Expository preaching

At the BUGB/BMS Assembly, I had the privilege of giving the George Beasley-Murray Memorial Lecture, on preaching, and of listening to several excellent examples of the art, notably from Pat Took and Lauran Bethell. Sally Nelson’s Whitley lecture, whilst not preaching, was academically excellent, pastorally sensitive, and personally moving – an impressive combination.

I made a comment in passing about ‘expository preaching’ in the course of my lecture which has led me to further reflection on the theme, following the thoughts of Haddon Robinson. He cautions, in his Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, that we should understand ‘expository preaching’ to be a philosophy of preaching, not a method of preaching (p. 20). There is nothing magical about working through a text word by word, verse by verse, or whatever. Indeed, as I suggested in passing in my lecture, it is extraordinarily hard to do this well: the older preachers – Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine – did it by using all the techniques of classical rhetoric to add shape and colour to what might have been a very flat discourse; Pat Took gave the best example I’ve heard in a long time at the Assembly, not least by using different voices to bring illustrations of her points from literature, and to punctuate the shape of her sermon; but ‘this verse says this; that verse says that; …’ is usually pretty deadly, and the exaltation of it to some magical perfect method of preaching is merely bizarre. Understood as a philosophy, as a claim that, whatever the method and shape of the sermon, it is constructed to enable the message of the text to make its claim on the hearers, ‘expository preaching’ is vital, however – or so Robinson claims.

This seems to me precisely right, and it captures a couple of the emphases I made in my lecture. On the one hand, preaching finds its only reality in announcing and applying a message that is discovered through disciplined exegesis of the sacred text. If that is not happening, it is not preaching (it might be an inspiring lecture on a religious theme, but that is still not preaching). On the other hand, however, if the goal of preaching is to reshape and to change lives and worlds, not merely to inform and instruct (and I take it that this is the goal of preaching, for various reasons outlined in the lecture), then there is a need, under God, to select rhetorical methods that are best directed towards effecting such change. This will, of course, mean that we preach in extended monologues (which, and every communications professional I have read agrees, are the best way to effect change of behaviour in human beings); it will also mean that we give attention to all the skills of using such monologues to change hearts and minds, and a dry recitation of information is, oddly enough, not one of them.

Exposition as a philosophy, never deviated from; but methods drawn from far and wide – plotted moves and Lowry loops and constructed narratives, and all the rest. Perhaps I could call in ‘Ancient-future preaching’ and make some money?


  1. Sean
    May 12, 2009

    Hi Steve
    Is the lecture available yet? I have been teaching preaching this semester and it has been interesting how the students here seem to have been told that exegesis is crucial (and so are keen to show their working in their sermons), but still need to work on how we move beyond viewing it as an end in itself. My slogan this semester has been: don’t talk about the text, but use your detailed engagement with the text to talk about what the text is talking about.

  2. Jim Gordon
    May 13, 2009

    Ancient Future Preaching! Absolutely Steve. Write it!

  3. Steve H
    May 13, 2009

    Hi Sean, I’ll email you the text as it was delivered (less a few jokes) – something tidier will appear on the Spurgeon’s website soon.

    Michael Quicke used to draw a contrast between a sermon ‘saying what the text is saying’ and a sermon ‘doing what the text is doing’ which captures the point for me. Lowry is right: preaching a parable well should leave the hearers as surprised, confused, disoriented, as the original parable on Jesus’ lips did (substitute ‘in the sitz in leben of an early Christian community’ if you must…).

  4. Steve H
    May 13, 2009

    Thanks, Jim. I’d like to write something substantial on preaching one day; I’ve got something to say, I think. ‘Had we but world enough and time…’

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