Personal Method and Model for Expository Preaching

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Prior to preparing for a sermon, I must be sure my prayer and devotional life are intact. Charles Spurgeon poignantly points out, “True and genuine piety is necessary as the first and indispensable requisite; whatever ‘call’ a man may pretend to have, if he has not been called to holiness, he certainly has not been called to the ministry.” [1] Don Whitney, Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary, exhorted seminary chapel students in the Fall of 2005 at Southern, “Don’t let the ministry get in the way of Jesus!” [2]

The way to avoid this is to see the job description of the expository preacher: ones who are devoted “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4, ESV). In 1592, the Puritan William Perkins gives the proper balance to the pastor’s preaching ministry:

There are two parts to prophecy: preaching the Word and public prayer. For the prophet (that is, the minister of the Word) has only two duties. One is preaching the Word, and the other is praying to God in the name of the people. . . . Notice that in Scripture the word ‘prophecy’ is used of prayer as well as of preaching. . . . Thus, every prophet’s task is to speak partly as the voice of God (in preaching), and partly as the voice of the people (in praying). [3]

Perkins’ exhortation is well spoken. Without this understanding, I risk becoming as one pastor friend of mine noted, a sermon machine. John Piper helps pastors avoid this problem:

If we are going to feed our people, we must ever advance in our grasp of Biblical truth. We must be like Jonathan Edwards who resolved in his college days, and kept the resolution all his life, “Resolved: To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.”[4] Growing, advancing, increasing — that is the goal. [5]

I then proceed by prayerfully determining the text on which to preach. The expository preacher surely has a distinct advantage over the inductive preachers and the average advocate of the New Homiletics preaching philosophy. The inductive preacher committed to topical preaching spends precious time not only looking for a text, but also exhausting necessary energies in creating a compelling and intriguing form and flow to the sermon. On the other hand, preachers committed to an expositional model usually plan ahead by preaching through a biblical book or doctrinal study. As a result, expository preachers know on Monday morning, Lord willing, the exact passage from which they will preach. Thus, the preacher may spend his time more focused on exegeting and understanding the theme or themes of the text prior.

This understanding has transformed my study time. Not only do I know on what I shall preach, I know that with expository preaching I would dismiss the temptation to avoid difficult texts. Heisler says, “Expository preaching assures us that we are keeping the sermonic train on the biblical tracks and helps us avoid unnecessary detours and breakdowns on our way to the final destination of Spirit-filled living.” Expositional preaching helps me not only grow as a preacher who delivers the message, but helps me in worship in the study as one receiving the delivering of the Word first. If I preached topically and inductively as Craddock and Lowry advocate, I would risk losing that precious time of study and prayer in order to design in a creative manner a listener-driven sermon, rather than a text-driven, Spirit-led sermon grounded in the Word of God.

As for the planning aspect, I have found that developing a preaching plan is helpful for a number of reasons. First, I read the entire book from which I shall preach to understand the direction and the particular themes found in the book. Secondly, I break up the book into expository units. Chapell defines an expository unit as “a large or a small portion of Scripture from which a preacher can demonstrate a single spiritual truth with adequate supporting facts or concepts arising within the scope of the text.” This definition does not mean that preachers should only preach from paragraphs, but should understand the particular genre from which he preaches so that the listener hears entire scope of the passage. Narrative texts usually cover not only paragraphs but also a chapter or chapters at a time. Chapell also notes, “[Beginning preachers] are well advised to consider how they may ultimately expound passages of varying lengths since biblical truths are related through a great variety of literary means and lengths.”

In this planning stage, I found a method used by Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, quite helpful. If I know the text that I shall preach from over the next four weeks, I will take a manila file folder, designate that folder with the corresponding Scriptural passage, then have either my secretary of myself photocopy four or five commentaries on that passage and insert those copies into a folder. That way, if I am ever on a trip, at a conference, or even waiting in line for a haircut, I am able to pull out that file folder and study. I am grateful for the discipline of beginning this type of organizational system.

The next step is to find the main idea or ideas from the passage. A number of preaching books define this main purpose in differing ways. Bryan Chapell calls this the “Fallen Condition Focus.” Haddon Robinson designates this purpose as the Big Idea. Ramesh Richard calls this the Central Proposition of the Text, or CPT. Whatever the designation, the purpose is to find the central idea of the text. Haddon Robinson believes that:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept. That affirms the obvious. A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally, each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single, dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.[9]

Understanding the main point of an expository unit, regardless of how large or small, helps give direction to the sermon and avoids the risk of being repetitive over a number of weeks. Yet, those from the New Homiletic and Emergent Church philosophy reject this notion. Leonard Sweet, a faculty member at the Drew Theological Seminary and at George Fox University, puts forth a brand of preaching known as “E.P.I.C. Preaching,” that is, preaching which is experiential, participatory, image-rich, and connective. Sweet notes, “Preachers are homiletic hemophiliacs, hereditary bleeders of liquid life. If you’ve never bled, you have no material for preaching.”[10] Sweet seeks to make preachers who are not simply orators who put forth rational, word-based discourses; but rather ones who connect with stories, experiences, and conversant participation. He believes that “preachers [should] look for … less the ‘main principle’ or the ‘key idea’ or the ‘big point’ and more the ‘master metaphor,’ the leading or controlling metaphor that refrains the conversation.” [11]

Next, I begin to sketch out a thematic outline on the text. Helpful for me in this area is Preaching with Bold Assurance by Hershael York and Bert Decker. York recommends that preachers “diagram and write a thematic outline of the passage one to three weeks before you plan to preach it. This will allow your mind more time to ruminate on the text and to choose and edit illustrations, etc. before actually planning the sermon in detail.” [12] This textual outline will not be in all likelihood the outline taken into the pulpit, but is still crucial in understanding the direction as well as helpful in gleaning the main points along with the subpoints. Bert Decker advocates using Post-It™ notes to write down any principles that arise from the text, then organizing them. I prefer using an 8 ½” x 11” legal pad to sketch out the passage, sorting out the main clauses from the subordinate clauses. From this exercise, I begin to see the sermon that God wishes to me to preach because I begin to see the themes found in the text.

Next, I begin to organize the themes and subthemes as I move from hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) to homiletics (the presentation of the sermon). How do I determine the order of these themes? The Scriptures determine the order. The Holy Spirit who inspired the text of Scripture also inspired the order of the Scriptures as well. As I organize these themes, I begin to search for illustrations — on either news websites or the recesses of my memory. Personal illustrations are quite effective — when used sparingly — while news stories over the past week or month help connect the relevancy of Scripture to our contemporary culture.

I confess that I struggle with appropriate illustrations not because of how poorly I speak them but because of the temptation to illicit a quick response from the congregation. The New Homiletic philosophy of preaching is right in that the majority of people in the pews enjoy stories. Our image-driven, visceral culture enjoys the plot of a good movie, the quick humor found in situation comedies, and the thrill of sporting events. I live in Lexington, Kentucky, which is known as the “jumping off point to Eastern Kentucky.” In the mountains of eastern Kentucky, storytelling is king — and that mindset exists at our church among our elderly members.

Yet, even when I find myself preaching the Word in a faithful manner yet have minimal response either during or after the preaching time, I succumbed briefly to the temptation of littering my sermons with illustrations that generated a smile or played on the emotions. Soon, I grew convicted — for I felt God impressing on me this question (a question I have alluded to numerous times in this paper): to whom are you trying to connect your people: my Word or yourself? Since that time, I have been very careful about how I use humor and illustrations.

Concerning humor, one rule stands out above all the others: never use humor at the expense of another human being. Some pastors like using their spouses, children, or even church members as the object of a joke, in the process exposing their behavior to elicit a laugh — all the while causing embarrassment for that person. Humor is not a sanctuary from the commands of God that tell us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1b-3, ESV). Humor of this nature is divisive and harmful to the body, even when guised as amusing.

Concerning illustrations, Bryan Chapell helps me greatly understand their role:

The craft of sermon illustration begins when you as the preacher bracket an element of experience in order to give your listeners access to an associated concept, or an isolated experience may spawn the associated idea. Whatever the sequence of events, both elements operate together. [13]

Though preachers need not be in the business of trying to make the Bible relevant, they must be in the business of connecting biblical principles with contemporary reality. They must be accurate, bolstering the integrity of the Scriptures as well as the integrity of the one preaching. Illustrations serve a crucial and pivotal role in the proclamation of the Word.

Once these items are in place, I begin to construct the introduction and conclusion. These areas have proven to be the most difficult for me in the preparation process. After reading York’s understanding how the sermon’s introduction should “get past the gatekeeper” of the listener’s heart, I added undo pressure on myself because I wanted to find that perfect introduction. The same issues arose concerning the conclusions of the sermon. Like the composer of a symphony, preachers want to end on a powerful and memorable chord — since that chord will serve as the last sound the listeners hear from the concert.

To help me in this issue, I have developed both an electronic filing system on my laptop and a hard copy filing system in a cabinet in my study. For general filing, I have a drawer for articles covering various topics and another drawer with folders for designated Scripture passage on which I will preach in the weeks ahead.

Once I have complied my information, I begin to write the manuscript. Many preachers whom I respect greatly discourage this practice — and for good reason. Speaking and writing are entirely different forms of communication. Yet, in the study, I write out my sermon word-for-word to help my mind maintain an order and clarity and I take that manuscript into the pulpit. On occasion, I give my manuscripts to some in my congregation who request them, and frequently they observe, “You did not preach this the way you have it on paper.” That is true the majority of the time. By writing out a manuscript and highlighting the key themes, quotations, illustrations, etc., I not only have the themes and the flow of the sermon in my mind, but I am able to keep a record of that manuscript in case I need it in the future for a publication or another preaching engagement.

Conclusion

I am an expository preacher. I say this without shame or apology. I know that if my calling is grounded in a passion for God’s Word and a love for God’s people, then I shall preach to them the only message that is assured to change hearts and minds toward Christ: the Spirit-inspired, Christ-centered Word of God. May God continue to give me that passion to preach his Word with great patience and readiness for the days ahead.

NOTES:

[1] C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), 9.

[2] Donald S. Whitney, The Almost Inevitable Ruin of Every Minister … and How to Avoid It. Downloaded 22 January 22, 2008. Accessed at http://www.sbts.edu/MP3/fall2005/20050915whitney.mp3: Internet.

[3] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 7.

[4] Jonathan Edwards. The Resolutions. Downloaded 18 January 2008. Accessed at: http://www.reformed.org/documents/Edwards/index.html?mainframe=/documents/Edwards/j_edwards_resolutions.html: Internet.

[5] John Piper, Brother, We Are Not Professionals (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 74.

[6] Heisler, 23-24.

[7] Chapell, 61.

[8] Ibid, 61.

[9] Haddon W. Robinson. The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 35.

[10] Sweet, Leonard. “E.P.I.C. Preaching.” REV!, November/December 2005, 57.

[11] Ibid, 62.

[12] York and Decker, 83.

[13] Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach With Power (Wheaton, IL: Zondervan Publishing, 2001), 91.

[14] York and Decker.

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3 thoughts on “Personal Method and Model for Expository Preaching

    Rev emmanuel addo said:
    May 27, 2008 at 7:53 am

    i love the message,i thank God for your life and the good work you are doing, i would be very happy when you send me this methods so that ,it will help me speak the word to GOds people and to the world as a whole, thank you soo much ,i say the lord bless you.

    […] have found this book to be extremely helpful in my personal walk and ministry. I also discovered a blog post on expository preaching and planning that I found […]

    Kim said:
    July 15, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Thank for this great article. I teach children in BSF (Bible Study Fellowship. The teaching for the adults is expositional. Last year we studied Matthew…for nine months.

    What is amazing is that in the night school program we actually teach homiletics to the children. We take a passage, condense it by reducing it to key words, form one sentence to explain what the passage is about and then start expanding the passage back out by first seeking the truths in the scripture and then listing ways to apply this truth to our lives. Last year i taught junior high and the year before 8-10 year olds. What they can absorb is totally amazing and wonderful.

    We also put together the Bible lesson by the formula that you put forth. First we look for illustrations that work with the principle given for the section. If the the illustration distracts then we omit it. I’ll tell you though, it us usually an illustration that will snap up the heads of these kids. We try to keep the illustration to one or two sentences.

    Then we write the conclusion and then the introduction. Of course it does not always work this way. Two days before class night, all us teachers gather and share our illustrations, intro and conclusions with each other. There are five age groups, ten teachers.

    So i just wanted to share that children are being taught skills that help them concentrate on scripture and how to pull out the truths. We always pray before starting that the Holy Spirit will teach us and show us what we need to learn from the passage.

    I am always so pleased with those who still preach the truth directly from scripture.

    kim

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