Is Expositional Preaching Really Enough?: "
by Michael Patton of Parchment and Pen
I love to preach. Arguably, I love to preach more than I love to teach. Yes, there is a difference. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .
I graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) in 2001 with my ThM. I had a double major in New Testament and in Pastoral Ministries. The pastoral ministries department is concerned with practical hands-on training such as the teaching process, leadership development, and counseling. I even had to take a course in the use of media (which came down to how to create a proper PowerPoint presentation). They were all great courses which I often return to for sage advice.
However, the gem of the pastoral ministries department at DTS was the preaching courses. There were a lot of things to fear at seminary (not the least of which was Dan Wallace’s Advanced Greek Grammar course), but nothing more so than the day you had to give you sermon in front of the students and the professor. After your “masterpiece” was delivered, you had to sit through the critique of students (who were just as green as you) and a professor (who was paid to find out what you did wrong). The professor would share how you fell on your face with the whole class using you as an object lesson! Many of us would pray for the rapture just before the critique began.
Above all else, when you graduated from DTS, you were a man who preached (or a woman who “shared”) the word of God. No, not your own thoughts. Not your weekend story about how camping trips can go bad. Not four illustrations from the Bible about how to have a godly marriage. Not even your conversion story. But you were prepared to “preach the word.” We did not preach from the word. We did simply use the word in our preaching. We did not illustrate using the Bible. We preached the word.
Expositional Preaching vs. Topical Preaching
You have not heard about this debate? Come on . . . Let me introduce you to a debate that rivals the number of dispensations, the five points of Calvinism, and, yea, even the six days of creation.
Expositional preaching: preaching through the word of God, verse by verse.
Topical preaching: using God’s word as a springboard to preach on relevant topics.
(You can see the bias of my training coming through here).
Topical preaching focused on the felt needs of the church while expositional preaching let the word of God determine the needs. How is that for another jaundiced comparison? But, hey, I am a DTS product. What do you expect? How about some Martyn Lloyd Jones to get my back?
“One advantage in preaching through a book of the Bible… is that it compels us to face every single statement, come what may, and stand before it, and look at it, and allow it to speak to us. Indeed it is interesting to observe that not infrequently certain well-known Bible teachers never face certain Epistles at all in their expositions because there are difficulties which they are resolved to avoid.”
In truth, while I am not on any mission against topical preaching (for I do taste of its sweetness every once in a while), I am an advocate of expositional preaching. While very few have ever dared to implement true comprehensive expositional preaching (how of us preach through Leviticus or Numbers?), it does allow the Bible to determine the needs of the audience. Preaching the “whole council” of the word of God does compel us to come head to head with many issues that we would otherwise skip over due to confusion, seeming irrelevance, and controversy.
In other words, I agree, promote, and defend a ministry defined primarily by expositional preaching.
However, expositional preaching is not enough. As much as those of my ilk like to take pride in our stance of staying true to the word of God, we need to recognize that expositional preaching is only a small element of the educational program of the church. Alone, yes, it is better, in my opinion, for the Christian disciple to sit under expositional preaching rather than topical preaching. But lets get real: on a scale of 1-10, it moves us from a 3 to a 5.
I have seen Christians who have sat under expositional preaching all their lives and not been able to answer basic questions such as How did we get our Bible? Why do you have sixty-six books in the Scripture? What are the essentials of the faith? How do you know the Christ story is not myth? Why are there so many different Christian traditions? And (ironically) Why do you believe in expositional preaching? To which they respond “expo-what?”
It is not “expositional” that is at fault, it is “preaching.” Really, what I am saying is that preaching is not enough.
I love to preach. Arguably, I love to preach more than I love to teach. Yes, there is a difference. Yes, there needs to be. I do not wish the pulpit to turn into the lectern anymore than I wish the lectern to turn into the pulpit. Preaching has a prophetic aura about it that teaching does not. Preaching is more about conviction than it is about education. People go to a sermon to hear how they are to change their lives. People go to a classroom to be challenged to change their minds. In the sermon, people learn how to behave. In teaching, people learn how to think. Preaching is about establishing people in truth. Teaching is about challenging people in truth. Yes, there is always going to be some teaching in preaching as there is always going to be some preaching in teaching. But they are not the same and they should not be combined. The church needs to have both.
However, in my experience, I have found a famine of good teaching in many of the most revered expositional churches. Many expositional churches’ pews are filled with people who have been indoctrinated for years through good preaching with no avenue to challenge their beliefs in such a way to make them established. Their beliefs remain planted in good soil, but the soil is only an inch deep. When they go to the university and finally have their minds challenged through education, they are forced to choose between the education and critical thinking of the university and the years of sermons whose assumptions have been left unchallenged for over a decade. The teachings of the church are demoted to a sort of deuterocanonical (second-canon) status to the protocanonical (first-canon) status of the university. And you know what eventually wins?
The consequence for the church is alarming. In a recent study about American spirituality 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion (up from 11 percent in 1990). Most importantly, this study found that 73 percent of those that claimed no religion came from religious homes (often reared expositional preaching Evangelical churches). Sixty-six percent of these were described as “de-converts” (source). Drew Dyck identifies a major factor of leaving the church as intellectual challenges faced after they have entered these formative years (source).
But I don’t need these studies to tell me that churches suffer from a lack of intellectual engagement of their minds. I face this fact every day through encounters with those who are desperately seeking to hold on to their faith while scratching their head during expositional sermons. They are created by God to be critical, but often God’s people won’t allow such. There needs to be a place where tough questions can be asked, their faith can be challenged, and their minds can be engaged at a whole different level than the expositional sermon affords.
Those who are from traditions like mine who pride themselves in their preaching style are to be commended much for their commitment to the word of God (I don’t mean to undermine this at all), but they need to seriously consider if expositional preaching is really enough. Truth needs to be preached and taught. The two work together if they work at all.