Editors’ note: This is the fifth installment in a multi-part series on expository preaching, part of our new Expository Preaching Project. TGC Council pastors are preparing free instructional resources on expository preaching in both video and print formats in six strategic languages. We are prayerfully seeking to raise $150,000 to fund the project. To make a donation, please click here and select “Expository Preaching” from the designation list.
- “6 Ways Not to Preach the Birth of Christ” by Steve Mathewson
- “7 Ways to Become a Better Sermon Listener” by Christopher Ash
- “How Expository Preaching Meets Your Needs” by Dan Doriani
- “6 Questions Preachers Should Ask of Every Sermon” by Jeff Robinson
Expository preaching seems to be on the rise among younger evangelicals, but its recovery raises numerous questions. Is verse-by-verse exposition valid for every type of church? Does it appeal to more intellectual audiences than to more emotional ones? And what exactly is “expository preaching” anyway?
Robert Smith has been working through these issues as both a teacher and a practitioner of preaching for the past several decades. He serves as Baptist chair of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches preaching. Previously he served as preaching professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and for 20 years pastored New Mission Missionary Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
There seems to be an unspoken assumption that expository preaching is a heady form of sermonizing, best for “cold and rational” audiences that may be less emotional. Would you say expository preaching is for all churches and Christians from all ethnic and social backgrounds?
I think that’s a false assumption. We’re called to preach the whole gospel to whole persons. Jesus says in Luke 10:27: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The intent of expository preaching is to preach to the whole individual, the emotional as well as the mental, the cranial as well as the cardiological. If I start with the assumption that expository preaching is only for the “cold and rational,” then I won’t meet the standard of Jesus, regardless of my audience. With ethnic congregations, you might have to start with the heart to get to the head. With white congregations, you might have to start with the head and move to the heart. So there are 18 inches between the head and heart that must be traversed in any setting, no matter where you start.
When I’m preaching to a white congregation and start with the head, I’m aiming to teach the mind, and thereby stir the heart and move the will. Moving the will brings transformation. That’s the Holy Spirit’s work. You’re not going to reach them simply with an emotional presentation. You have to start with content. But with many black or multiethnic congregations, you may need to start with emotions, then move to the head.
Think about John the Baptist and Herod Antipas. In Matthew 14, John tells Herod: “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife. It’s adultery, it’s wrong.” He uses a straightforward and cognitive approach. But in 2 Samuel 12, Nathan starts with emotion and imagery. He tells David, who’d committed adultery and murder, a story about a stolen ewe lamb in order to convict him. Both John and Nathan are dealing with the same issue—adultery—but they do so in different ways. John moves from the head to the heart, while Nathan moves from the heart to the head. David repents and Herod doesn’t, but that’s not in the hand of the preacher.
It’s vitally important to know your audience. If we don’t bridge the gap between the head and the heart, we haven’t done our job.
Do you see more expository preaching today in minority congregations? Is there more emphasis on it?
Expository preaching is more common today in minority congregations because there’s more training. Though not all seminaries are theologically astute or biblically accurate, we have more seminary-trained clergy now. Many years ago, the big problem in the African American church was that many were called to preach, but not many were trained. They didn’t have the opportunity. Neverthless, many black preachers have been preaching expositionally without knowing it. They’ve used the art form of narrative—known as narrative exposition. About three-fourths of the Old Testament is narrative, and many exposited the texts in a narratival way. They told stories. It hasn’t been verse-by-verse or alliterative preaching, but they’ve taken the essence of the story and applied it. So, in essence, they were doing explanation, illustration, and application in their narrative exposition.
So yes, I’ve seen more of it, and yet I’m beginning to see a reduction of it. Some preachers have superimposed their own story over the biblical story. They spend more time using illustrations out of their own lives so that their story becomes master, while the biblical story becomes servant. This breaks my heart. A revival of biblical preaching is breaking out in some places, but in others it’s receding. Some think that you draw a crowd by telling stories, but that’s motivational speaking, not preaching. They just motivate people with anthropocentric messages, not Christocentric ones. But such messages don’t transform anyone; only God’s Word does that.
How would you define expository preaching? What does it look like, week in and week out within a congregation?
Defining expository preaching is difficult since so many definitions exists. Let me offer three.
First, E. K. Bailey defined it as a message that renders the precise meaning of a passage of Scripture. In doing so, the preacher pointedly motivates the hearer to adopt actions and attitudes dictated by the text in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Second, John Stott said expository preaching is opening up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and his people obey.
The third definition is what I try to try to teach. Expository preaching is the ushering of the hearer by the Word of God into the presence of Christ, the Son of God, through the power of the Spirit of God, for the purpose of transformation. It’s Trinitarian. It’s our job as preachers to move people by the Word of God. The Word is our map and GPS. I have nothing to say to anyone unless I’m saying it by the Word of God. We preach for transformation, not just information or inspiration.
I’d combine those three definitions to show the significance of taking a whole passage and dissecting it. Expository preaching isn’t a style; it’s a principle. One can preach expositionally by using other styles, whether verse-by-verse, three-points, or narrative. The Bible has all kinds of genres, and there are just as many valid styles of preaching. But in expository preaching, you’re giving the essence of what that text is saying.
How might pastors train their congregation to better hear expositional preaching, particularly if the people are accustomed to hearing a different form?
The Bible is exciting and attractive, but it becomes less exciting when preachers say the same thing over and over again. Effective preaching is saying what the Bible has always said in fresh ways.
It’s going to take time to give people an appetite for Scripture. Paul declares, “I have not kept back anything that was profitable unto you” (Acts 20:20). And elsewhere: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). Profitable, not palatable. The Word of God may not be initially palatable. Indeed, it might seem bland, tasteless, and uninteresting.
When I was a child, there were certain foods I never wanted to eat. But my mother kept giving them to me because she knew they were profitable. I wanted French fries, ketchup, and hamburgers; she kept giving me lima beans, okra, and collard greens. You know what I like now? Lima beans, okra, and collard greens. In the same way, I know people often don’t want expository preaching. They’re not used to it, and they don’t know its value. Just because it’s palatable to me doesn’t make it palatable to them. The preacher, then, should keep giving it to them so they develop an appetite for it. And when your congregation finally does develop an appetite for the Word rightly exposited, they won’t tolerate anything else.
When your congregation finally does develop an appetite for the Word rightly exposited, they won’t tolerate anything else.
What advice would you give young preachers for how to preach compelling expositional sermons?
For those of us who preach expositionally, it’s important to keep the content of preaching the same, but to understand the packaging can be changed. If I bought a gift for you, the color of the wrapping paper is less important than what’s inside. You don’t change the gospel. Paul even says that if an angel from heaven arrives with a different gospel, let that angel be damned (Gal. 1:8). You don’t change the content, but it’s okay to change the approach or style.
But I hope preachers understand that God is very diversified when it comes to the box. Scripture has many genres. And we must be Christ-centered. The Bible isn’t just talking about the plan of salvation; it’s talking about the man of salvation. The Bible is a “HIM-book.” It’s about Jesus. I hope we’ll find fresh ways of saying the same thing Scripture has always been saying, and allow the passage—whether it’s epistolary, prophetic, or narrative—to give us the form.