To preach verse-by-verse through Isaiah – from 2008 until February of this year – Andy Davis memorized all of the book’s 1,292 verses.
Photo by Emil Handke
Andy Davis: “My way of fighting secularization is verse-by-verse exposition.”
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 his doctoral studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recall seeing Davis walk the streets near the campus as he committed entire books of the Bible to memory.
When Davis finished his doctor of philosophy degree in church history in 1998, he accepted the call as pastor of the historic First Baptist Church (FBC) in Durham, scripture memory and meditation sustained him as he withstood a faction of deacons and committee chairs opposed to a 2001 change in the church’s bylaws to reflect biblical roles of gender and authority.
Davis continues to lead the congregation in the same way, with verse-by-verse expository preaching rooted in scripture memory and meditation.
As Davis walks down the hallway to his church office, he passes a portrait of Martin Luther at the 1521 church assembly 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 in London 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 the 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 one of the nation’s highest number of advanced degrees per capita and a heavily liberal presence in an otherwise conservative state.
Photo by Emil Handke
Andy Davis leads First Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., with verse-by-verse preaching, scripture memorization and meditation, an approach he maintained in the face of congregational turmoil nearly 20 years ago.
Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., with 10 years of experience in the workforce before earning his doctorate at Southern, Davis possesses a professional and academic background uniquely suited for ministering among highly educated people. His sermons are carefully reasoned presentations of truth – biblical exposition crafted with the care one would expect of a mechanical engineer.
“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.”
No one influenced Davis’ hermeneutics more than Calvin. Studying Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes of the Christian Religion provided him with 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.
Verse-by-verse preaching also makes challenging topics unavoidable when they arise through the course of a book, Davis noted. 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.
“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.”
As he approaches his 20th year as pastor of FBC Durham, Davis isn’t complacent. His new book Revitalize shares the story of the church’s renewal and offers guidance on how other pastors can revive their churches. He has now memorized more than 40 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 teaches courses at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. It’s the simplest way of reducing preparation time, he said, as the memorized scripture often has “marinated” years in advance of preaching and teaching through the text.
He also cherishes his family’s role 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,” Davis said. “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 away, 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. While he aims “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.
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.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Craig Sanders holds a master of divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and formerly served as the seminary’s director of news and information. This article originally appeared in Southern Seminary Magazine.)