even other sources. If theological/apologetical teaching, it may be necessary to let the audience know what area may be the focus, but keeping a title as simple as possible should suffice.
Putting titles on sermons may not seem like a big deal. And in some cases it isn’t a big deal. My caution to both pastors and believers is that we must not fall into thinking that these titles are in the least bit necessary. If we say that we going through Luke 24:44-49, for example, just posting the passage may not be the big eye-catching title that we are used to seeing, but essentially gives the audience an active role in searching out the Scriptures to glean the lessons and application for themselves as we corporately go through the passage. (Acts 17:11)
May we be careful to eliminate all hindrances that might lead people to making predetermined conclusions and carefully seek to read, study, and apply the Bible from what is written.