How Expository Preaching Should Engage Cultural Concerns (Part I)

Stott argued that the preacher is a bridge, and if he is to be effective, he must be firmly grounded on both sides of the canyon.

The preacher must be a careful student of both worlds; exegeting both his text and his times.  To accomplish this, Stott contended the preacher must ask himself two questions: what did the text mean then, and what does it say now? The latter answer, of course, rooted in the former.

 

In John Stott’s classic Between Two Worlds, he depicted the preacher as a man positioned between two civilizations—tasked to bridge the ancient world with the modern one, and the ancient text with modern hearers.

Stott argued that the preacher is a bridge, and if he is to be effective, he must be firmly grounded on both sides of the canyon. The preacher must be a careful student of both worlds; exegeting both his text and his times.  To accomplish this, Stott contended the preacher must ask himself two questions: what did the text mean then, and what does it say now? The latter answer, of course, rooted in the former.[1]

Stott’s paradigm speaks to our ministry moment as well. In the year 2016, the American church faces unprecedented, and often unpredictable, cultural challenges. The American church seems placed in the middle of a never-ending session of bull-in-the-ring, with cultural pressures—especially related to gender, sexuality, marriage and family—coming from anywhere and at any time. The preacher’s task, therefore, to bridge the ancient world with the modern is an urgent one, and increasingly so.

Stott’s depiction, though offered more than three decades ago, is a helpful reminder of the preacher’s fundamental task—to bring the text of Scripture to bear on the lives of his hearers. But, if one is committed to biblical exposition, and especially to lectio continua, or, we might say, sequential, verse-by-verse exposition, than to be a man between two worlds is occasionally to be a man in tension.

The stauncher one’s commitment to lectio continua, the more heightened the tension at times will be. The predicament is clear. Expository preaching, and especially sequential, verse-by-verse exposition is, at times, an uneasy partner with the prophet’s burden.

Framing the Dilemma

Biblical exposition is rooted in the Bible’s self-attestation, that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” and that the preacher’s primary task is to “preach the Word.” As he does, he stands on promises like, “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”[2]

These passages, among many others, provide a rationale for biblical exposition, but they do not define it. In fact, a consensus definition for expository preaching proves stubbornly elusive. Consequentially, and regrettably, the phrase “expository preaching,” has become quite elastic, with much preaching getting crammed under that heading though it bears little resemblance to more traditional marks of biblical exposition.

For the sake of clarity, let me suggest, minimally, four characteristics of biblical exposition:

  1. The necessity of accurately interpreting the text, in light of its immediate and broader, biblical context.
  2. The necessity of deriving the point of the sermon and the sermon’s points from the text.
  3. The necessity of deriving the sermon’s application from the text and for the text to be brought to bear on the congregation.
  4. More tenuously, the priority of lectio continua, or sequential, verse-by-verse exposition.

Condensing these marks, we might simply define biblical exposition as, “Accurately interpreting and explaining the text of Scripture and bringing it to bear on the lives of the hearers.” Again, the constants within expository preaching are: accurately interpreting the text, deriving the sermon’s main point and sub-points from text, and bringing the text to bear on the congregation, preferably through lectio continua.

Even this minimalistic definition of expository preaching necessitates subordinating the sermon’s application to the sermon’s text. The preacher does not preach from the text or on the text, he preaches the text—thus limiting the sermon’s application to the point of the passage preached.

The tension, therefore, shows up in most every form of exposition, but especially through sequential, verse-by-verse exposition. It also forces the question: how does one remain faithful to the text, and to sequential exposition, yet adequately engage pressing cultural concerns impacting the congregation?

Conversely, the less committed one is to sequential exposition, the less the tension. A topical preacher just preaches on the desired topic. A loose expositor just manufactures application from the text, even if there is no direct textual connection.

The wager of lectio continua is that over time the accrued week-to-week benefits offsets the weekly adaptability and flexibility offered by topical preaching. The upside of sequential exposition, though, does not obviate the periodic tension the expositor feels.

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