It was 2 p.m., Thursday afternoon, and Michael, a young church planter, was procrastinating. Michael thought his church would survive but suspected that he might not. He was tired. He had stayed up late Wednesday answering emails and risen early to disciple a group of men. After a cup of coffee with a repeat visitor, he spent the rest of his morning preparing for a lunch focusing on the church's finances. It had gone long and left him drained and tardy with the bulletin data. He had a text and a (dull) title but no outline, no quotations, no points to ponder. He sighed; his worship planner had long abandoned the hope of coordinating his messages with music, prayers, and testimonies. How did he come to this, week after week? His calendar had a block for “sermon planning” every Monday, 8 to 11 a.m. But he slept in a bit on Mondays, then scanned the news, sports, and social media, until he had about an hour to read from the latest “important book.” He recalled a moment from his final semester in seminary. He had asked for an extension on a paper, but his prof had declined: “You think you deserve this because you have several deadlines, but in the ministry Sunday mornings arrive with alarming regularity, and your people will not offer an extension, no matter what happened the previous week.”
Worst of all, Michael felt dry. Like most seminary grads, he had once been eager to preach. The preachers he followed in college had driven him to seminary. And he had passions—his burden to reach the city, his zeal to engage the culture, and much more. But within two years, he had covered his passions, used his best stories, and re-purposed most of his exegetical notes from seminary. He wondered, Am I delaying sermon preparation because I have nothing much to say?
Most preaching pastors feel dry from time to time. But if the desert stretches on and on, if Michael truly thinks he has run out of things to say, he has a choice. First, he can move to a ministry that doesn't require weekly preaching. Second, he may become a borrower, depending on the studies of others, however he finds them. Third, he can start repeating himself. Week after week, from text after text, his people will hear that they must be holy, faithful, and committed to engage people, study the Bible, support the church, and love their neighbors. If Michael avoids the ultimate crime of propagating falsehood, he commits the penultimate crime of making Christianity seem boring. Or Michael could chart a new path, to sustainable preaching.
This is the first article in a short series on sustainable preaching. I want to begin by commending a way of reading the Bible that supports and nourishes expository preaching, because it may be the easiest and best path to sustainable preaching. Expository preaching explains and applies the meaning of a given passage of Scripture. Ideally, the expository preacher (1) regularly reads whole books of the Bible, (2) reads short texts very closely, and (3) reads devotionally, occasionally (but not slavishly) drawing on that reading to enrich his teaching.
An expository message translates a text from the original, analyzes its structure, and draws on literary and cultural contexts to discover and communicate what the text meant both to the author and also the first audience and then what it means to believers through the years, including our day. But preachers avoid expository preaching for several reasons: Some fear an interminable series and suspect that exposition and application are at odds. Some have lost the skill or the appetite for sermons that take texts and doctrines seriously.
These problems can be overcome. For instance, a preacher can divide a longer book like Genesis, Matthew, or Romans into several sermon series. A preacher could faithfully cover a dozen themes from Proverbs or expound 10 to 20 archetypal psalms. Further, there is no need to follow the pattern of preachers like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who tackled tiny texts in great detail. If preachers follow textual units, they offer one sermon on David's victory over Goliath (1 Sam. 17:1-58), one or two messages on the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) and one or two sermons on Jesus' woes to the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:13-36). In short, a preacher can be faithful while moving through longer blocks of text. He is, of course, free to slow down, covering a few verses at a time, especially if his hearers need to dwell on a topic that arises in a text.
Meanwhile the strengths of expository preaching are manifold. Expository preaching promotes a sustainable pulpit ministry in several ways:
1. The pastor can easily plan sermons several months ahead—whether alone, with his staff, or with like-minded pastors. It's simple. The preacher reads through a book of the Bible several times, studies one or two sound introductions to it, then divides the text into 10, 20, or more preaching texts. When the teacher has soaked himself in the text long enough, he is ready to devote several hours to a day of planning. He creates 10 or 20 documents, one for each textual unit, listing its great themes and principal questions, a preliminary outline of the text, and potential lines of application. If the preacher spends enough time with each passage, it will be easy to recognize and save illustrations, applications, theological ruminations, and parallel passages as they arise in coming weeks.
2. Expository preaching supports good study habits. The preacher can do more background work, knowing it will bear fruit for many weeks. He can improve translation skills by growing familiar with the grammar and vocabulary of a book.
3. Expository preaching makes it easier to cover the whole counsel of God. It alleviates the fear of hot topics. Suppose a pastor fears controversy over topics like sexual ethics and money. But the Bible talks about sex and money often enough that the reticent preacher is gently compelled to speak to them, without fear that anyone will ask, “Why is he preaching on this?” On the other hand, expository preaching slows preachers who long to speak on favorite topics again and again.
4. Expository preaching allows preachers to collect resources—commentaries and much more—that align with a sermon series. Similarly, a preacher's co-laborers, knowing where the pulpit ministry is going in coming months, will see the path forward in worship planning, and offer suggestions, both for worship and also for messages—provided that the preacher shows that he welcomes them.
Expository preaching promotes a kind of Bible reading that preempts the dreaded feeling, It's Thursday and I haven't started yet. The wise pastor still listens to people and reads widely, so he can engage the imagination of his listeners and apply the word to them effectively. And the sort of reading and planning advocated here makes it easier for the speaker to see where facts, events, and human concerns belong in the teaching ministry of the church.
As we will see in subsequent articles, there is much more to sustainable preaching. Still a blend of wide reading and close reading is a good place to start.