Preaching, Part 2: The Method of Preaching

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a preaching series from Southwestern Dean of Theology David Allen. To view the series, click here.

If I were to personify preaching styles . . . in the not too distant past, tuxedo preaching, with its characteristic elegant and suave rhetoric and measured cadences, could still be heard in some places. In the 1980’s and 90’s, Tommy Hilfiger preaching, with its casual, open collar, boomer-targeted, “how to” sermonic style, was in vogue. With the dawn of the 21st century came tee shirt preaching, a younger, chasing cool, culturally relevant, hipster style. Tee shirt preaching spawned a smaller sub-genre: tank-top preaching; a gritty, in your face, no holds barred, crude, rude, and occasional profanity laced, preaching style. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, detractors and defenders, and each contains, to varying degrees, something worth emulating (crudity and cursing excepted of course).

I am very much aware that this personification is something of a broad brush stroke, and does not paint the homiletical portrait in its entirety. Many preachers are something of a combination of these or other styles, while others don’t really fit any of these categories. But what cannot be gainsaid is the fact that while yesterday’s preaching landscape was limited to a few homiletical prime colors, today’s canvas is spangled with colors more variegated than ever. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

When it comes to preaching, I operate on the following foundational principles and their theological entailments:

God has spoken in Jesus, the living Word, and Scripture, the written Word.
Scripture is inspired, inerrant and sufficient.
Paul’s mandate is that we “Preach the Word.”
Expository Preaching is thus theologically mandated by Scripture.
Expository Preaching is a theological method, not a single sermonic form or style.

Allow me to tease each of these out briefly. As with creation, salvation, and everything else for that matter, preaching begins with the revelation that God has spoken in Jesus and Scripture. God has revealed Himself in the incarnation of Christ and the inlibration of Scripture. Jesus is God spelling Himself out in language that humans can understand. Jesus is the God-Man, fully human and fully divine, yet without sin. The words of Scripture are the very words of God (2 Timothy 3:16). They are fully human, having been written by men under divine guidance; they are fully divine, having been breathed out by God through human instrumentality. This confluency results in an inerrant and thus sufficient Bible. The first theological foundation for preaching is God has spoken. J. I. Packer said it well: “Scripture is God preaching.” Paul’s final word to Timothy and to all preachers of the gospel is to “preach the Word!” Not ourselves, our personal opinions, our politics, our theology, our philosophy, or somebody else’s politics, theology, or philosophy, but the Word. This means we preach the gospel of Christ to a lost world and we preach the Word of God from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 to the church. God’s mission of salvation becomes our mission of salvation. God’s message of salvation becomes our message of salvation. We have nothing to offer the world but Jesus and the Word of God and nothing to offer the church but Jesus and the Word of God. Nothing is more important for people to hear than what God Himself is saying.

Expository Preaching is a broad umbrella that defines a theological method of preaching, not merely a single sermonic form.

Thus, the only method of preaching that conforms to this theology of Jesus and the Word of God is expository preaching. Expository preaching is preaching the text of Scripture, explaining it, illustrating it, and applying it. This can be done in a variety of ways using a variety of sermon forms. It can be done with one verse, one paragraph, one chapter or one book of the Bible. It can be done in harmony with any genre of the Bible. Expository Preaching is a broad umbrella that defines a theological method of preaching, not merely a single sermonic form.

Expository preaching begins with this theology, takes a text (a cohesive and structured expression of language that intends a specific effect) of Scripture, engages in exegesis to determine the meaning of that text of Scripture (without subordinating the text to anybody’s doctrinal system), constructs the fruit of that exegesis into a sermon (a discourse that explains the meaning of that text to people, illustrating and applying it as well), all with the goal of life transformation. Exegesis is the process, exposition is the method, and life transformation is the goal. A sermon should be text-driven; a development of a text of Scripture, explaining it, illustrating it, and applying it in terms and contexts the audience can understand. Many a sermon uses a text of Scripture, but is not derived from a text of Scripture. The text for such a sermon is not the source of the sermon, but merely a resource for the sermon. Text-driven preaching, by which I mean expository preaching, is committed to the primacy of the text. The text is king in the sermon, not a servant or subordinate. Our fellowship with Jesus is “textually mediated.” In preaching, we come face to face with the living Word, Jesus, when we are confronted with His written Word (the Scripture). Obedience to the written Word of God is a means of encounter and fellowship with Jesus, the living Word of God. Experiencing God does not work apart from textual content, but through it, and this is why expository preaching is so vital (and also why the New Homiletic is fundamentally flawed). It seems to me, if one agrees with the theology outlined above, then one has no choice but to commit to expository preaching.

As one who has listened to preaching for more than 40 years, studied it for 35 years, and taught it for well over 20 years, I have listened to the big dogs as well as the little dogs; the show dogs and the stray dogs; the yard dogs, porch dogs, house dogs and lap dogs. I can tell you that each of these groups has within it those who preach the Word. Thank God for them. But I can also tell you that in each of these groups there are those preachers who skirmish cleverly on the outskirts of the text rather than expounding it clearly; who pirouette on trifles rather than stand firm on the faith once for all delivered to the saints; who with conjuring adroitness continue to produce fat rabbit after fat rabbit out of an obviously empty hat. I’ve heard texts bludgeoned, battered, beaten, twisted, tortured and even trashed into submission. I have sometimes felt that when the preacher completed his sermonic surgery, he failed to rightly divide the Word of truth, and I half hoped that the text would rise up and sue the negligent preacher for exegetical or theological malpractice.

Today’s pulpits, including some Southern Baptist pulpits, are filled with their fair share of curiosities, mediocrities and atrocities. I have often wondered whether these preachers realize that one day they themselves will go under the knife, as Hebrews 4:12-13 says. Then the sharp scalpel of the Word will penetrate to the dividing of joints and marrow, and will be a critic (Greek – kritikos) of the thoughts and intents of the heart—including our motives and methods in our own preaching. As the author of Hebrews warns in 4:13: “for everything is naked and opened before the eyes of Him, before whom we must give an account.” Or, to put it into English with an attempt to preserve the wordplay of the author, “He to whom the Word has been given shall one day be required to give a word in return to the One who is Himself the Word of God.”

In light of this, and its implications for those of us who preach, hubris should give way to humility. Methods of preaching that attract crowds but lack the regular exposition of Scripture diminish the people’s opportunity to encounter God through His Word, the Scriptures. Regardless of church size, whether dozens, hundreds or thousands may be listening in the church, on podcasts, or other venues, they will not hear from God. By what arrogance do we think we have something better to say in a sermon than what God says in His Word? I’m all for cultural relevance. Cultural irrelevance is simply not a choice. But negotiating the Word and culture is a thin ice proposition, and the water is freezing if we fall in. Compromise with the culture undermines the ability of the preacher to speak prophetically to the culture. The reason ought to be clear. The moment you defy the spirit of the age you forfeit your marketing appeal. The Church of What’s Happening Now is a poor substitute for the Church of What God Says.

Jeremiah 10:21 has haunted me for years: “The shepherds have become stupid, because they have not sought the Lord; therefore they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered.” Stupid shepherds and scattered sheep—an all too troubling portrait of too many preachers and too much preaching today. Let’s pray it does not become a permanent portrait in today’s preaching gallery, or worse still, … an epitaph.