Why it’s not always best to preach expository sermons

OK, I realise this depends upon how you define “expository”. If you mean that when you preach, every sermon should allow a text (or more than one) to set the agenda for what is said, then I’d have to agree that every sermon should be expository.

“Expository” defined as the opposite of “thought for the day” or “context-driven” has to be right because it reflects the Bible’s presentation of preaching as coming as words “from God” not just “from the preacher’s head”. Expository as “exposing the sense of a Bible text” is (for me) a non-negotiable. That is surely true whether preaching evangelistically or to edify believers. All sermons should (in my view) be not only Christ-centred and gospel-rich (good news) but Bible-driven and derived from the Bible text they are based upon.

My argument with expository sermons here is not that expository sermons can be boring, either, though they can. “Exposing” the text can become a dry lecture that fills the mind and doesn’t speak to the heart or will. But if I am boring, it is not the fault of the Bible or its logic – DM Lloyd-Jones called this kind of preaching “logic on fire”, and it should be! Others* have convincingly and rightly listed the benefits of “expository” preaching in the true sense of the word.

But if you define “expository” more narrowly than that – as “preaching from the same book of the Bible in sequential order” then I’d argue that is not always wise as the long-term diet of a church family. The main diet, yes, but not the only. To say this may alarm those not from traditions like the Anglican one, where our lectionaries and feast days encourage us to mix it up. What about Charles Simeon and D.M. Lloyd-Jones, you asked, who (it is said) just “preached the Bible in order” and let the Word do the work?

Here are three reasons I can see for not always preaching the Bible “in order”:

  1. Biblical: The Bible doesn’t always work that way. I’m not arguing the textual critic point – that texts are out of order compared to their original composition – here. But some books of the Bible just to not lend themselves to preaching every part of a text in order. Maybe the text is repetitive (Revelation from Chapter 4 onwards, for example) and mirroring that in a sermon series is not going to do justice to the meaning. Maybe the text was not designed to be read aloud in sequential order in the way it is printed in our Bibles today (the Psalms, for instance, seem to be a collection of liturgical and pastoral songs to be sung, and who would argue we have to preach 1-150 in order, with no omission or cherry-picking?) Maybe the text was designed to be read for impact in one sitting, but expository preachers so often pride ourselves upon taking an inordinately long time to preach through a book (Romans, or Hebrews, are two letters many take years over, but I would put in the category of “read fast for impact and overall message”). Maybe the text lends itself to being linked with other similar ones that are not found in immediate proximity in the Bible (a series on the Parables, for instance).
  2. Pastoral: The people of God need help constructing a doctrinal framework for life. A member of our staff team recently asked why we do so many sermon series that don’t just “go through a Bible book in order”. The answer I gave is that the people of God need the preacher of God to help them see what the whole Word of God says about the mind and works of God. We might do this by digressing on doctrinal points when a text invites it (the Puritan John Owen did this when preaching through Hebrews) but that simply makes my point that only preaching what a text says is not always enough. We might also do it by preaching every text of the Bible over (say) a ten-year period, but how many church members will hear every sermon, and make the connections between them all? But we can certainly do this by preaching sermon series that teach “systematically” the truths of the Bible about God and the world. Over my seventeen years in my church we have typically included one or two series each year on themes such as Creation, God’s Attributes, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, The Church, Prayer, Personal Evangelism, A Theology of the City, Church Planting, Service and Ministry, Stewardship/Giving, Spiritual Disciplines, Desiring God, Seven Deadly Sins, Biblical view of Humanity, Temptation/idolatry.
  3. Apologetic: Seekers in our congregations need help grappling with big questions. These are stumbling blocks to hearing the gospel unless we address them. Some preachers find this comes more naturally than others (Tim Keller is especially good at connecting with the seeker and sceptic in his sermon series) but we all, I would argue, need to try. The obvious way is to pick up the big questions in one series every couple of years: The Meaning of Life, The Existence and Knowability of God, the Issue of Science and Faith, the Challenges of Religious Exclusivism, Hypocrisy and Extremism, the Problem of Suffering. We’ve also tried to connect with the non-believing culture when a public moment demands or offers an opportunity: debunking the Da Vinci Code when it was published, responding to publications from new atheists like Dawkins, or events like 9/11 or natural disasters. Such moments are on open door for the gospel.

So there are three reasons why I don’t always preach sermon series through a section of the Bible in order. I could add that evangelistic sermons are better done from texts that clearly portray the heart of the gospel, and that even great preachers like Spurgeon did not preach from the same book of the Bible each week at all, though his sermons brilliantly expound the texts he chose.  

I am sure there are lots more reasons why preachers should stick to preaching through a text in sequence, and lots more why we should keep mixing it up. Let me know your thoughts.

 

  • eg Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (IVP, 1996), Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centred Preaching (Baker, 1994), David Helm, Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014), William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth, 1996), John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 1983)

How is Jesus still serving you today?

Forty days after the resurrection comes the ascension of Jesus. He was “declared Son of God” through his resurrection (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4) and now he returned to God’s throne, having completed his work in atoning for our sins and giving his life to serve us (Mark 10:45).

Yet Jesus’ work for us does not end there. He  serves us still in his life in heaven, interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25), sending his Spirit to teach us the truth (John 14:26), and giving gifts to the church in the manner of a conquering king handing out treasures to his victorious people – except these gifts are not silver coins but spiritual roles in the Church (Ephesians 4:7-12).

The significance of Jesus’ ascension is not only that he reigns – now, today – over all things. This Sovereign also serves his people. Our risen Lord is still, wonderfully, our serving-without-sinking_3servant. He intercedes for us, teaches us, and equips us to serve Him.

In our book Of The Term “Serving without Sinking” (a unique gospel-shaped book about grace, not a guilt-inducing one about sacrifice) I have loved reading the three middle chapters which illustrate how Christ serves us.  His grace defines the nature of our serving Him in grateful response.

The three metaphors the author finds in the Bible for Christian life are all stunning privileges: we are not servants but friends of Jesus, not a self-justifying client but a forgiven bride of Christ, and not convenient slaves but forgiven sons of God. These chapters alone are worth the book price and worthy of reading over and over again.

Is Jesus serving you today? If you want to know more, “Serving without Sinking” is highly recommended.

 

 

How (not) to serve Christ

What makes you volunteer to serve at church? When the notices include an appeal for new people on the welcomers’ rota, what makes you stick your hand up? Are you motivated by what  I call the “NAG” way for churches to fill gaps: there is a Need, you are Available, and if you don’t do it, you would feel Guilty?

The trouble with “nag” volunteering is that it misrepresents God (as if He is unable to run His Church and I have to come to the rescue!) and it misrepresents church membership (as if anyone should serve God motivated by guilt). There are much healthier ways to serve God with the personality, passions and gifts I have, and our church has found the “SHAPE” course from Purpose-Driven church really helpful here. But in the first of these three articles about Christian service, prompted in part by reading our book of the term, the excellent “Serving Without Sinking” by John Hindley, I want to ask why serving Christ sometimes goes wrong and  becomes a burden to us instead of a joy.exhaustion2

For anyone who has taken on a serving role and it has become dry or burdensome, it may be good to take a break for a while or find a new ministry for a change. But it may also be good to ask if somewhere I am serving for the wrong motives, arising from a skewed image of God. I recommend John Hindley’s chapters 1-5. Here are three false images of God that make serving Him a burden instead of a delight:

Slot machine God. I may tell myself I know God loves me  as I am but in reality, deep down if I am honest, part of me is serving because I think that by what I do I put God in my debt. If I turn up and give two hours every Sunday to Him, He will give me something in return, like getting chocolate from a machine. He will mend my relationships, or further my career, or answer my prayers more. Of course, this is a false image of God, who showers blessings on us all the time not because we do good things but because He is a good God.

Am I serving God thinking I will get something in return?

Loan-shark God. It is good to recognise how much I am in debt to God for the gift of grace and forgiveness in Christ. It is good to serve in gratitude for what God has done for me. But gratitude can slide into grudging guilt: “God did me a favour, so I owe Him in return. Eternal life comes not as a gift”, I think to myself, “but like a loan which I am paying back every time I do something good.”

Am I serving God thinking that what I do will keep Him loving me?

Damsel-in-distress God. I look around at church and see gaps in the ministry teams: the creche has no helpers, nor does the youth ministry, and the catering team is clearly stressed and undermanned too. “Thank goodness I am here”, I think, “to rescue these people who clearly need my multiple gifts and dedication. I am here to get them, and their God, out of a hole. God needs me to do the things He clearly cannot take care of without me”.

Am I serving because “God needs me” as indispensable to the life of His Church?

All of these three images of God are false ones. God is not a slot machine, a loan-shark or a damsel-in-distress, but a beautiful and bountiful Being1. His service is perfect freedom. Work done for Him is delightful worship. False images dishonour Him and discourage me. They make serving a burden, where it should be “our duty and joy2.

So what is the healthy way to serve God? We start with a more accurate image of who God is as revealed in Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve us by giving his life for us3. That is where we pick up in the next article reflecting on “Serving Without Sinking”.

1   James 1:17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.”
2  Communion Service Eucharistic Prayer A & C, Common Worship
3 Mark 10:45

Review of “The Call” by Trevor Archer and Paul Mallard

The Call book cover.jpg

This is an admirably  concise but deceptively thorough book to give to members of our congregations who are considering “the call” to full-time (paid, ordained – the right term eludes us) ministry in the local church. Written from a Free Church perspective (this becomes more and more apparent in the second and third parts of the book) I nonetheless found it useful to consider giving to potential Anglican ordinands.

The strengths of the book are its broad wisdom in describing both what to look for in oneself if considering the ordained path (part one), and in plotting the course through a process of discernment and training (part two). Obviously the examples given for the latter are not the same as in the Anglican process, although similar. I especially liked the emphasis in part one upon Christian character as foundational before any discussion of gifting – and the three “g’s” (evidence of the considerable ministry experience of both authors) of grit, grace and gumption. Judicious quotes are included from Richard Baxter, and the inclusion of discussion of other models such as bi-vocational ministry is welcome. It was good to see that one of the 12 “marks of ministry” highlighted is a heart for the lost, and the all-too-true comment that too many pastors are happier feeding the flock than reaching lost sheep! The potential danger of making it appear that “call” is a subjective and individualistic matter is well avoided by sections reminding us that “calling” is in large part the fruit of proven ministry and local church recognition. As my own director of ordinands said to me over 20 years ago, “The Church cannot give you a ministry, we simply recognise one that God has already given you.”

It would have been interesting to explore more the nature of the pastor’s role as a shepherd in leading the flock. What leadership gifting does a pastor need, or what special heart or skills are needed in pioneer or church planting or youth ministry? Theological reflection on ministry is light: to what extent does the pastor represent the congregation and model discipleship for others (however imperfectly)? That this is missing perhaps reflects lack of space, not just denominational perspective, but as an evangelical Anglican with a reformed bent I looked in vain for a reference to administering sacraments in ministry and how they proclaim the gospel alongside preaching. Preaching may be the key way we pastor, but surely leading the Church to be healthy in displaying her other key marks is essential as part of “the call” too?

The bibliography includes greats like CH Spurgeon, John Piper, Richard Coekin and Derek Prime, yet is a bit selective beyond those.

A great little book, probably most useful for pastors and potential pastors in free evangelical churches.

 

How to walk out of church

Dressed-for-Church-19

The music finishes, the minister says the blessing: what next? Do I head for the door? Do I check my phone? Do I start thinking about work tomorrow?

During this series of articles about “church” we have discovered how transformative it can be if we all begin to prepare prayerfully before we walk into church on Sunday, and begin to think how we can encourage others during the service too. From key Bible texts such as Hebrews 10 and 1 Corinthians 14, we have learnt  about corporate (gathered) worship . We have seen how the Gospel about Jesus is to be the central theme and celebration of our services. We have noticed that much of our worship owes its forms to those in the Old Testament (Scripture reading, confession, praise, the language of sacrifice and priesthood) but that those forms were transformed in the coming of Jesus and the worship of the Church. I have recommended several excellent books about gathered worship in two previous articles for those who want to dig deeper.

What I have not found (others may help me here) is a book about what happens after “Amen”: how to walk out of church when the service finishes – or what to do even before I walk out. I now believe that this is a serious omission, as the time between the final prayer and the final exit is also a vitally important opportunity for worship through meeting and encouraging others, as Tony Payne points out in “How to Walk Into Church”.

Horizontal and vertical

We have seen in previous articles that although some say “worship” is all about my offering myself to God during a service, or (conversely) “worship”is all about my whole-life walk with God, strong Bible texts can be quote in support of BOTH – worship is adoration AND action. Similarly David Peterson argued that when we gather the focus should not be on God but on edifying (building up) each other. Again, we concluded this is a helpful focus since we can ONLY encourage each other when together (unless you count texts and emails), but that we gather BOTH for God AND for each other. Writers like DA Carson, John M Frame and Tim Keller come to the conclusion that when we gather, and indeed when not with other Christians, we ascribe God “worth” BOTH by praising Him and by encouraging others – what we call the  “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of Church. I think this is right and wise.

So in Colossians 3:16 Paul tells us to “let the message of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with gratitude in your hearts to God“. We sing to God AND each other. And see Ephesians 5:19,”Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” We sing to God AND each other. Gospel-shaped Words (brought to life in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion) form the core means of worshipping God and encouraging each other. As so often, John Calvin achieved a wise balance of Word and symbol, avoiding over-theatrical display without rejecting all ceremony, as some Reformers were doing. “To secure due moderation, it is necessary to retain that fewness in number, facility in performance and significance of meaning which consists in clarity.” (Institutes 4.10.14).

During and ‘after’

I also believe that we can exercise the horizontal and vertical dimensions of worship (God and others) not only by how we sing, or listen, or pray, during a service, but in what we do after the “Amen.” How is this possible over coffee, you ask? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Take notes on the sermon, so that afterwards you have a question in mind which interests you and which you can discuss with someone. “You know what the preacher said about prayer: what did you think of that?”
  2. Instead of talking to someone over coffee about the weather, football scores, children, or perils of Christmas shopping, ask them what they found most helpful in the service, or if there was a verse in the Bible reading they want to remember and use.
  3. Ask each other “What can I pray for you this week?” That not only encourages us that someone has our back in prayer, it reminds us that it is good to pray for whole-life discipleship at work, in the family, in our own personal walk with God.
  4. Resolve to gather with the others at church next week, again. As Tony Payne suggests, there are some who leave churches because of disillusionment with the gospel, or scandals affecting members or leaders, but the commonest way people leave churches is just drifting away through distraction or lack of discipline. We miss weeks out, we get into the habit of arriving very late. Beware this drift by resolving to be here on time before you leave: the walk into church next week starts as I walk out of church this week.

So let’s pray for God to have the glory, and ourselves to be richly encouraged, as we gather this Sunday again,

“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving, and extol him with music and song. For the LORD is a great God; the great King above all gods.”

(Psalm 95:1-3)

How to come to church

Am I wearing the right clothes (too smart? too casual?)? Will they care if I am late? What’s for lunch later?

church-pew-with-worshippers

These are the questions that occupy many minds as we set out for church. In this second article of our series, I will suggest two much better questions to be asking as I walk into church, expanding on our church’s “Book of the Term”, “How To Walk Into Church” (Tony Payne).

1. How should I respond to God?

The word “worship” comes from Old English “weorthescipe” – ascribing value or “worth” to something. So a good house could be a “place of worship” and a leading town like London a “city of worship”. The Prayer Book marriage service expects the groom to say to his bride, “With my body I thee worship”! None of these instances mean that we regard the house, city or bride as divine!

“Worship” translates the Greek word proskynēo in (eg) Matthew 2:2 (the wise men came to worship the one born) but could just mean “fall on our knees”, as the servant does in Jesus’ story in Matthew 18:26. Thus our English word “worship” has a wider meaning than the Greek one (we take it to include singing and praying, not just kneeling) but also a narrower one (we tend to think only of worship in ‘church’, not in common life as well).

Even in ‘church’, worship is bigger than just my experience of God: I am gathered physically with the people in my ‘pew’ but also spiritually with “all the saints”, living and deceased, of every tribe and tongue, and with the holy angels. Worship is a spectacular privilege.

So here’s a definition (with acknowledgement of DA Carson’s much longer equivalent):

Worship is the proper and delighted response to God’s majesty in creation and redemption in Christ, both in all of life and when we gather as ‘church’.

So worship is above all God-centred: a joyful response to who God is. See for example Revelation 4:11, “you alone are worthy to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things”.

What makes worship delightful is not the novelty of the style, or the beauty of the music, but the object at its centre. Worship is not creating something new but responding to the already-present majesty and mercy of God. And Christ is central as the One who shares the throne of God, and who redeemed us by his blood. This God-centredness is vital for churches to recover in a world where so many things (eg career, self, possessions) call us to worship them instead.

The New Testament continues but transforms Old Testament worship. Where Israel had priests, the church has the priesthood of all believers. The covenant sacrifice of bulls and goats is fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. The tabernacle and the temple which symbolised God’s dwelling on earth are fulfilled in the body of Jesus (John 2:21), or of the Church (Ephesians 2:22), or of the believer (1 Corinthians 6:19). Hebrews 12 reminds us that we worship God not on a physical mountain but on Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, along with angels and saints, and through Jesus’ blood.

Romans 12:1-3 is a key Bible verse in understanding worship: “in view of God’s mercy, offer your souls and bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, for this is your reasonable act of worship.” This is in part a reflection of the other Biblical words for “worship” (Hebrew abodah, Greek latreia) which mean “work/service/activity”.

Worship is action, as much what we do the rest of the week with our souls and bodies, as what we do when we gather. Worship is both adoration and action. What we do shows what we delight in. So I can’t worship on Sunday if I have not served God during the week. To come and sing when I have not considered how I can serve God in my personal, family or work life is at best inconsistent; and at worst impossible. My weekday worship prepares me for that on Sunday (and vice versa).

A good way to prepare for Sunday is to pray for the preacher to be faithful and inspired in what they teach. Pray for the congregation and any newcomers to be attentive and have open hearts for God’s message. Pray for any particular people we know who are anxious, or doubting, or discouraged. Another practical way to come prepared is to read the passage that is being taught about in the sermon if your church publicises what it is in advance.

So come to church ready to respond to God.

2. How can I help to build each other up?

Is gathered worship for God, or for the people? Of course, it’s both. But David Peterson argues (from eg 1 Corinthians 14, see v26) that the New Testament’s emphasis in gathered  worship is upon encouraging each other. Sunday best clothing should be hard hats and boots, because we are to “build” each other up. Perhaps he overstates his case, as gathered worship is clearly for responding to God too, yet I can sing songs at home, or pray at work, but I cannot encourage and edify you except when we gather.

Anglican worship is historically strong at ‘building up’ the faith of the congregation. This is largely thanks to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, who reformed medieval English Catholic worship’s focus on ritual and mystery. Although change and innovation is also vital and refreshing, Cranmer saw three things that gathered worship must be:

 Biblical – our gathered ‘church’ should be drenched in Scripture, not just in the reading and sermon, but in the content of songs and prayers. Even the plan of the service comes from Scripture, including the elements of worship listed in the Biblical accounts: invitation to praise and prayer, songs of praise, confession, reading of Scripture and explanation of it, sharing of food and of gifts for the poor, sacraments of baptism and communion. In all these moments of ‘church’, the common feature is faith responding to the Word of God.

 Balanced – churches today tend to either cut loose from the past, missing the wisdom and durability of the best prayers and music, or to cut out ideas from the present, missing out on new ideas which could enhance our worship. Thomas Cranmer followed the principle of emphasising what the Bible emphasises (God’s grace, Word and gospel signs; the people’s repentance, responsiveness and obedience) and being silent where the Bible is silent (eg the kind of music, or whether to stand, sit or kneel). He kept the best prayers from the past, but rewrote the Roman Catholic service. He included the congregation much more in singing and saying the Bible and prayers, where before the priest said everything. He took out ceremonies which undermine faith in Christ, but allowed those which promote it.

Intelligible – Cranmer put the words of the services into English, from a Latin which even many priests leading the medieval services did not understand. He adapted or wrote many new prayers or Collects, especially his excellent “Collect for Bible Sunday” (Last Sunday after Trinity) . He simplified gathered worship for the congregation by putting it all in one book, where before there were half a dozen to juggle. Were he here today he would doubtless have put prayers online and in apps!

So what does it mean to come to church ready to build each other up, as Cranmer saw so clearly? I need to come ready to sing enthusiastically and to join in loudly with the prayers which the congregation says together: the point is that we are all joining in! I need to come ready to listen to the words of the whole service thoughtfully, as the words of songs, hymns and prayers may carry gospel truths as important to me as those of the sermon. And I need to encourage the people around me by joining in at all points, including listening to and taking notes on the sermon. As Tony Payne puts it, don’t be a “dipping duck” nodding off in the pew, or drift off looking for invisible fairies in the ceiling! As I respond to God with enthusiasm, I build up those around me too.

Are you ready to come to church?

Further reading

DA Carson (Editor) Worship by the Book (Zondervan, 2002)

John M Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996)

David Peterson, Engaging with God (IVP/Apollos, 1992)

Thomas Cranmer’s Collects can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, or the modern adapted versions of them online. They are delightfully presented with commentary in

C Frederick Barbee & Paul F M Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (William B Eerdmans, 1999)