Wednesday, March 11, 2009

what does expository preaching expose?

I have by and large liked expository preaching over the last decade. I understand that the goal is to preach through a book of the Bible and go through the text, even the tough parts of the text. Well, salutory as that goal is the actual practice of expository preaching can reveal the same limitations as topical preaching. I have heard preachers skip difficult, obscure, or apparently tedious passages of a biblical book even after holding up preaching through whole books of the Bible. Do I need to name names? Nope but regular readers of this blog will know exactly who I'm referring to.

And the reason I don't feel a need to name names is because I believe expository preaching is easy to over-rate. I'll put it this way, a pastor who is actually good at expositional preaching through the epistles may avoid the psalms or the prophets or most narrative books. A pastor who is awesome at wisdom literature and epistles may nose-dive on a book like Kings. Thing is, it's easy for a church member or person who downloads sermons to not notice this sort of weakness for literally years because the person perceives the pastor to be doing the tough work of going through a whole book of the Bible. Yeah, that's true but work isn't the same for all of us.

If you happen to be weak in learning where a pastor is weak in teaching you're literally not going to realize how weak he is on that topic until your own weakness becomes apparent and you recognize his weakness.

Let me speak by way of analogy. I am a composer. I am fairly comfortable with sonata form and am also comfortable with ragtime and rondo forms. I am quite a bit less comfortable with variation form and struggle with fugue. Someone may be brilliant at theme and variation form, so brilliant that people may flock to hear that composer's variations and not really mind that all that composer does is variations on a theme. That the composer couldn't write a sonata form to save his or her life doesn't occur to the audience because they find the variations so pleasing they don't realize the composer has not mastered many other forms. The composer may throw in a few dances or rondos, binary forms and the like that are hard to write well but that are also not particularly challenging if one has mastered variation form.

A composer who grows as an artist needs to risk doing things he or she isn't any good at in order to keep growing. This is something I grasp more potently as an artist than as a person and I'll be the first to admit it. By now I trust the application of my musical analogy to expositional preaching has explained itself. A person can be great at expositional preaching and still have severe weaknesses as a teacher. You can focus on your strengths without branching out into your weaknesses. I would venture that many a Protestant evangelical pastor is great at the epistles and terrible at the gospels. As many have noted, there can be an unsettling attitude that the gospels are high school and the epistles are graduate school. The actual teaching of our Lord gets dropped in favor of the relative abstraction of the epistles.

And then there are Samuel and Kings, which I realize are exceptionally hard books to go through. It isn't just spelled out for us that what was done or said was actually right. I have been reflecting on those books a lot lately. They chronicle failure after failure and it seems as though the demarcation between people of God and people under His rebuke are those who reconcile themselves quickly to their complete failure before God. It is strange and unsettling how the legacy of Samuel became one of failure through his sons, who did not walk in his ways. THey became judges and they became worthless fellows like the sons of Eli. Saul, often easy to describe as one who never knew the Lord by Calvinists, had a son who did the things he should have done such as attacking the enemies of Israel and supporting the annointed king (David) after it became apparent the Lord had not given Saul a dynasty. Yet we cannot simply ignore that while the request of Israel for a king was sinful their response to the sins of Samuel's sons may not be wrong. We witness early in Samuel how the priests failed, how the judge failed to pass on a legacy through his sons, how the prophet was upset and even resentful toward the people and struggled to dischrage his role as prophet once he was no longer a judge. Samuel was in some sense also a priest as he was raised in the priestly clan.

It is in this context we need to consider Samuel's warning. After seeing the priests and judges fail to stop the enemies of Israel, after seeing the limits of the prophet why did they want to have a king? It was as though God were saying through Samuel, "All these other institutions have failed and you think that by establishing a new one your problems will be solved? Okay, let's try it your way, have the king you want and come back to me when that works out."

If there are books of the Bible where expository preaching would be most handy it would be in the historical books. But arguably these books are less popular to turn to because Samuel 1 & 2 and Kings are immensely long. But these are texts we should turn to because the failure of God's people in the ages past are warnings to us of how we can continually fail as they failed in the present. The historical books are disturbing because they reveal our own ambiguities and self-delusion. We can be genuinely bewildered by the Lord and His people.

By way of transition back into my initial topic, since it's tough to find expository preaching on books like Samuel for me these days I am listening to lectures from an on-line course. And as I wrote elsewhere I have turned to preaching on the psalms. In fact a helpful sermon on a certain Psalm will be something I will apply to a recent event elsewhere.

Expository preaching IS cool and all ... but now that I'm a bit older I realize that the strength of expository preaching (you go through books of the Bible you pick) is also its weakness. In other words, there can be many a sermon in which you propose to expound upon Scripture when what you are really exposing is not Scripture but you, your agendas, your theological pet topics, and also your weakness by what you do and do not preach. Since I am not a preacher and am not called to be one I don't envy anyone who has a call into ministry. It's not my thing and probably never will be, but it is a role in the Church I appreciate. I am both related to and friends with pastors and considered seminary eleven years ago. So I am speaking not as someone who doesn't appreciate solid expository preaching but as someone who believes that many evangelicals think this in itself is some kind of silver bullet, some kind of protection against theologial error or imbalance in teaching. If you're going that direction in your thoughts stop kidding yourself.

Every kind of preaching is a gift to preachers and congregations. If your sermons are like musical compositions master the art of every kind of preaching so that you can serve your community better. Otherwise you inadvertantly or intentionally risk becoming lazy about ways to divide the Word, which is dangerous whether you're a pastor or not. Since I"m trying to rectify my weak understanding of the Psalms and some of the historical books I'm totally preaching to the choir here.


Anonymous said...

All good observations. I hadn't considered someone being skilled at preaching through the epistles but not the psalms. I think the general problem with our "nameless" preachers is their ego leads them to believe themselves to be masters of all subjects.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...


Another possibility that explains why some pastors avoid genres of Scripture is simple fear. It may not be a case that pastors have egos about thinking they know all subjects but they may prefer to stay with what is safe. The risk in this approach is that the weakness of the pastor will, in the long run, be reflected in the weakness of the flock. Where the psalms go I would venture to suggest that a pastor weak on the psalms in teaching or example will eventually produce a flock that is weak on the psalms and may even display a weakness in corporate worship.

I'm reading Donne's sermons and there are times when I notice he drops Hebrew terms and Latin phrases right and left but generally seems to do less of that with Greek. I could infer Donne's Greek was relatively weak even if Donne specialists hadn't mentioned that fact in the forward to the volume of Donne sermons I've been reading. :)

Reading Donne has been illuminating because he comes from a homiletic tradition that is drastically different from what American moderns would be used to. I may have to write about that later ... if I remember to get around to it. Thanks for reading.