During our drive to church each Sunday, my wife and I regularly find ourselves tuning into our local Christian radio station. During this time, there’s this segment where they broadcast a collection of praise and worship songs, followed by a ‘relevant’ sermon, chosen from a pool of local churches.
While I do think this is an innovative initiative for the growth of the gospel, after listening to these sermons week-after-week for some time now, it’s revealing an ironic and concerning trend in today’s preaching: The desire to be relevant. Don’t believe me? Here’s some of the most recent broadcasted sermons:
- ‘How to live a Life of Influence’
- ‘How to be a Courageous Person’
- ‘How to find Security in an Insecure World’
- ‘Being Successful in Singleness’
- ‘Your Role in God’s Plan’
- ‘How to Grow in your Relational Health’
- ‘Praying when you’re having a Bad Day’
- ‘Living the Refreshed Life’
- ‘How All Things Will Work Together for Your Good’
Now, don’t get me wrong, as a preacher I am all for giving messages which are accessible, applicable, relatable and relevant. What concerns me about this list is what’s not on there: simple, expository, Biblical sermons. There is this underlying assumption in much of today’s preaching that for a message to be ‘relevant’, it must be centred around an everyday part of life: relationships, money, career, anxiety, God’s (most probably positive) plan for you, relationships, disappointment, children, relationships (again).
And if we compare the above against messages like: ‘1 Corinthians 6 (part 2)’, ‘John 12:12-19’ and ‘Leviticus 21’, it’s obvious which of the two groups come across as irrelevant, dry and boring. And it shows in preaching programs of many churches today. I know of a pastor who visited 11 churches during a recent sabbatical. He wrote:
In only one of the 11 weeks did the preacher present the Bible expositorily… [that is, using] the Bible verses as the basis for what they present. Only one person did this. Many of them made passing references to the Bible. Two of the speakers told their story the whole time and barely even acknowledged the Bible at all.1
Ironically, it seems that too many of today’s preachers are ditching solid Bible preaching in favour of ‘relevant’ topical life-skills (backed up with a verse or two).
And I’m sick of it. I’m sick of ‘relevant’ preaching.
But this article is not a rant – the opposite, in fact. Put simply: I believe there is a better way of being relevant. A deeper, more powerful and (dare I say) more Biblical way. And it all starts with expository preaching.
What is expository preaching? American pastor Bryan Chapell describes it like this:
It is this simple: the meaning of the message is the message of the passage. The meaning of the message (or the sermon) is the message of the passage. So, what the passage means is what the sermon will be about.2
I firmly believe this method of preaching to be profoundly relevant in today’s churches for five reasons. Here they are:
1. Expository preaching is relevant because it allows God to change hearts
God can and does change hearts through his word. And since expository preaching revolves around scripture, the most helpful thing to do here is to give you a sense of scripture’s view of itself. I could give you many passages that demonstrate God at work through his word. Here are a couple:
‘my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’
God’s words have purpose and real power – when God speaks, things happen.
2 Timothy 3:15-17:
‘from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’
Gary Millar in his preaching book Saving Eutychus makes the point that while it’s right to see the scriptures in terms of their ‘usefulness’, in these verses Paul is really highlighting how it is that God works:
How does God make us “wise for salvation”? Through the Scriptures. How does God act – when he teaches, reproves, corrects and trains us? God equips us to live for him by shaping us through his word.3
When we let God speak through his scriptures, allowing the text to shape our preaching, we unleash its shaping power to change us and our hearers.
‘For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.’
God himself is alive and active through scripture: it’s ‘God’s power in verbal form’.4 By his word he deeply exposes us our hearts, intentions, attitudes and souls, and by his word he skilfully and surgically changes them.
God softens hearts, saves lives and transforms them, all through the communication of his word (see above, plus Romans 10:13-17; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; James 1:18, 21). Through expository preaching, this powerful word is proclaimed plainly and clearly.5 What could possibly be more relevant for our churches than allowing God through his Spirit-filled word to transform lives? (Hint: it’s not another message on dating)
I like how Bryan Chapell puts it:
Who or what alone can change the hearts of men and women? Can you do it? No, you cannot. The Holy Spirit working by and with the Word in our hearts alone can change people.6
2. Expository preaching is relevant because it ensures God is setting the agenda for his church
We all want to be part of a church that is letting God take the lead, don’t we? Expository preaching is relevant because it does just that. Of course, those planning the preaching schedule for the coming months would have some level of understanding of what’s in the certain books and passages chosen, but a church that is devoted to regular, book-by-book expository teaching is led by God as he (through his word) determines what every sermon will be about. American pastor Timothy Keller makes an apt remark about topical messages in his book on preaching:
We tend to think of the Bible as a book of answers to our questions, and it is that. However, if we really let the text speak, we may find that God will show us that we are not even asking the right questions.7
By contrast, ‘Expository preaching lets God set the agenda in an obvious and public way,’ as former principal of Ridley College Peter Adam has said.8 And this also allows for the church to move forward and not always get bogged-down in addressing every single issue that arises in congregational life. And working through sections of the Bible week-to-week also means that God is active in bringing us to address tough topics that our denomination or our pastor would normally avoid.9
3. Expository preaching is relevant because it ensures God is setting the agenda for the sermon
As a preacher, I feel the burden of passages like James 3:1 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. We want to know that we are preaching God’s truth and not our own musings and opinions. While the Senior pastor of Hillsong Church, Brian Houston wants all his preachers to prove their points from the Bible, expository preaching is the only way to truly know that God is endorsing your message.10 The preacher’s job is to go wherever the single passage takes you, using the logic of that passage.
Expository preaching also leaves little room for preachers returning to their own hobby-horses and pet-peeves every week. Whether it’s taking pot-shots at our culture, over-emphasising aspects of social justice, or their favourite recent ‘breakthrough work of the Spirit’; when the meaning of the text is faithfully exposed each week, it is only appropriate to bring these up if the passage invites it.11
Expository sermons, when applied properly, are always relevant to their hearers. As theologian D. A. Carson once said: ‘all true preaching is properly applied’.12 This certainly needs to be true for expository preaching (which often has the reputation of being a dreary lecture straight from a scholarly commentary). When the message of the text is applied adequately to the hearers, it will be relevant. Expository preaching done well will also always be both stylistically fresh and gospely consistent. As Gary Millar writes:
No two sermons should look the same or sound the same, but to careful listeners our sermons should always sound the same gospel note. They should be utterly predictable. And yet, at the same time, our sermons should be deliciously unpredictable. Why? Because we have such fantastic source material, inspired by God himself, to change people’s hearts.13
4. Expository preaching is relevant because it demonstrates the authority of the Bible
In some senses this could be the primary case for expository preaching: it confronts people with the whole Bible as God’s authoritative, relevant word. As mentioned above, expository sermons will inevitably cover tough and challenging parts of scripture. Expository preaching demonstrates that the authority rests with God and his word, not the preacher. When we faithfully expose, explain and apply the Bible – even for tough passages – a preacher can say with confidence, ‘Do not listen because of what I say. Listen to the One for whom I speak for.’14
On the other hand, if a sermon touches only lightly on scripture, spends most of its time in stories, jokes or gimmicks, a listener could quite easily wiggle out from any tough or controversial teaching, simply concluding, ‘Well, that’s just your interpretation.’15
5. Expository preaching is relevant because it teaches the congregation to read their Bibles well
Consistent, expository preaching is relevant because it models and teaches the congregation to read their own Bibles well. It teaches them how to think through the movements of a passage and see how the main idea is built. It gives the congregation confidence that they can read and understand the plain meaning of scripture for themselves, not needing the authority of the church or savviness of the preacher to interpret it for them. It teaches hearers the nuances of different Biblical genres and styles and how they affect its meaning. Expository preaching helps church members grasp the rich ‘unity-in-diversity of the biblical revelation’ and its culmination in the person and work of Christ.16 And since the authority rests in the Bible, as the congregation grows in their knowledge of the word, they will keep the preacher accountable to the truth.
A dangerous aspect of a consistent diet of topical preaching is that it does none of the above well. The late John Stott shares his thoughts:
[O]ne of the dangers of taking an isolated text each Sunday is that it gives the impression that the Bible is a mere anthology of unrelated fragments, with no common themes or overall message.’17
Where to from here?
You may notice that while I have given a case that expository preaching is relevant for churches today, I haven’t gone into detail about what this should look like in practice. The reality is this will look different for each church context.
John Stott recalls that he covered the Gospel of Mark in sixty-two sermons over a period of three years! Gary Millar suggests that however we decide to tackle books of the Bible, ‘you need to move quickly enough to capture the flow of the book but slowly enough to allow people to get their heads around the details.’18
And of course, all this is not to suggest that topical preaching has no place in churches – of course it does. In fact, a topical series can be the best way of teaching big biblical themes. But if your weekly church preaching diet is mostly topical preaching, then that’s a problem. As one person has humorously said:
Topical preaching is like fast food. It takes [sic] great but is not good for you. McDonald’s will make you happy and it does taste good but a steady flow of McDonald’s is not good for you… Granted, there is nothing wrong with a hamburger from McDonald’s from time to time but it should not be our diet.19
I wholeheartedly believe that expository preaching is relevant for the church today. It allows God to change hearts through his powerful word, it ensures God is setting the agenda for his church and for each sermon, it demonstrates the authority of the Bible in a clear way, and it teaches churches how to read their Bibles well.
Will you join me in letting our God transform lives through his word?
Sources & other thoughts...
- Mike Phillips, ‘Observing Churches for a Summer’, The Gates are Open, 29 July 2013, https://natomaschurch.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/observing-churches-for-a-summer/.
- Bryan Chapell, ‘Christ Centered Preaching: The Word and Witness’ (Lecture Transcript, Covenant Theological Seminary, Fall 2006), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/course/christ-centered-preaching/#word-and-witness.
- Gary Millar and Phil Campbell, Saving Eutychus: How to preach God’s word and keep people awake (Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media, 2013), 37.
- Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Ages of Skepticism, First. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), 34.
- Keith Weller and Adrian Lane, Better be a Good Sermon: Preaching for Special Occasions and Contexts (Brunswick East: Acorn Press Ltd, 2011), 10.
- Chapell, ‘The Word and Witness’.
- Keller, Preaching, 36.
- Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A practical theology of preaching (London: IVP, 1996), 128.
- Millar and Campbell, Saving Eutychus, 41.
- Brian Houston, ‘30 Rules for the Hillsong Australia Preaching & Teaching Team’, BrianHouston.com, 9 September 2015, https://brianchouston.com/2015/09/09/30-rules-for-the-hillsong-australia-preaching-teaching-team/#.WvrmDYiFOM9.
- Millar and Campbell, Saving Eutychus, 40–41; Keller, Preaching, 37.
- D. A. Carson, ‘6 Reasons Not to Abandon Expository Preaching’, Leadership Journal.Summer (1996), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/6-reasons-not-to-abandon-expository-preaching/.
- Millar and Campbell, Saving Eutychus, 39.
- Chapell, ‘The Word and Witness’.
- Keller, Preaching, 36, emphasis original.
- John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (England: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982), 217.
- Stott, I Believe in Preaching, 217.
- Millar and Campbell, Saving Eutychus, 38.
- The Seeking Disciple, ‘Why A Steady Diet of Topical Preaching Is Unhelpful’, Arminian Today, 8 February 2013, https://arminiantoday.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/why-a-steady-diet-of-topical-preaching-is-unhelpful/.