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)
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Tim Keller on doubting our doubts

I have not yet read his new book Making Sense of God but saw this very helpful excerpt on The Gospel Coalition website in which Mr Keller tim-keller-making-sense-of-godsummarises some neat work by Michael Polanyi on exposing the wrong beliefs that sit underneath our sceptical questions. As I am preparing a sermon at the moment on Doubt, I liked the head-on confrontation of the big triggers which make us sceptical, such as unjust suffering, moral atheists, and religious hypocrisy, and the call Polanyi makes on us to see the “defeaters” or unchallenged beliefs which undermine the doubt each time. I look forward to reading the rest of Keller’s book!

Has evangelicalism forgotten to teach about God?

Teaching a recent series on the nature of God over recent weeks I was asked by several members of our congregation, most of them quite mature Christians, why they had not heard  about some of this stuff before. We like to teach doctrinal series as an alternative to the usual pattern of preaching through a book of the Bible in any one season. Recent series on Christian belief have included The Work of Christ, The Apostles’ Creed,  and The Atonement, but none previously have provoked this puzzlement or felt so  fresh for contemporary evangelicals.

It got me thinking why that would be. Do we not believe that God has a nature or essence at all? Do we believe that if He does, we cannot teach about it because it is too holy (holiness being part of his essence, ironically) or too unknown (which is a denial of the doctrine of revelation and of Christ all in one go).

Our series was not especially “new”. We explored God’s

  • unchangeableness (immutability)
  • majesty (infinity)
  • eternity
  • wisdom (omniscience)
  • oneness (simplicity)
  • holiness
  • love

All of these and more have for centuries been standard ways of naming God’s “attributes”, whether we see each of them as incommunicable (true of God fully, but of us never) or communicable (true of God fully and of us potentially). None of them alone describes God fully, and no words are ever able fully to describe the immortal, wise and invisible God (Romans 16:27, 1 Timothy 1:17) in any case. Yet that should not stop us humbly saying as much as we can about God, for the sake of honouring his majesty and grasping his perfection.

So why do so many evangelical churches rarely, if ever, preach about them?

One answer might be that they are not seen as biblical, since some of these words such as ‘immutability’ or ‘simplicity’ are not used explicitly of God in the Scriptures. In part they owe their language to Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and Platonism. So God’s unchanging character, his “faithfulness”, is a huge Biblical theme, but  his inability to change or develop in knowledge or in nature from his eternal perfection is less so. Calvin preferred to preach about how God acts towards us, not what God is in Himself, feeling this to be the focus of Scripture.

Yet it is hard to argue that these ideas are not fully Christian as theology has adopted them. They are an accurate picture of the God of the Bible in his essence. They have been preached and written about from the earliest Christian centuries in the works of theological greats such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and Aquinas.

So if we as evangelicals should welcome and not be fearful of speaking about the nature of God, why do we not do so more? I can see two reasons:

The emphasis on Biblical Theology as a way of interpreting Scripture has led us to a focus on the activity of God and a neglect of his nature. Biblical theology in the work of Graham Goldsworthy and others has been an invaluable approach to tracing the patterns and purposes of God’s work in salvation history. It has rescued the one Biblical gospel from death by a thousand cuts at the hands of liberal fragmentation and existentialism. Yet I wonder if this focus on the activity of God through the Biblical story has made us neglect systematic theology in general (which attempts to put together the overall truths of God) and the doctrine of God in particular. It has been striking to me how hard it is to find recent works at a popular or undergraduate level about the nature of God. Pete Sanlon’s excellent “Simply God” and Gerald Bray’s “The Doctrine of God” are notable recent exceptions, but there is a dearth of evangelical writing in this area, leaving JI Packer’s “Knowing God” as still to my view the best around, though written over 40 years ago.

The other reason I suspect evangelicals have steered clear of exploring the nature of God is that within our own movement we have emphasised the immanence (closeness to us) of God at the expense of his transcendence (greatness over us). Both aspects of God’s relation to us are precious. However evangelicalism in the last hundred years has moved away from seeing God as majestic, holy and “other”(with notable counter-voices such as Karl Barth and, more conservatively, JI Packer again, along the way) in pursuit of a God who is primarily forgiving, helping and guiding. Puritans such as Stephen Charnock preached sermons about God’s simplicity (meaning His perfection, not his being easily understood!) and in the early 1900s AW Tozer wrote about “The Knowledge of the Holy”, but more recently, God has become “smaller” to us. Put bluntly, we have created an image of God as a “plastic Jesus” who fits in our pocket, ready to bring out when we need him to fix a problem, but not one who awes us, humbles us, and leaves us lost for words.

What can we do to rediscover the otherness, greatness, purity, and perfection of God? I’d love to see more evangelical churches preaching on these themes directly, or when they arise in expository sermons, as a healthy corrective to the “how to” practical sermons that have become common. Let God become bigger to us again.

Such topics as those above are not dry or irrelevant. They bring us face to face with God as He truly is (Isaiah 6), and nothing changes our lives as much as that encounter.

 

Make your next sermon your best: three tips

by Augustin Edouart, silhouette, 1828
Charles Simeon preaching by Augustin Edouart, silhouette, 1828

I recall the late Mark Ashton observing two things about young preachers. First (negative) that he would rather have a curate/assistant from a college which did not think itself theologically infallible; in his experience, colleagues from training institutions which thought they had it ‘nailed’ exhibited the same attitude to their own abilities. It was a way of Mark saying he looked for humility. Second (positive) that he wanted to encourage young preachers to keep humbly learning their craft: because there are in the modern world few arts where one needs basically the same skills for one’s entire “career”, but preaching is one of them.

We all who preach should want to keep learning – or as my first incumbent put it “always pray that your next sermon may be your best”.

So my first thought on keeping sharp as a preacher is from John Piper, who urges those who preach to pray more for themselves and their hearers, and prayer is without doubt as important as anything not just in discerning the truth of God in a text or topic, but in delivering it with authenticity and spiritual power.

Second: one of the ways to keep learning and growing in preaching is by listening to the wisdom of those who are respected as preachers and good at teaching its science and art to others. As so often, it can be more effective to watch a five-minute video interview on a topic like “evangelistic preaching” or “how to apply a text faithfully” than to plough through a long book on homiletics. In terms of expository preaching,  I’ve found the St Helen’s church youtube site has a number of really good items, especially this curiously inspiring one from William Taylor on “poor preaching“.

Third, having said that, there are numerous really helpful books on the theory and practice of preaching. I came across a masterful chapter by Peter Adam on Calvin’s expository preaching in the book “Engaging Calvin” edited by Mark D Thompson (Apollos, 2009) which in many ways says it all.

But for those wanting more, it is hard to better the following

John Stott “I believe in preaching”. Solid, systematic and surprisingly practical.

Bryan Chapell “Christ-centred preaching” – superb on the gospel-based reasons for having such things as a clear focus, coherent unity and application-driven introduction to a sermon.

Peter Adam “Speaking God’s Words” – one of the very few books to talk about the theory of preaching, not just the practice.

JW Alexander “Thoughts on Preaching” – practical old wisdom on keeping time for reflection and reading central to pastoral work, including a broadside on this from Luther verbatim, which is work the book in itself.

D Martin LloydJones “Preaching and preachers”. Logic on fire, in theory and practice.

I also loved the chapter on Jonathan Edwards as a preacher in John Piper’s “The Supremacy of God in preaching”.

For a more practical approach to assembling the nuts and bolts, I’d go to Andy Stanley “Communicating For A Change”. I’d never seen myself preaching as an HGV driver, but it kind of makes sense.

Just out and on my list to read is Tim Keller’s new book on “Preaching”.

Let me know any other suggestions!

How does a pastor keep learning theology throughout their ministry?

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I’m taking a sabbatical from ordained ministry at present, which is providing space for study and writing of the kind most of us find tricky in the usual press of weekly pastoral and preaching work.

Over the years I’ve at times taken a study day once a month, and more recently have followed advice of wise people like Bill Hybels, doing at least 30 minutes of (his term) “serious” reading every day (not newspapers, not sermon prep!), and setting myself stretching targets of theological and other reading each year. That has all helped enormously not just to keep my brain ticking, but to deepen faith and love for God, for which I am grateful.

One brilliant new resource for those of us (most?) who struggle to keep up our use of the Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) after college is this one on Vimeo, Daily Dose of Greek, where Rob Plummer of Southern Seminary in Kentucky, USA, reads a short daily verse (in charming southern-accented NT Greek) and then parses and translates, one verse per day. Absolutely brilliant; I have been using it for the last few weeks, and it takes no time at all.

I’m not aware of a Hebrew version yet, but in this article on the TGC site Trevin Wax interviews Plummer giving other advice on keeping your Greek strong, such as using it in daily Bible reading and sermon prep, and taking a Greek study retreat each year. I’m planning to do a Hebrew revision week during my current sabbatical, but you may have other ideas on how to keep and improve our understanding of Biblical languages?

My main sabbatical reading and writing is in the area of apologetics, faith and reason, and it has struck me how few study groups I am aware of among ministers to sharpen our thinking and practice in this key part of theology and evangelism. I like the apologetics315 website for its enormous list of resources (books, blogs, videos) about the theory of giving reasons for our faith, and about the reasons we can give. From that site, there’s clearly more of this already in the US than in the UK, but surely we should work harder at getting together to discuss and learn from each other why and how to defend the faith in our postchristian and pluralist culture? Or is “just preaching the gospel” really all people need to see the light?

OK, there is OCCA and Zacharias Trust, there is the Cambridge Summer Course in Apologetics, and there are great specialists like McGrath and Lennox doing work on science and new atheism. But do let me know any resources, study groups, or courses for pastors and thoughtful church members which you know on apologetics and “reasonable faith” in the UK.

If the apostle Paul, with his pharisaic training and Damascus Road revelation, still called for “the books and parchments” at the end of his ministry, I suggest we all in pastoral ministry need to find ways to feed our hearts and minds with the truth of the gospel, so that we avoid Greek apostasy (and all other kinds) and “finish our race” stronger than when we started it.

Gleanings from this week’s news: Westminster prophets, Welby on treasure, faith schools, Anglican voting habits

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It is one thing to promote enlightenment in and between world faiths, and freedom to follow whichever faith one. It is quite another to pray a prayer at Westminster Abbey describing Mohammad as the last in a line of prophets from Abraham to Jesus. The actual text used in the service and the best summary of Christian response came from the “Archbishop Cranmer” blog. Freedom to follow Islam should go along with freedom to question if he is a true “prophet” in the Biblical sense of the word, as Christians do.

I’ve noticed recently how many evangelicals from Wesley to Bonhoeffer and Welby to Keller recognise and affirm the power of Christ-centred community to be the place in which God’s kingdom comes. I love the way Welby in this talk describes God’s work in any community “rule of life” as revealing buried treasure, and bringing joy. Strategy, he says, tries to predict the future, but it is the entrance of the kingdom (the treasure) which creates it.

Finally, two interesting finds from the Theos Think Tank politics/religion group. It was good to see them recommend this excellent book by Trevor Cooling on “why church schools should do God” in response to one such school abandoning church membership as an admissions criterion simply because some parents appeared to abuse the system.

And they’ve produced some graphic evidence that among Christians, Anglican voting at elections changes with regularity of church attendance but, apparently, Catholic does not.

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