Is expository preaching “all that”?

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I saw this little twitter thread this morning. 

It’s worth a read, just to pick up on how some people perceive what is considered the gold standard approach to preaching among conservative evangelicals

It’s important because I suspect that a lot of us will consider expository preaching as the norm and will be surprised that not only is it not the normal way of approaching preaching in some quarters but actually deeply unpopular and controversial!  It challenges me when I read comments like this because I’ve often worked on the assumption that people exposed to expository preaching will over time find that their appetite for it grows. This has been my experience of church but it seems that this isn’t always the case.

It’s worth considering why this might be so.  This might help us consider whether or not expository preaching is the big deal that we’ve assumed. 

The first thing of note is the tweeter’s concern that expository preaching depends on the credentials of the preacher.  She goes on to refer to the habit of some (perhaps many/too many) of saying things like “in Bible times” and “in the Greek” which is quite likely to cause anyone who does know Greek or have a smattering of actual knowledge about the culture of the time wincing.

However, given that someone like me, who loves expository preaching will be wincing along with her at those points, maybe this suggests that expository preaching is not about references to “the Greek” and maybe that problem is not unique to expository preaching.  Furthermore, I would suggest gently that the point about expository preaching, done properly, is that it should not be about the preacher’s credentials because their primary focus is on drawing our attention to what is there in the text.  A preacher shouldn’t, often, be having to go outside of the text for expertise.

Here, she then talks about the preaching going line by line through the text.

This I think is crucial because, again, I would be unhappy with this. Too often though, this is what happens with expository preaching. The speaker meanders through the text, alighting on each phrase and word and attempts to find something poignant to say about it.   The result is exactly what you might expect from a meander. You get nowhere.  In fact, the speaker ends up dismantling or deconstructing the text (ironic given that we are staunch opponents of deconstruction) as each phrase gets isolated from its context and purpose. The problem with such preaching is that it treats the text in a way that no text is meant to be treated. You don’t read any book like that, whatever its genre.

Thirdly, she comments that:

Now, here I think I may disagree with her slightly because I have found the Bible to be deeply practical but of course, it depends a little on what we mean by that.  Do I think that the aim of preaching on a Sunday is to identify 3 or 4 hot tips from the passage to help you with your decision making through the week?  By no means! 

Rather what I mean by applying the text to our lives is what might be summed up by the old puritan concept of “preaching to the affections.”  The sermon is no mere intellectual exercise. The expectation is that my life will in some way be changed by God’s Word being applied to it. This means that the intent of preaching is to cut to the heart. Yes, that means I’m meant to change the way I think and feel about things and how I act in response to God’s truth.

This will end up being very practical because how I live my day to day life will be governed by the Gospel. This also requires another step to avoid legalism.  So, we apply all Scripture first to Christ and then through him. So, to be sure, when I read Matthew 1-2 I’m not meant to be getting step by step advice about taking detours, consulting rulers, spotting deception and fleeing to safety – though there may be some wisdom to draw from the narrative.  Rather, I’m meant to see how all of the Law and the prophets are being fulfilled in Christ, so that all promises and all hope are found in him alone.  I’m meant to see that whenever I face life’s difficulties, I don’t just have Jesus as an empathetic example – he is more than that.  My life is hid in him, he has fulfilled things on my behalf, his righteousness is imputed to me (yes -you need to do some theological scaffolding too!)  This means that I can face challenges knowing I’m not alone.  It means that I can face them without fear because I am not judged and condemned by God as I face them.  That’s the beginning of deeper application and it’s a deep and rich application that depends on expository preaching.  Dare I say it, we reach a point through exposition that we would not be able to get to through other approaches to preaching.

This is because as I’ve read through the Twitter discussion and interacted with it here, I’m even more convinced that what is being called expository preaching in the discussion is not.  So I thought it would be helpful to round off by stating what expository preaching is.  That will help to show why it is so beneficial.

Expository preaching is at its simplest about exposing/declaring/showing forth what is in the text in order that God might speak through his word to the heart of the hearers. That is all.  An exposition can be of two or three sentences, a longer passage, several chapters, even the whole book of the Bible.  It does not require you to go through line by line – though sometimes that can be helpful.  Rather it requires you to be able to sum up what the text is about to grasp its main point. 

This means that good training for expository preaching will encourage the preacher to be able to work through the text, to understand its structure and flow, to spot repeated themes and words and identify the rhetorical devices that enable the reader to see how the author is developing an argument, telling a story or painting a (word) picture.

They’ll then seek to sum up in a sentence or two what the point is. From there, they’ll seek to move (remember, applying through Christ) to the response that this is meant to affect in the hearer.  Then, they’ll prepare to communicate that, highlighting what is necessary from the detail of the text, selecting appropriate illustrations and considering carefully how to practically apply it to the specific circumstances of the congregation.

When that happens, it’s incredibly powerful.

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