The Two Unbreakable Rules of Expositional Preaching
They tell us that expository preaching tends to be irrelevant to the contemporary audience. Who “they” are, at least for me, remains the big question. Rick McDaniel did explain, however, that during the last thirty years of the twentieth century American society changed from a Christian to a secular culture. He noted that the majority of Americans have limited knowledge of biblical stories and characters. I see no reason to question McDaniel’s contention. Haddon Robinson further added that recent criticisms of modern preaching include statements such as “too much analysis and too little answer” or “too impersonal, too propositional — they relate nothing to life.” The modern-day expositor, therefore, must struggle with applying the biblical text to a biblically ignorant culture while concurrently demonstrating the relevance for that culture. This truth has led me to conclude that there are two unbreakable rules to follow if the preacher/teacher has any hope of connecting with the contemporary listener.
Be Uncompromisingly Biblical
The first rule, quite simply, is to be uncompromisingly biblical! In my exposition classes I always begin the first lecture with a discussion of the 2 rules of preaching. I stress a problem that most of my students struggle with believing is actually a problem. I give the analogy of the fast-food lunch. I state that most of them would never consider going to McDonald’s for a Big Mac, then driving across the street for Burger King fries, then around the corner for Arby’s soda, and then proceeding to Wendy’s for a Frosty. I stress that each restaurant has enough on their respective menus to satisfy the day’s need for a fast-food fix. Of course the majority of the students readily agree that such an approach to lunch indeed would be ludicrous (of course there is usually one wise guy who says he does it habitually).
I then tell my students that if such an approach is ludicrous for lunch then why isn’t it equally ludicrous for the preacher who is preparing a sermon or the teacher preparing a Bible study? Once the students are fully perplexed with where I might be going with this, I then explain that many preacher/teachers bounce their congregants around from text to text or passage to passage as they deliver a topical message on the subject of “love,” “faith,” “child-rearing,” or whatever.
Because these “preachers” bring their subjects to the Bible, rather than allowing a selected biblical text to provide the subject matter, they are forced to move around the Bible in search of texts that seemingly support their notions. At this point I typically quote Walter Kaiser who humorously argued that a preacher should preach a topical sermon once every five years and then immediately repent! Of course in my quoting of Kaiser I am somewhat tongue-in-cheek. He and I, however, readily acknowledge that in our estimation pure biblical exposition is the need of the hour and most appropriate form of biblical communication.
Initially, my students reject the notion that “Bible-bouncing” (as I call it) is taboo. They do so because they have been reared on this type of preaching all (or most) of their lives. In the vain attempt of preachers to “make the Bible relevant” to the contemporary culture many have adapted this “pick and choose” approach. These preachers select subjects that they believe can be “Bible-ized.” So subjects and issues that people are dealing with are taken to the Bible in an effort to find some spiritual teaching related to them. They surmise that anything less simply would be “irrelevant.” Jim Shaddix rightly noted, however, that “… preaching should not be driven by a preference, a program, or even a purpose, especially that of answering all the questions people ask. Instead preaching should be driven by a passion for the glory of God, a passion jointly possessed by both pastor and people.” What a concept! Many preachers need to be shocked back into the reality that church and ministry are more about the Lord Jesus and His purposes for the world than for the daily needs and life struggles of church congregants.
If you ever want to really annoy me, then swing by my house and tape one of those “New Community Church” fliers to my mailbox. They are virtually all the same: basically insulting to most churches under heaven! The authors and designers of these fliers believe they are attempting to reach out to the non-reached segment of the community (those who may believe that churches tend to be out of touch with the “real” issues people face). With statements such as “No denominational affiliation,” “no rigidity, but a relaxed, casual environment,” and (my personal favorite) “meaningful and relevant messages” they actually belittle all other churches. I always wonder if it ever crosses the minds of these church planters that, in essence, they have exalted and puffed themselves up with their implications of “we do it right!” Seemingly, they don’t realize that they have insulted and minimized the ministries of churches that have existed in their community for years.
Please understand. I know what these “New Community” church leaders think they are doing. I am glad they are striving to reach out to the un-churched. I know that they do not set out to insult any pastor, church, or ministry. Their intentions are wholesome. But doesn’t it make sense that to say that they have “meaningful and relevant messages” that they are basically inferring that most other messages in other churches are not relevant or meaningful? I really would like to take some of these “New Community” church leaders (“relevanteers” as I call them) out to lunch and ask the following questions:
• Where and how do they learn to make God’s life-transforming Word relevant?
• When and how did they determine that God actually needed them to rescue His Word that has never returned void in any century or culture in which it was heralded as the absolute truth and message of God?
• What is the measuring rod of success in relevance?
• How do they know that their approach is indeed working?
• Do they determine their success because people seem to be listening and are continuing to attend services each week?
• Do they assume effective relevance because people keep saying that they “sure do like this kind of preaching better than what I used to hear”?
• Are these actions and comments the instruments of measure that God has given?
• When Paul prayed for his churches with the following kind of prayer, was he actually thinking in terms of the daily life issues people face?
“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.”
These questions and others race through my mind when these fliers end up in or on my mailbox. You see, here’s the deal for me. I have preached or spoken in a significant number of contemporary, blended, and traditional churches. I have spoken in churches where the ethnicity of the congregations were as blended as a Smoothie King smoothie. I have preached before congregations of hundreds of elderly members and those that were made up dominantly of “thirty-somethings.”
In some environments I have proclaimed God’s truths in jeans, tennis shoes, a golf shirt, and a sports jacket. In others I have worn my most expensive business suit. In every case, regardless of church size, worship and dress style, or congregational make-up; the response and results have become predictable. People, who love Jesus, hunger for the truth of God’s life-transforming Word and respond accordingly to it! Period. And yes, even many of the un-churched or unconverted respond positively as well.
I preach solely from an expository perspective. I keep the people dominantly in one biblical passage, explain it’s meaning as creatively as I can, and leave the rest to Jesus. I have been told by countless investigators of the post-modern culture that expository preaching will not connect with that culture. I am sure that there are exceptions to my experience, but I have found that people from all ages, backgrounds, and cultures have had little trouble understanding what I say regarding God’s word from the pulpit. In fact, on many occasions, it’s been the pierced and tattooed “rebels” of the culture who have paid me the biggest (and most meaningful) compliment of “I have never heard the Bible presented that way. That was awesome.” Believe me they understand more than we think. And they are more impressed with the Word of God than the presentation I gave.
Throughout history cultures and peoples have changed, rebelled, adapted, not adapted, and so on. But the history of preaching reveals that whenever God’s Word has been proclaimed to those people groups that revival and spiritual renewal has been the result. Methodology in communication is valuable. It should be studied and certain aspects mastered. But for the preacher/teacher the message within our communication always has been far more valuable than the methodology of our communication.
Let me conclude this thought by sharing a hard truth. I share this truth continually with my students and in other environments in which I speak on the subject of biblical exposition. The hard truth is this: EXPOSITORY PREACHING/TEACHING IS NOT BORING, PREACHERS ARE!!! People of any age and culture can relate to expository preaching and teaching if it is presented creatively. This leads to the second unbreakable rule of preaching.
Be Unquestionably Interesting!
If you have been called of God to preach or teach His Word, I have some interesting news to share with you. Ready? Here it is. There’s now something wrong with you! What I mean is that you are no longer “normal.” Yes, you now view the Bible in a completely different way than many of the people who sit, or will sit, under your preaching and teaching. You and I tend to be unbelievably interested in some stuff in the Bible that the average church congregant could care absolutely nothing about. The problem, however, is that we tend to think that since we are so interested in this information, then the people of the church will find it fascinating as well.
I believe wholeheartedly that I have discovered the actual problem with preaching or teaching that doesn’t connect with the modern listener (let’s call it what it is; BORING!). The problem, again, is that there is something wrong with us. Allow me to illustrate: Most pastors and teachers of the Bible, when they find themselves in a text like Isaiah 6, tend to become fascinated with every aspect of the passage. The phrase, “In the year that King Uzziah died” becomes a year filled with fascination. So excited are they about that year that they study it ad nauseam. Then, because they are so excited about what they discovered about that fascinating year, they feel it is absolutely imperative to share their discoveries with their congregants. They honestly believe their congregants will be as excited as they are. But you must remember something very important for non-boring preaching and teaching: there’s something wrong with you! You are no longer normal!!!
To add insult to injury (continuing in Isaiah 6) these preacher/teachers then do an exhaustive study of the characteristics of the Seraphims and how they differ from the Cherabim and other angelic beings. And they do this as if the “normal” congregants actually care. So mesmerized are they when they are sharing this “life-altering?” information with their congregants, rarely do they bother to look up from their notes to notice the “deer in the headlights” expressions on the faces of the listeners.
The issue we must understand as it relates to being interesting is not dedication to topical preaching, but rather, challenging ourselves to be as creative as our spiritual DNA will allow. Make no mistake, background and contextual information is absolutely essential in sermon and Bible study preparation. However, how much of that information we bring into our messages can be the difference between an enlivened exposition and a boring, dull biblical lecture. Therefore, creativity in exposition is the key.
I will delve more into this later, but for now let me stress that the preacher/teacher should NEVER (or extremely rarely) open the message with comments related to the background and context. This vital information should be weaved in naturally, and even casually, into the introduction. We must first grasp the attention of our listeners in creative ways before we lead them into the actual exposition.
A Final Introductory Thought
What I am NOT saying!
As you read through this book you will notice that I will make some firm statements about expository preaching and teaching. You will come away from the reading believing that I am absolutely committed to that discipline. But I want you to know that there are some things that I am not saying. I believe it is vitally important that you understand these few thoughts.
I am not saying…
1. That topical sermons are never to be prepared. While this book focuses solely on the expositional approach, I do believe there are times when a topical approach is meaningful and even necessary. My point in this book will be that topical messages should be the exception, not the rule.
I am not saying…
2. That Bible-Bouncing (the tendency to move outside of a selected passage of Scripture to support a topical sermon and create sermon points from various passages within the Bible) is an unpardonable sin for the Bible teacher or preacher. My point will be that we tend to do it because we have been conditioned to do so rather than understanding the value of a more expositional approach. My question for the reader will be, “Is a topical approach absolutely necessary to convey the idea?” In most cases the answer will be, “probably not.”
I am not saying…
3. That God cannot use the topical approach to accomplish His purposes. We are talking about the God Who can cause the “rocks to cry out” if necessary. God needs no particular method of communication simply because He is God. I personally have been blessed by the occasional topical message. My point in this book will be, however, that Christians will be (and have been) edified and changed by the exposition of the Word.
I am not saying…
4. That you have to agree with me. I hope you do. I trust you will. I believe the future of God’s church depends on His congregations coming to the deepest understanding and appreciation of His Word. Topical preaching speaks to the needs people face. Expository preaching, I believe, is GOD speaking through His chosen and called communicators to express His heart, will, and purposes. However, as important as I believe this is, and as much effort as I will exhaust to convince you; please know that I understand a few things. I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday. There is no law that says you must agree with me. I do rejoice, however, that the overwhelming majority of students who take my courses come to the place of agreement. I hope and pray you are, or will be, one of those.
I am not saying…
5. That the approach described in this book is the only appropriate approach. There are many good methods for the development or preparation of expository sermons. The approach taken in this book is one that is easy to learn and will prove foundational as other methods of preaching (whether expository or not) are considered. I encourage my readers to master the Homiletical Bridge approach (which is basically a deductive rhetorical model) and then he will find that other methods and approaches will make more sense and will be easier to understand and even master. Serious students of preaching should build a preaching library. Homiletical books related to exposition, exegesis, narrative preaching, and other like resources will prove helpful as a preacher delves deeper into the subject of biblical communication.
I trust that this book will help you in your efforts for the glory of God! It is all about Him. Please remember these two seemingly obvious truths for the preacher/teacher:
Just because something seems biblical or spiritual, doesn’t mean it is.
Just because something “will preach,” doesn’t mean it should!