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)

Ten tips for being salt and light

Saltshaker.jpg

Daily readings at home this month have included the early chapters of Matthew and majestic mountaintop experience of Jesus’ sermon in 5-7. Here, Jesus challenges his would-be disciples to be “salt and light”, and the sermon given at our church last week reminded me of this, with the invitation of Paul in Colossians 4:6 to “let your conversation be seasoned with salt”.

As commentators 1 note, the “salty” conversation image was common in the ancient world, and reminds us that our witness to Christ is not to be dull or predictable but alert and provocative.

So how do we cultivate a life in which we commend Jesus “in word and deed” (to use good Anglican terminology)?

Last Sunday’s preacher pointed us to the wisdom of “ten tips for evangelism” delivered by Tim Keller and recorded, best we can find, not in print but on Martin Salter’s blog. With the kind permission of that writer to repeat them, here they are:

  1. Let people around you know you are a Christian (in a natural, unforced way)
  2. Ask friends about their faith – and just listen!
  3. Listen to your friend’s problems – maybe offer to pray for them
  4. Share your problems with others – testify to how your faith helps you
  5. Give them a book to read
  6. Share your story
  7. Answer objections and questions
  8. Invite them to a church event
  9. Offer to read the Bible with them
  10. Take them to a discover/explore course

Why not save these tips somewhere useful for you as you pray for those you meet in daily life?

There are two useful additional notes about how to use this list so that God can use us to “pray, walk and speak” in sharing Christ’s message.

Firstly, the points become generally more challenging to us as we work down them. Some of us cannot imagine trying to answer objections to faith, or inviting someone to church, but for most of us making sure everyone we come into contact with in daily life knows we are a Christian is much easier. Try telling them how interesting your church service was, next time they ask how the weekend went – no more than that needs to be said!

Secondly, as we pray for our family, friends and daily contacts, we will find it may take some time to progress further down the points – we may need to repeat points 1-4 (the easier ones) several times before we find ourselves lending them a Christian book, or discussing why we think Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs. It’s about being patient with God’s timing, and recognising that although most  non-churchgoers have no objection to faith, they need a long time to start thinking it important for them.

1 See CFD Moule, “The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon” (Cambridge, 1991) and NT Wright, “Colossians and Philemon” (IVP, 1986), comments on this verse