How Expository Preaching Helps the Church
By George O. Wood
While attending seminary I picked up a copy of Christianity Today that carried an article by W.E. Criswell, who had been the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas 25 years. When asked the reason for his longevity in one pastorate, he replied, “Expository preaching.” Upon his arrival at the church he said he began preaching from Genesis 1:1 and, through those 25 years, preached straight through the Bible to the end of the Book of Revelation.
Criswell said the Bible was inexhaustible, and if you preach it, you won’t run out of things to say. I was amazed and intrigued. If that’s how I can stay in one church a long time, then I’m going to be an expository preacher also, I thought.
That was a poor motive for getting into expository preaching, but I soon found many other good reasons. And I did stay 17 years in my one and only pastorate.
My fundamental duty as a pastor is to preach the Word. My secondary duties may include administration, promotion, overseeing development of physical facilities, visitation, etc. But unless I give the preaching of the Word my first priority, the heart of the church has collapsed.
The heart is a pump. God has ordained that through the preaching of the Word, a constant supply of spiritual life and power be pumped into the church, His people.
Churches die when the pastor has nothing from God to say to the people. The congregation may be in a beautiful building; the educational, social, and organizational emphasis may be superb; but unless the pulpit rings with a vibrant word from God, that church has a terminal illness. The illness may be short or long, but eventually death is sure to result.
The study of God’s Word must be at the top of my personal priorities if I expect members of my congregation to have it as one of theirs.
The best definition of preaching I ever heard was “Preaching is you.” It’s the divine communication of truth through your human personality. None of us will preach exactly the same way from a given text, but those who “preach the Word” will find the Lord at work in their own lives and the lives of the people they pastor.
What is expository preaching? It involves taking a block of Scripture (a verse, a paragraph, a chapter, a book) and answering two questions:What did it say? andWhat does it say?
In answering those two questions the proposition, main points, and subpoints of the message are all controlled by the text itself. In topical preaching the preacher can choose the outline. In textual preaching the main points are controlled by the text, and the preacher can fill in whatever he or she feels led. However, in expository preaching the text totally controls the content of the message: One is not free to hunt or pick what is to be emphasized or ignored.
Let’s consider the two questions above. To preach expositorily, I must answer both.
What Did It Say?
This question involves exegesis and hermeneutics. I want to understand as best I can what each word or phrase meant to the biblical writer and to the people of God to whom this word first came. Thus I hit the Bible dictionaries, lexicons, concordance, commentaries—anything I can get my hands on to understand this text better.
Too often we want to skip the hard task of really understanding the Scripture to get immediately to the application. This is one reason difficult parts in Scripture are often skipped (such as Leviticus).
What Does It Say?
No sermon is complete, however, if we have only answered the first question. We must also consider, “What does it say?” In other words, I must move past exegesis to application. How does this ancient living Word relate to the contemporary needs of persons to whom I will preach?
Preaching must always involve one foot planted firmly in exegesis and the other in application. Sermons will be as dry as chips if they are only exegetic. Exegesis tells what the Scripture said; application, what it says.
Many a congregation has been put to sleep by a sermon which never made it into the here and now of experience. It becomes a dry, dull history lesson. However, sermons which neglect exegesis for the sake of application will eventually produce a biblically illiterate congregation, prey to false winds of doctrine and the gales of satanic adversity. Generally, if a sermon fails to interest, inspire, or challenge, it is because one or both of these questions were not answered by the preacher.
Phillips Brooks, the great American preacher of another generation, so aptly said, “No exhortation to a good life that does not put behind it some truth as deep as eternity can seize and hold the conscience.”
Paul told Timothy to keep “the pattern of sound teaching” (2 Timothy 1:13). Essentially Paul was saying that he followed a system of teaching, that his own preaching-teaching methods had not consisted of isolated pieces of information and scattered spiritual exhortations. One has only to read Paul to detect how orderly he was.
In Bible study the hop-and-skip method is not recommended. If we read a chapter in Romans one day, switch to a part of Revelation the next, and go back to Exodus the following day, continuing this random procedure for long periods of time, we are not going to profit.
Imagine trying to study a foreign language, history, or science textbook in that unsystematic fashion. Study of the Bible is not exempted from the same principles which apply to study in other areas.
If the above comments are true about personal study, they also apply to preaching. Does my preaching carry on the systematic exposition of truth? Am I giving forth a pattern of sound words?
What would happen if a construction worker tried to build a house by putting the bricks down in unconnected places rather than fitly joining them together? Too often our sermons from week to week are unrelated bricks.
Should there not be a relationship between last week’s sermons and this week’s? or last month’s and this month’s? or even last year’s and this year’s?
Some feel that following a sermon plan wherein the preacher takes weeks or months to walk the flock through a book in the Bible sequentially actually inhibits the Holy Spirit. “Aren’t you ruling out the leading of the Spirit?” they ask. Not at all—unless your view of the Spirit means that everything He does must be spontaneous.
I believe the Spirit can give me direction for a whole series just as easily as He can for one message. But I must never get inflexible. If while in the midst of a series the Holy Spirit puts upon my heart some special word, I have no hesitation to interrupt the series.
Over the years I have found great advantages in expository preaching for both myself and the church.
Here is how expository preaching helps the church.
Over a Period of Time, the Congregation Is Exposed to the Totality of God’s Word.
If I just preach “how to do it” messages (how to make a marriage work, raise children, be financially secure, become a success, defeat stress—all the popular topics of the day), I will completely omit essential truths upon God’s heart. On the other hand, if I faithfully preach the Word, I will address all the felt needs of people, since God’s Word is fantastically relevant.
By preaching through major blocks of Scripture I am forced to preach on subjects I would not normally choose, but God has ordained they be given consideration. Such exposure to God’s Word will ground people’s faith, not in the opinions of men nor in hobbyhorse doctrines nor latest fads but God’s written revelation.
If you get your people into the Word, you will get the Word into your people.
Spiritual Maturity Is Built.
The Pentecostal/charismatic world has been through waves of fads in the past 20 years: extremes in discipleship emphasis, fascination with coughing up demons, health/wealth gospel, dominion theology—you name it.
During this time, I simply kept preaching the Bible systematically to our people. We lost almost no one to these elements of charismania. Why? Our people had been grounded in the Word. They had become accustomed to having Scripture dealt with in context, line by line, word by word. They could smell a Scripture twister a mile off. They knew when someone was lifting a text out of context and distorting it.
In our emphasis on revival we must never forget that the first hallmark of an apostolic church is commitment to the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42). How can people become grounded in the teaching of the apostles if all they get is someone’s latest revelation? Expository preaching helps our people not become prey to every wind of doctrine.
The Issues God Wants Dealt With Are Dealt With in God’s Time.
I have never ceased to be amazed how God would apply a sermon with a series at just the right time of need either for the congregation or an individual in it.
I think of the runaway girl who found herself in our church one Sunday evening. I happened to be in a series on the Ten Commandments. Which one do you think I preached from the night that girl wandered into our midst and was saved? “Honor your father and mother….”*
I think of the second series I did on Leviticus, 10 years after the first one. My text that Sunday was from chapters 13 and 14—a lengthy passage on leprosy. I explained to the congregation that the biblical word leprosy embraced many skin conditions, including psoriasis. I didn’t know that a local community college professor and his wife were visiting the church that morning, that he had a long-standing and painful condition of psoriasis which was untreatable and inoperable. This couple came in and heard a minister preaching on the theme, “What Your Skin Is Telling You About God.” How odd but peculiarly relevant!
If I were simply selecting what I wanted to preach week by week, I would have never chosen Leviticus 13 and 14. But the Lord knew this couple would be there that Sunday. They were so intrigued they came back the next Sunday. At the close of the service, they responded to the altar call and God healed him instantly.
Preaching expositorily gave me great liberty to deal with sensitive matters—the congregation knew I wasn’t personally picking on them when I came to a text that was uncomfortable to them. This wasn’t the preacher’s opinion—it was God’s. The preacher hadn’t singled them out; the passage simply fell open to them that day because that’s where the pastor was in his journey through that book in the Bible.
Preaching Expositorily Builds a Sense of Reliability.
Persons in our congregation knew they could bring unsaved family and friends to the service, and they would not be surprised by an unprepared, rambling sermon. Often in Pentecostal circles we almost venerate unpredictability. I think we need to place more emphasis on predictability. Our people knew where to open their Bibles when it came time for the sermon.
In fact, as our church grew, people often identified their entry into the church by the text I was in that Sunday. “Oh, pastor, I came to church first when you were in Romans 8” [or 1 Samuel 17, Revelation 3, Nehemiah 1, etc.].
If there are advantages for the church in the pastor’s preaching expositorily, the plusses are even greater for the preacher himself.
There is no fumbling for direction each week.
I don’t know how many hours I would have wasted over 17 years if every week I would have started from scratch trying to figure out what I was going to preach that week. I always knew—the next chapter or the next paragraph.
My weekly pattern of sermon preparation was: Monday, day of study and exegesis for the sermons to be preached that week; Tuesday morning, more study; Wednesday morning, I put the outline together with supporting illustrations and finished Wednesday night’s message; Thursday, the day was spent completing Sunday’s sermons. About 24 hours a week were given to sermon preparation. This pattern almost never varied over the length of 17 years in pastoring except for weeks I had guest speakers.
This meant I was able to avoid the Saturday night panic. In 17 years of pastoring I failed only twice to have Sunday’s sermons ready for delivery by the end of the workday on Friday.
Each Monday I went to my office early in the morning, opened my Bible, and started with God’s Word for my life and our church that week. Never once did I sense God failing to speak to me from His Word. God is not silent when we approach His Word. He always spoke to me even though I was not always a good conduit for His message. Yes, even expository preachers lay an egg from time to time.
Expository preaching provided me ample opportunity to develop sermonic resources.
As I entered into a new series, I visited Christian bookstores and libraries to cull out the tools I needed to purchase for the new series. I bought those commentaries or helps which assisted me in answering well either of my two foundational questions: What did it say? and What does it say?
Over the course of years I was able to develop a good library as well as a rich resource of illustrations and applicational materials.
Nothing fosters personal spiritual growth in a pastor more than expository preaching.
Why? One is forced to study systematically—to inculcate God’s Word personally. I always had more material than I could ever use in the preaching event and was the beneficiary of the overflow.
Expository preaching enables one to minister from the overflow rather than a half-full or empty cup.
Expository preaching promotes longevity in the pastorate.
I lasted 17 years and never felt I had run out of things to preach.
Why do so many pastors leave the ministry? Surely, one reason is burnout, a depletion of the minister’s energy—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I found the systematic study and personal spiritual preparation required for expository preaching an irreplaceable source of renewal. The congregation never grew tired of God’s Word, and I didn’t either.
A pastor cannot be all things to all people. Early on I determined my major concentration would be upon the ministry of the Word and that I would allocate the time necessary to do that well. After all, we are called upon to be workmen who do not need to be ashamed and who correctly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). This meant I had to give lesser priority to counseling, administration, visitation, and /other sundry aspects of the ministry. This did not mean, however, that these other ministries were neglected. As pastor I could delegate many things, but the one thing I could not delegate was the preaching ministry.
The apostles came to this conclusion for spiritual leadership long before I did: “We…will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3,4). Keep your priorities straight, and God will build His church through you.
You don’t have to be an expository preacher to proclaim God’s Word faithfully. The Holy Spirit blesses all kinds of preaching styles and methods. But expository preaching will certainly enrich your own life and the lives of the people to whom God has called you.
*Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
George O. Wood, D.Th.P., is general superintendent for the Assemblies of God, Springfield, Missouri.