One thing everyone looks for when looking for a church is good preaching. It may be the first thing people look for, although few people can easily say which they weigh more of preaching, worship, music, fellowship, ministry, and mission when looking for a ‘good’ church. I want to offer some thoughts along the line of what constitutes a ‘good’ church, starting with preaching. Of all the ways one could classify different preaching, I want to use the old distinction in classical rhetoric of ‘logos’ (reason) for forensic speaking (expository preaching), ethos (authority) for deliberative speaking (topical preaching), and ‘pathos’ (emotion) for epideictic speaking (occasional preaching—here discussed as story-telling) to identify three broad categories for preaching. Of course, a sermon my combine these forms, so the distinction is more about emphasis.
Three Types of Preaching:
1. The Expositor: Expository preaching is preaching that teaches the Scriptures. The sermon will not have 3 points and an application because the points are determined by whatever is in the text of Scripture being exposited. The main object is to explain the text of Scripture, including giving an explanation of the cultural context and the flow of the text before and after the passage in focus. The expository preacher needs a good theological education. The audience is seen as composed of learners (disciples) who need good teaching from Scripture. They also have to be trained to listen to the sermon properly: with their own Bibles open, they are primarily asking, ‘What is the meaning of this text?’ The mode of delivery tends to be more academic and rational, but the focus is on Scripture as God’s authoritative Word, and it is, therefore, worthy of expositing. Expository preachers often preach series of sermons in order to work through a particular book of the Bible—lectionaries disrupt this in-depth study. Expositors use commentaries extensively in preparation for their sermons, although, I would advocate, they should focus their reading on Biblical theology and ethics and use commentaries to explore a point. John Stott would be an example of the expository preacher—and his personal study also led to writing a fair number of books and commentaries.
2. The Topical Preacher: Topical preaching is guided by whatever the preacher thinks the church needs to hear or by a lectionary. While topical preachers may see Scripture as God’s authoritative Word, their preaching tends to focus more on the Church’s theology and practice. One might think in terms of the similar difference between Biblical scholarship (expository preaching) and theological studies (topical preaching). Scripture inevitably moves more into the background and into a proof-texting role while theology and practice are brought forward. Topical preaching may be helpful when there are significant issues facing the church, but it can become problematic as a steady diet if the goal is to become Biblically focussed disciples instead of lay theologians. There is also a danger of a topical preacher preaching his/her favourite topics, or never really allowing Scripture to speak without passing through a particular theological lens. Topical preachers will move from one passage in Scripture to another, without going into depth about what the historical and literary contexts of a particular passage is. ‘Big idea’ preaching is a form of topical preaching: it finds a single idea in a passage and focusses on that single point. The topical preacher’s sermons tend to be focussed on the audience as a group facing various issues together. He/she tends to prepare the sermon by using a concordance to look up various places where a key word for the sermon might be found (‘hope,’ ‘love,’ ‘prayer,’ etc.)—although ‘big idea’ preaching at least avoids this approach. The mode of delivery tends to be less academic than expository preaching, appealing more to the audience’s deference to the preacher’s authority as the community’s theologian. The audience is trained to listen for orthodoxy more than interpretation of the text.
3. The Story-Telling Preacher: The story-teller’s mode of rationality is primarily emotions. Hearers listen to be moved emotionally with love, anger, delight, desire, etc. The mode of preaching is, of course, stories. Billy Graham’s preaching is an example—and his preaching was, of course, topical—evangelistic sermons—even though full of stories that moved people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. There is little need for academic study for story-telling preachers as so much of the success of their sermons is based on rhetoric—the successful communication of a thought through stories or a story. A sub-group of this approach is quite popular in mega-churches, where the speaker often tells at least one personal story, thus developing a weekly window into his/her life for a devoted audience. The quintessential example of this sort of speaking is the very successful radio show in America of Garrison Keeler, who has for decades told weekly stories about his fictional hometown, Lake Wobegon. The large, programme-oriented church tends to want a rhetorically strong story-teller. The focus in such rhetoric is not reason (the expository sermon) or authority (the topical sermon) but the emotional appeal of the speaker. The mega-church preacher using this mode of preaching may set the stage with a microphone and a stool rather than a pulpit needed to hold the Bible. He/she begins with a personal story, drawing the audience in to a personal connection that is actually imaginary—there is little contact with individuals in the audience. The successful story-teller is not an interpreter of Scripture and not a theologian, and the audience learns to listen on the basis of emotions.
Clearly, the ‘safest’ sort of preaching for Evangelicals is the expository sermon—teaching. It places the emphasis on Scripture over theology or the preacher. Topical sermons can fail to give due attention to what a Biblical author is really saying and train audiences to listen to ideas more than to interpret texts. Story-telling sermons train audiences to be mesmerized by the speaking abilities of the preacher, ignoring the text of Scripture to an even greater degree. However, there are times when a sermon can illustrate all three types of preaching. Jesus, for example, was expositing the prophetic texts about God’s coming reign after Israel’s captivity due to her sins. This exposition was, of course, also topical: the Kingdom of God. And yet much of his preaching was by way of story-telling or parables. This mixture was particularly appropriate for preaching that was starting a movement over against the entrenched errors of the Jewish leadership (scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priests), for an audience not made up of Jewish scribes but village folk, and for an audience that was being trained to interpret the Scriptures through the lens of Jesus himself.
The expository form of preaching can feature as a major element in a worship service, as it often has done in Protestant churches since the Reformation. But it can also be ‘moved’ to a time of teaching that is separate from the worship service per se, with the sermon during worship being a short homily on Scripture (say, 10 minutes) instead. This takes the pressure off of expository preachers to try to teach a passage in the middle of worship as well as drive home an application at the end of the sermon. It also allows teaching, given its own place in the community, to focus more on actual teaching of the text of Scripture—perhaps over a longer time as well. The homily, then, could fit more easily into the service of worship but still have a Biblical emphasis. The more that the Evangelical church becomes Biblically illiterate in a day when most people attend one 1 hour service a week, the more teaching in the church needs to be separated from that service in order to give it more attention in, for example, an hour of teaching before worship or in a separate weeknight time of teaching.
Preaching and Pastoring:
Preaching has a way of taking up a huge amount of a pastor’s time during the week. This may be because of the pastor’s need to study, and one often used to hear seminary teachers suggesting that pastor’s spend 1 hour in study per minute in the sermon (not a view with which I concur). This amount of time may also be because of the need to craft a sermon rhetorically, since so much of preaching has become a finely delivered piece of oratory—the more so for large churches drawing a crowd. This is hugely problematic, though, for the health of the church. A pastor who takes pastoral care and discipleship seriously will be concerned about having personal contact and relationships with individuals in the church, and this works against seeing pastoring as sitting in an office amidst a strong, personal library, breaking up study time with occasional hours devoted to appointments in the office or visiting the hospitals. One way to get a better balance is to have pastors visiting families and individuals in their homes and in the community, spending less time in sermon crafting. Of course, expository preachers need time for study, but less time is needed to study and teach than to study, craft a rhetorically interesting sermon, and preach. I am a scholar who believes Scripture is God’s authoritative Word: I am wholly committed to in-depth study of Scripture. But I have known too many preachers who spend inordinate amounts of time trying to prepare an interesting sermon for an audience that wants to be entertained more than taught the Scriptures. And I have known far too many pastors who see their first responsibility as Sunday morning preaching rather than pastoring and discipling parishioners.
If the reader has followed the descriptions and arguments offered here, the healthy church is going to be the church that understands preaching as typically exposition—teaching—of the Scriptures. When Luke describes the activities of the early church, he mentions the apostles’ teaching alongside fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2.42). In fact, when we read ‘preaching’ in the translations of the New Testament, the passages regularly mean proclaiming the Gospel—evangelistic speaking—more than the Sunday sermon. Jewish synagogues were understood as places to hear the Scriptures read and exposited—not as Greek or Roman public speaking events. The early Church, in other words, put the emphasis on hearing, learning, and studying the Scriptures, not on getting a pastor to preach a sermon that bounced off a single text or taught a theological system or presented an emotionally charged message to the audience. When looking for a church, find one that forces you to ask about the sermon, ‘Was I challenged to interpret the Scripture as the teacher exposited God’s Word, to follow the logic of the authoritative preacher, or to delight in the rhetorical skills of the speaker?