Now what was that text again?

In the 1950s and 1960s, John Stott, amongst others, raised the bar in evangelical preaching. Stott, in his preaching and in his commentaries, showed three generations of preachers how to expound a biblical text. He unfolded the text, showed what was there, connected it with life, and did it all with passion and a clear, memorable structure. Those who heard Stott and the very best of those who preached like him, knew that they had been addressed by God. They knew why this part of the Bible mattered, why God wanted us to have it, and the difference it makes to life as a disciple of Christ. Whether they were being challenged or comforted, they were gripped by the teaching of Scripture and excited about studying the Bible. This style of preaching nourished faith, revitalized churches and taught people how to read the Bible for themselves.

But nothing good seems to last forever, and expository preaching of this kind has been dealt some body blows in the last few years.

At one end of the spectrum, some practitioners have fallen into dull, lifeless analyses of Bible passages with little sense of their connection to life and little obvious passion and commitment to these words as life-giving and life-transforming. The message they preach terminates on the words of the text, rather than pointing us to the living God who addresses the world we live in and who has something life-changing to say.

At the other end, and perhaps in reaction to what they have seen as growing dullness in many pulpits, others have returned to the launching pad sermon. Nothing they say is untrue, generally. It might be even be genuinely helpful. But the sermon’s relation to the biblical text is impressionistic. The Bible passage suggests a theme, which is handled with a string of anecdotes—some funny, some profoundly moving. People who listen hear the gospel—no question about it. But the message could have been preached from any text, and we aren’t learning how to read the Bible for ourselves anywhere near as much.

Of course, other factors play a role as well, such as the massive internet presence of some very powerful preachers who do not follow the expository model. They are often great communicators and insightful critics of contemporary society, and they are absolutely orthodox in their theological commitments, but the Bible, while open, slides quietly into the background. Add to this the way the basic foundations of confidence in the Bible have been shaken both inside and outside the churches, and can we expect people to listen to what this book has to say anymore? In some quarters, a fascination with technique, which is evident in so many other areas of life, has distracted preachers as well. And perhaps most subtly and yet most insidiously, the desire to be (or to be seen to be) a great preacher can so easily eclipse the desire to preach a great God.

The best preaching I hear is biblical, profoundly theological and thoroughly engaging. It is suffused with a sense of urgency and importance—not the self-importance of the preacher, but the importance of the living God and the word he wants us to hear. The worst preaching I hear might as well be the rehearsal of tomorrow’s shopping list—almost as coherent and every bit as memorable.

Of course, good expository preaching doesn’t have to sound like it comes from the 1950s. It doesn’t have to bore the socks off all who try to listen to it. It can cut through the confusion of our present circumstances and, at the same time, teach us how to read the Bible responsibly for ourselves. And it builds deep Christian faith, rather than itching ears. We will suffer and our churches will suffer if it is lost to us.

We need a serious conversation about what preaching really is, why good sermons succeed and bad sermons fail. And perhaps—just perhaps—we need to learn again that the way we preach and what we preach are inseparably connected. So if we do really believe in a God who is not only living, but present, as we preach, what difference will that make?


7 thoughts on “Now what was that text again?

  1. Mark, I reckon one of the blokes around who does what I think you are looking for – expound the text, but with passion and application – is Sinclair Ferguson.

    I am really enjoying – or rather being taught and moved through – listening to his Six People You Meet En Route To Calvary series – apparently they were mid-week lunchtime Bible studies and so are quite concise.

    I do listen to audio downloads on and off, and one of the traps I was falling in to was mainly listening to conference talks (Together for the Gospel, Desiring God, 9Marks interviews etc). I noticed that for some reason, these often end up being topical/doctrinal talks rather than the bread and butter systematic expository preaching that at least some of those guys do week by week in their home church. So I am trying to hear some of the latter as well.

  2. Thanks for the post, Mark. One problem is that great expository preaching also skillfully weaves in great biblical, historical, systematic and pastoral theology into the sermon, without losing the expository thread.

    I fear that those committed to expository preaching sometimes don’t see the role of weaving in the other theological disciplines into the expoisition. What do you think?

  3. Thanks for your post Mark

    You said:
    ‘We need a serious conversation about what preaching really is, why good sermons succeed and bad sermons fail.’

    As a listener, I would like to suggest one very big problem has to do with a lack of understanding of the Word of God on the part of the preacher. 

    Once the word of God is understood, as it is intended to be, then the rest tends to fall into place to varying degrees over time.

    A ‘great’ preacher will humbly submit to Christ, and so understand the scriptures (Christ) that he can explain them in such a way that everyone can respond in obedience of faith for the sake of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  4. Mark

    This is an excellent post. One of consequences of the massive and relatively sudden rise of the ‘internet preacher’ is that our preaching heroes have changed. And the new heroes for all their strengths (and the strengths are considerable!) lack one essential ingredient (at least in the examples I have listened to): their sermons are rarely driven by the text.

    What I mean is that they tend to preach their frameworks rather than the unique and often surprising message of this particular passage. As you point out, the invaluable legacy of Stott (mediated to us by Chappo, the Jensens, John Woodhouse et al, and further reinforced by Dick Lucas, David Jackman etc) was to preach THE PASSAGE, to make ITS message the message of the sermon.

    Now to get that message across to the hearers, there’s more to be said and done than just tamely rehearsing the content of the passage. But the driver of the sermon has to be hard work the preacher has done in the text. That’s where we discover what we have to say!


  5. I would venture that many who attempt the preaching task but fall into one of the two errors you mention set out to be nothing else but biblical, profoundly theological and thoroughly engaging.

    Why do they miss the target? My answer is ‘time’. To to a good job on the text and then do the work needed to apply it to the minds and hearts of the congregation is a big time commitment. So I think what then happens is that they choose: either spend the time on the text (and end up dry), or spend the time at the other end (engaging, with superficial content).

    Perhaps an answer is to preach shorter sermons? It might be easier to do both in 10 minutes than both in 20-25. Or perhaps reduce all our other midweek commitments and distractions, like commenting on posts…opps, back to it!

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