Before Andy Davis preached verse-by-verse through the book of Isaiah, he memorized all 1,292 of them. It’s a discipline he developed while working as a mechanical engineer in 1986, several years after becoming a Christian. To this day, fellow students from the doctoral program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recall seeing Davis walk the streets near the school as he committed entire books of the Bible to memory.
When Davis finished his Ph.D. in church history in 1998, he accepted the call as pastor of the historic First Baptist Church Durham, North Carolina. Scripture memory and meditation sustained him as he withstood a powerful faction of deacons and committee chairs. His opponents tried to drive him away in 2001 for changing the bylaws to reflect biblical roles of gender and authority. Now nearly 20 years later, Davis leads his thriving congregation the same way he did back when the cabal tried to oust him: verse-by-verse, expository preaching.
As Davis walks down the hallway to his church office, he passes a portrait of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, surrounded by Catholic officials as the Reformer declares his allegiance to Scripture and refuses to recant his “heretical” views. Inside Davis’ office hangs the classic portrait of George Whitefield preaching in the open-air of Moorfields amid the utter mayhem of hecklers. Having studied John Calvin for his doctoral dissertation, Davis says learning from history’s theologians, martyrs, and missionaries “gives you courage to face the challenges” of pastoral ministry.
While the congregational turmoil that marked his first three years at FBC Durham has disappeared, Davis recognizes the rapidly growing tides of secularism outside the doors of his church’s 90-year-old sanctuary. Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are all within 25 miles. Known as the Research Triangle, the Raleigh-Durham area boasts the nation’s highest number of advanced degrees per capita and a heavily liberal presence in an otherwise conservative state.
Educated at MIT with 10 years of experience in the workforce before earning a Ph.D. at Southern, Davis possesses a professional and academic background uniquely suited for ministering among highly educated people. His sermons are expertly crafted, carefully reasoned presentations of truth, putting together the component parts of biblical exposition with the meticulous care one would expect of a mechanical engineer. While he designs his messages to feed his flock, he’s also equipped them to ward off threats to biblical authority.
“My way of fighting secularization is verse-by-verse exposition,” Davis said in an interview with Southern Seminary Magazine. “People start to see the magnificence of the Word of God, and I love the complexity of the interconnectedness of the Bible.”
My way of fighting secularization is verse-by-verse exposition. People start to see the magnificence of the Word of God, and I love the complexity of the interconnectedness of the Bible.
No one influenced his hermeneutics more than Calvin, Davis says. Studying Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes of the Christian Religion offered Davis a model both for verse-by-verse exposition and presenting the big picture of redemptive history.
“What Calvin did better than anyone in history is he had a big, hermeneutical circle — to go from an overarching, ever-growing, developed system of theology that comes from believing all 66 books of the Bible are perfect and true and they must be harmonizable into a systematic theology,” Davis said.
As he concluded his sermon series on Isaiah, which he had been preaching intermittently since April 2008, Davis referenced the classic Seals and Crofts song “We May Never Pass This Way Again” to illustrate the gravity faithful verse-by-verse preaching has on a weekly basis.
“They may never hear a careful sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25 again,” Davis said about the sermon he preached Feb. 12. “They may have never heard it up to that point and they may never hear one again. So the idea is just do a good job. ‘Rightly divide the word of truth,’ but try to step back and show the big picture. Show how it harmonizes with the New Testament. Give people an ever-growing and sensible theological system.”
Committing to verse-by-verse preaching makes challenging topics unavoidable when they arise through the course of a book, but it also prevents pastors from owning a bully pulpit from which to address hot-button issues and speak out against internal strife. Taking another cue from Calvin (who, after being forced out of Geneva, returned in 1541 and picked up where he left off in his exposition of Psalms), Davis avoids speaking on church conflicts. When Davis lost an early battle in 2001 to change the church bylaws to clarify male-exclusive leadership, he showed up the next Sunday and continued preaching through Romans. This approach hasn’t changed, even when a growth in new membership allowed for the bylaw change to pass decisively a year later.
But Davis has found secularism an abiding threat. When he preached on biblical marriage from Hebrews 13 at the end of a two-year sermon series on the book, a local woman who visited that Sunday organized a protest outside the church the following week.
I think Christianity is going to become more and more controversial and Satan is going to try to marginalize. Christians are going to have to learn to be winsomely countercultural and stand up and make hard arguments.
“If you faithfully preach the Word and you don’t shrink back from those controversial, pointed topics, you’re going to have a hard time,” Davis said. “I think it’s going to get worse in our culture. I think Christianity is going to become more and more controversial and Satan is going to try to marginalize. Christians are going to have to learn to be winsomely countercultural and stand up and make hard arguments.”
Preaching for the ‘infinite journey’
As he approaches his 20th year as pastor of FBC Durham, Davis isn’t complacent now that the external threats to his ministry have subsided. His new book Revitalize shares the story of FBC Durham’s renewal and offers guidance on how other pastors can revive their churches. Davis has now memorized 41 books of the Bible and relies on God’s Word internalized as he battles the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual trials of seasoned ministry.
Meditating on large portions of memorized Scripture also aids him in preparing multiple sermons and lessons each week, since he also teaches courses at Southeastern Seminary. He says it’s the simplest way of reducing preparation time, as the memorized Scripture has “marinated” often years in advance of preaching and teaching through the text.
He also cherishes the role his wife and children play in shaping his ministry. His wife of 29 years, Christi, has been “a river of blessing” to his ministry, and as three of his five children have reached adulthood, he hopes his love for the local church abides in them as well.
“I want my kids to see the wisdom of God in local church, the covenant commitment we have, and the fact that there are no perfect churches,” said Davis, who later explained the story of his church’s conflict to his children. “People are going to let you down, they’re going to hurt you, they’re going to say unkind things, but you’re going to let them down too. You can’t be on your own. If you’re on your own you’re going to drift way and you’ll die spiritually. So the rest of your life, you need to be involved in the local church.”
His youngest children help him build a theological vocabulary for his congregation. In his Feb. 12 sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25, Davis used terms like “amillennialism” and “eschatology,” but only after he made sure his children understood. While he preaches in a highly educated community, he recognizes some people in the congregation will have limited theological depth, so he strives for clarity in each sermon. He says while he determines “to preach meat as meat,” he provides “an oasis of milk in the middle of every sermon,” presenting the essential message of salvation in Christ.
Preaching verse-by-verse requires patience, which is why Davis says the Gospels contain so many agricultural parables. Pastors must “trust the Word” in expository preaching, while also recognizing their dependence on Scripture to accomplish the salvation they preach.
“We’re talking about a supernatural thing. We’re talking about people being brought from death to life,” Davis said. “The more you are aware theologically of what you are trying to do, the more you are aware that the Word has to do it all. There is nothing we can do.”
The more you are aware theologically of what you are trying to do, the more you are aware that the Word has to do it all. There is nothing we can do.
In 2014, Davis authored An Infinite Journey, a manual for the Christian faith. He says advancing the gospel and growing in sanctification require “an infinite power source” and extend to the end of a Christian’s life. One of the primary ways Christ accomplishes these journeys in individual lives is through expository preaching.
“Faith comes by hearing God’s Word and I believe faith gets sustained by God’s Word,” Davis said. “I am sustaining the salvation of the people that are coming here. That’s what Paul is saying in 1 Timothy 4:13-16: ‘Devote yourself to preaching and teaching … for in so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ Save them? He didn’t say justify them. Salvation is bigger than justification; there’s an ongoing work of salvation. Keep feeding them the Word, keep their faith strong; you’re going to need your faith until the day you die. When Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ that’s the number one thing I think of every Sunday morning as I’m walking up the steps: feed their faith.”
S. Craig Sanders is the executive editor of Southern Seminary Magazine.