Preaching today is probably more difficult than during any other period in history. Today's preacher is under constant competition from mass media, television, and the Internet.
People who sit staring at the computer screen or the television for hours on end find it boring to listen to the preaching of the Word for a few minutes. Sermons acceptable 10 or 15 years ago fall flat on many modern audiences.
A recent survey on preaching revealed that one thing listeners want the most is that sermons be kept short, interesting, and relevant. Because of this there is the danger that preachers, while seeking to be interesting and relevant, will abandon biblical preaching. The challenge for preachers, therefore, is to be able to preach the Word in such a way that people will find it interesting and relevant. Can expository preaching do the job? It should and will, if we understand what expository preaching is all about and if we actually preach expository sermons.
What it is not and what it is
Expository preaching is not reading Scripture to begin the sermon. Scripture is not a national anthem "sung" to start an event and then quickly forgotten. Expository preaching is not reading a passage and providing a running commentary verse by verse. Expository preaching is not allegorizing or spiritualizing a passage. It is not taking a passage like the parable of the good Samaritan, and claiming that the man who went down to Jericho represents Adam, the Levite is the law, and the Samaritan is Christ, etc. Though some of these claims may have some truth in them, the problem is that what is preached is not what was intended by the biblical writer.
True expository preaching is biblical preaching. It selects a passage of Scripture that is a natural thought unit. It finds out what the author is trying to say to the original listeners. It makes the main idea of the passage the main idea of the sermon, and the sub-ideas of the passage the sub-ideas of the sermon. It allows the preacher to blend his or her ideas into the mold set by the scriptural passage. It demands that the authority for preaching comes from the authority of the Word of God. It applies the message of the passage to current problems inhabiting the lives of people in the congregation.
In other words, expository preaching goes through three stages. It (1) discovers the actual intent of the biblical writer; (2) finds the timeless truth that is taught; and (3) applies that truth to the contemporary hearers in their cultural context.
Stage 1: Discover the original intent
To discover the original intent of a passage, it is good to begin with its natural setting. Modern translations provide paragraphs with a natural thought unit. Having chosen a passage, you may seek the help of a small group of three or four people from your congregation. Read the passage with them and ask how they perceive its message. The exercise will be a blessing to you as well as to the group. They will feel a sense of owner ship and identify themselves with your sermon, and you will benefit by their insights and ideas. Above all, they will help you to bring the passage to the actual life of the congregation.
As an illustration, consider Mark 4:35-41. Study the passage to be sure you understand it correctly. Read it in the translation you are going to preach from. Read it in different translations. Study it with a group of your helpers. Refer to commentaries to find the original context and intent. Outline the passage and state what the Bible writer is saying to the original readers.
Here is what I have come up with:
1. Jesus and His disciples are in a storm at sea. They find themselves in a life-threatening situation (verses 35-37).
2. The disciples respond with fear and despair (verse 38).
3. Jesus worked a miracle and demonstrated His power to help them in difficult situations (verses 39-41).
Stage 2: Find the timeless truth
The next step is to find out what timeless truth is being taught in this passage. Here is what I found:
1. God's people sometimes find themselves in difficult situations.
2. Our tendency is to respond with fear and despair.
3. But God has the power and authority to care for us and bring us through our most hopeless times. Having done this, we are going to tell the story as it really is in the Bible.
We are going to take the story's time less ideas and bring them over into the life of our congregation. To do this we must keep some questions in mind: Where does this timeless truth show up in real life? Do my people really believe this? If they don't, what will I have to explain in order to persuade them to accept it? How will I get them to see the connection between this passage and how they lead their lives?
People do not lie awake at night wondering whether it was possible to have a life-threatening episode on Lake Galilee or why Jesus was able to sleep through such a storm. Instead, they worry over why their children have not yet come home for the night; how they are going to make the next mortgage payment now that they have lost their job. They are worried about growing old and facing death. They are wondering how to make their way through the drought or flood that has wiped out their crops, or the report from the doctor telling they have cancer.
The expository preacher must relate the biblical passage to these needs in order to be relevant. Thus, the relevant preacher exegetes not only the Scripture but also the congregation in order to bring the biblical message home to where the people are. The question is Where does my congregation meet with the original audience to whom the passage was written? Have they experienced David's guilt? Have they been accosted by the doubts of Thomas? Have they denied their Lord as Peter did? Are they being tempted to fall away as Demas did? Have they ever been betrayed by a Judas?
People need to know that, despite their failings, they are still loved by God. They need the assurance that they have worth in God's sight because of Christ and that through His merits they can be forgiven and accepted and realize their full potential.
The road to a sermon's relevancy passes through people—their interests and their needs. When using illustrations, it is good to remember that few in a given audience will be or have been missionaries in Africa. So your story of the missionary in Africa may not come close to their lives at all. Nor is it likely that any of them will ever finish up in a lions' den as did Daniel. Nor is it likely that they will be sold to camel drivers, as was Joseph. Biblical stories only serve to help us learn timeless principles, which can then be brought into the full light of the contemporary human scene.
You may, for example, create a scene in which you say: "Here is a young woman who has just found out she has a lump on her breast. She awaits the diagnosis. Is God still with her? That's her concern. It weighs on her mind. She can't sleep at night. She wonders where God is in all this. Has He deserted her?"
A relevant biblical preacher is able to include people in such a manner that, at the end of the sermon, a variety of people will say that the sermon addressed issues that really mattered in life.
Stage 3: Applying the truth to your audience
The final stage of a relevant expository sermon is developing an approach that connects the story and the time less truths into the everyday lives of the listeners. A good outline will help in this. Begin the outline by stating your sermon idea in the most exact sentence you can find.
Here is how I would state the idea of Mark 4:35-41. "God's people often find themselves in difficult and discouraging situations; but God is able to help them." This sentence now becomes the dominating idea for the listeners to receive. Too many unrelated ideas and scattered comments mean that the listeners will leave with a basketful of fragments but not one single truth to challenge or affirm them in their every day life. Discover that single truth, and repeat it many times in different ways throughout the sermon.
Our next task is to address the question, How are we to structure the sermon so that its thrust consistently speaks to an audience or congregation? Sermons have two basic structures: deductive and inductive. In a deductive sermon we may introduce the main idea at the outset and then list the supporting points. Remember the approach is to explain an idea or prove a proposition. When the idea is introduced to start the sermon, the audience is likely to react with "Is that true?" or "Why should I believe that?" The stance of the preacher resembles that of a debater; the points in the sermon be come reasons or proofs of the essential idea or thought of the sermon. Here is a suggested outline:
God is able to help us through the most difficult situations.
1. Jesus and His disciples were in a boat on the sea when a storm hit them (Mark 4:35-37).
We also face storms in our lives. Some people find a storm comes to them when they...
2. The disciples panicked (verse 38).
Often we react as did the disciples when we face difficult situations. I re member once when I...
3. Jesus awoke and calmed the storm and rebuked them for failing to trust God (verses 39-41).
We also find it difficult to trust God in stormy situations. We have potent promises in the Bible that He will never forsake us. He will care for us in times of great need. Times when ...
4. He has not promised to always calm the storm as He did on this occasion. Often His care for us involves giving us strength to cope.
He promises strength to the mother when ...
To the young person when...
To the single person when ...
To the child at school when ...
Life is full of storms. They are normal, even in the lives of believers. When they come we must never lose heart, thinking that God has forsaken us, whatever the situation.
Let us now see how we would handle the passage inductively. The inductive approach is helpful when the audience is perceived as being hostile to the idea you want to present and to younger generations who often resist traditional, more deductive preaching. All of Christ's parables except one were inductive. This approach basically says to the listener: "Here's a problem. Let's explore God's Word together and see if we can find the answer." The inductive approach leads the listener through the thrill of discovery. Here is a suggested inductive outline:
1. We often find ourselves in difficult situations. Example ...
2. We wonder, "Why has God allowed this to happen to me?"
3. Mark 4:35-41 tells us of a difficult situation.
1. God sometimes allows people to come into difficult situations.
a. Jesus suggested they get in the boat (Mark 4:35).
b. When they did, they got into trouble (verses 36,37).
c. Examples of other people who got into trouble when they followed God faithfully ...
2. The situation was so serious that the disciples despaired thinking they might drown (verse 38).
a. Our response to trouble is despair, thinking we may perish. Examples and illustrations ...
b. But Jesus used this occasion to show them His power to deliver them (verses 39-41).
Examples of how God has used difficult situations to show His power in the lives of many people.
When we follow God we may find ourselves in difficult situations. However, He has promised never to forsake us. He may not work a spectacular miracle to help us. He may choose to give us strength to cope with the situation.
Making dry bones come alive
Outlines serve only as skeletons of thought. The preacher needs to make the dry bones come alive. The skeleton needs to be covered with flesh. That's what supporting ideas do. Of first importance among supporting ideas are illustrations. Good illustrations are vital if we are going to hold the attention of our audience.
Remember we are fighting a battle for attention. It is easy to put people to sleep. A preacher asked a lady sitting next to a person who had just gone to sleep, "Would you please wake him up?" The lady smiled and replied, "You wake him up yourself. You put him to sleep."
The media-saturated audiences of today want to watch the preacher instead of just listen, feel the message rather than just think about it, and remain passive rather than respond. Recognizing this, the best contemporary preachers are able to find imaginative illustrations to help hold peoples' interest. Preachers who know how to illustrate are like the poets. They are great observers of life. They can see illustrations in the simple things that occur each day. Others will pass over these experiences without seeing the possibilities.
For instance, Phillip Yancy writes about looking at his fish tank: "I am as God to them. They rely on me to give them food and oxygen. I mean them no harm; yet when I go near the tank they get frightened. How can I communicate to them and let them know that they need not be afraid of me? I guess the only way would be if I were to become one of them."1
People absorb ideas not through abstract thought, but through concrete pictures. The more concrete you are, the more effective you will be. Paint pictures for them. Use plenty of metaphors. The Bible is rich in metaphors. When Paul wrote "who shall deliver me from this body of death," his hearers would think in terms of the practice of chaining a dead body to a living prisoner. The books of Job or Hosea, for example, amaze us with the richness of their metaphors and the power they possess to convey ideas because of this.
To be an effective contemporary biblical preacher, be sure to discover: what the passage meant to the original listeners; the timeless truths in the pas sage; and how those truths can be applied today in the lives of your listeners. If this is done, you will preach the Word with interest and relevance.
1 Philip Yancey, I Was Just Wondering, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 5-8.