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)

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”.