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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The two-thirds Word?

Scrolls-2This month I had the privilege of leading two seminars for our church introducing the Old Testament. I started from the position that for most of us this is a largely closed book (barring Genesis 1-3 and Psalm 23), but that if it is 2/3 of the Bible, we cannot leave it that way.

The Bible after all tells of one covenant (albeit seen from different angles from Noah to Jeremiah) and one God (even if we caricature the God in each “testament” as at odds with that in the corresponding one). The New Testament writers have the Jewish Scriptures running through their veins and regard the two covenants as a continuity through Jesus, who of course lives and quotes “the Bible Jesus read” at all points in the gospels.

It was a rich experience to approach the Old (or better, “first”) Testament through Hebrew eyes in the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible. That is:

The Law (the first five books)

The Prophets (which include not only Isaiah and the others we think of here, but also many “historical” books such as Joshua and Kings, which are profoundly “prophetic”.

The Writings (perennial, proverbial and poetic works headed by Psalms and including Daniel, Ruth, Lamentations and Esther). It was a great exercise to come up with a summary title for each book: so Proverbs is “For when life is complicated” and Job “For when life is tough”.

The audios of the sessions are now on our church website here.

Recommended Books Introducing the Old Testament

I highly rate Alec Motyer’s “Loving the Old Testament” which is as pastoral as it is clear and brief. For heart-warming theology through evangelical but critical use of selected OT books I love Walter Moberley’s “Old Testament Theology”, but those who want a more detailed student-level introduction I’d point towards Dillard and  Longman, or the older and drier, but exemplary, Introduction by GW Anderson. Fee and Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible Book by Book” does the work of a study Bible excellently for those coming cold to, say,  Deuteronomy or Obadiah. For fine print on origins and documentary formation Georg Fohrer’s Introduction is a key reference a serious student can’t ignore, even if a very critical one.

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 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)

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 will we train clergy to teach and preach?


“It’s the theology, stupid” is the title of Alister McGrath’s very helpful Church Times review of the Church of England’s discussion document on clergy training “Resourcing Ministerial Education” (RME). I believe strongly that we must cultivate a stronger leadership culture in senior clergy, which is the focus of the earlier Green Report, and which should not in my view be confused with this separate one. But I do agree with McGrath that congregations, parishes and people need clergy who know their Bibles and can connect them theologically with their lives. I’m not sure he is right to see RME as promoting a corporate, institutional view of Church, but he is spot on in sounding the alarm at its proposals to delegate how training is financed to local dioceses, and very likely to disconnect training from residential and university-based theological education. It’s the theology, stupid.

Bishop Steven Croft chaired the RME report group and responded to its critics in this blog this week. Reading his response, I am encouraged by the reminder of the goal of an increase in 50% in vocations (just as big a task as financing them). But I am still left asking for the group to assure us that increased quantity will not mean diluted theological quality. As mixed-mode training still appears to be the favoured way to finance an increase in ordinations, this dilution is surely inevitable, if the proportion of ordinands training residentially (and in seminaries linked to university faculties) falls as the number overall rises.

Attending a preaching conference this week I am forcefully struck by the value of rigorous theological education (evident in the humble work of so many attending with me) to give us high expectations of one another as clergy, and to train us not to think “that was it” but to be lifelong theological and homiletical learners. This “never stop learning” attitude is epitomised by the title of the handout given this morning by an eminent but humble Australian preacher and theologian who retired after 40 years of ministry, but continues to preach and train preachers:

“Still learning to preach, and still learning to teach others to preach”.