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An Altar Inscribed “To the Unknown Preaching Method”

On any given Sunday in today’s preaching pantheon, one can observe a diverse group of devotees, some paying homage to the chapel of “creativity,” others sitting at the feet of the “culturally relevant.” Some are transfixed at the nave marked “narrative,” while others have their hearts strangely warmed at the chasse of “pop-psychology.” There is never a shortage of worshippers at the “new homiletic” altar, and the “topical” shrine always receives its share of Sunday patrons. Fearful that some as of yet undiscovered homiletical “method” might be missed, the gatekeepers of the pantheon have installed an altar inscribed “to the unknown preaching method.” It is that method which I declare unto you. Actually, the method itself is not “unknown” at all, and like the true church on earth, it has always had its practitioners in every era of church history. In fact, it is the oldest method in the preaching pantheon, having been used by the earliest preachers as far back as the apostolic era of the church. It is called “expository preaching.”

Fearful that some as of yet undiscovered homiletical “method” might be missed, the gatekeepers of the pantheon have installed an altar inscribed “to the unknown preaching method.”

But why has this time-honored method of preaching fallen into disuse in so many places and misuse in so many others? What has happened to engender so many substitute methods? It should come as no surprise that the century that witnessed the greatest assault on biblical authority (the 20th century) should also be the century that witnessed an unparalleled attack on expository preaching. At times the assault was frontal; at other times surreptitious. The sallies and sorties of her detractors along with the niggling neglect of her friends continue unabated. With everything from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1928 harangue, to Fred Craddock’s “New Homiletic;” from the baby boomer “purpose driven” sermonic church, to the “great communicator” gurus; from the “your best life now” boys to the sometimes whacky misadventures of the Emerging Church; from Buttrick’s broadside (preaching is group counseling) to Pagitt’s dialogical diatribe (Preaching Re-Imagined); expository preaching has come under attack these days. But somehow expository preaching manages to live on, refusing to give up the ghost. In fact, in some homiletical pockets of Christendom, it is experiencing something of a revival.

It is the nature of Scripture itself that demands a text-driven approach to preaching. God is the ultimate author of all Scripture according to 2 Tim. 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. …” What Scripture says is indeed the Word of God.

Both the inerrancy and the sufficiency of Scripture serve as the theological ground for text-driven preaching. This is the testimony of Scripture itself.  For example, it is interesting how “God” and “Scripture” are used as interchangeable subjects via metonymy when New Testament authors quote the Old Testament. Thus, God is viewed as the author even when he is not the speaker in Matt 19:4-5, and “Scripture says” is used when God is himself the direct speaker of what is quoted, as in Rom 9:17. In three places, Scripture is called “God’s speech” (Gal 3:8, 22; Rom 9:17). In the words of J. I. Packer, “Scripture is God preaching.”

It is the height of arrogance to substitute the words of men for the words of God.

Now if this is the case, how is it that so much of the preaching that cascades over pulpits today is anything but an exposition of a text of Scripture? By what hubris do we think we could possibly have anything more important to say than what God himself has said through Scripture? It is the height of arrogance to substitute the words of men for the words of God. So much modern day preaching is horizontal in dimension rather than vertical, that is, it is man-centered preaching that appeals to so called felt-needs, rather than that which exalts God before the people as the One who alone can meet true and genuine needs.

The church today is anemic spiritually for many reasons, but one of the major reasons has to be the loss of biblical content in so much of contemporary preaching. Pop psychology substitutes for the Word of God. Feel-good messages on “Five Ways to Be Happy” and “Three Ways to Love Your Mother” have become the steady cotton candy diet fed to the average church. Today’s sermonic focus therefore is on application. But application, without textual warrant for such, does not “stick;” it needs the glue of textual meaning. Biblical content accordingly must precede application; how else can we possibly know what to apply? Thus, in the headlong rush to be relevant, People magazine and popular television shows have replaced Scripture as sermonic resources. There are other signs of this anemia: In some churches, the music portion of the worship service has lengthened while the sermon time has diminished. No wonder so many spiritual teeth are decaying in our churches.

Biblical preaching, especially when it is done in a creative way, will always meet the needs of people, felt or otherwise.

Eloquent nonsense abounds in many pulpits today; sometimes it is not even eloquent. The conjuring adroitness of many preachers who keep producing fat rabbit after fat rabbit out of an obviously empty hat is the marvel of much contemporary preaching. There is mounting evidence that people are beginning to grow weary of these trite pop-psychology sermons. Biblical preaching, especially when it is done in a creative way, will always meet the needs of people, felt or otherwise. Only biblical preaching can meet the ultimate spiritual needs of people.

Preach the Word … in a text-driven way!

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David Allen is dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Seminary. This article is an adaptation of the introduction he wrote for Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon. Follow Dr. Allen on Twitter @DrDavidLAllen.

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David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry

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