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What is not Expository Preaching

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

An extract from a live lecture at the Master’s Seminary 13248 Roscoe Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 91352.

Author: Steven Lawson, founder and president of One Passion Ministries. He is a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow, director of the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master's Seminary, and host of the Institute for Expository Preaching.

Editor: Marius Benec - Ecclesia Reformanda.

The kind of preaching that ‘is out there’ today in the liberal, evangelical churches.

1. Seeker Sensitive preaching

That is the preaching that begins with man and then works toward God in a very superficial way. It begins with a felt need in the listener and then moves backward to find a few Bible verses to be thrown at it. Of course, the message never rises any higher than those felt needs. There will be not just messages but entire series on how to overcome loneliness, how to overcome insecurity or how to connect with your kids, etc. It never starts with the word of God; it never starts with the opening up of a passage from Scripture and then moving to the application. It begins with some superficial felt need that just lies on the surface and the real need is never addressed. The real need is unfelt until the Word of God brings it to the surface. When Andy Stanley was interviewed regarding his book on ‘Communicating For A Change’, Stanley writes: “Guys that preach verse by verse through books of the Bible that is just cheating. Is cheating because that would be easy; this isn't how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There's not one example of that. All Scripture is equally as inspired but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read the culture and to read an audience and ask what is the felt need.” I used to meet with the pastors in the 50 largest Baptist churches of Southern Baptist churches in America (your church had to be 5000 members or larger). We'd sit in a room; all the tables would be turned inward. First question around the room – “What is working in your church?” I can assure you, no one said Romans. It is what's the latest gimmick, and I would hear things like, “We bought a box at the Houston Astros baseball game and we take our visitors and treat them like royalty”, or one man said: “Well we take people on African safaris. I mean people that visit our church at a certain income level.” That’s just sheer gross pragmatism and felt need and so when they come to church, you're certainly not going to ruin your relationship with them by breaking out the Bible and preaching on the rich young ruler. Rick Warren says: “When Jesus encountered a person, he began with their hurts, their needs and interest. It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart. That key to each person is hard and unique so it is sometimes difficult to discover; it may take some time to identify it but the most likely place to start is with the persons felt need.” So, this is what's out there.

2. Emergent preaching

The so-called preaching today that is emergent lacks certainty, it lacks conviction of truth. There is a downplaying of being certain about anything. Brian McLaren has become the leading spokesman for this movement, and they glory an unresolvable mystery. He writes: “As we move into a postmodern world, we re-enter a world of mystery and we re-enter a world where people are skeptical of those overblown claims to certainty.” To get into a church like this is like the bumper sticker I saw not long ago on the back of a car that said: “Don't follow me, I'm lost.” Why would you entrust yourself to someone who has no idea of what the truth is or how to get there or where we're going now?

3. Improvisational preaching

The preacher is a communicator. The platform becomes a stage, the congregation becomes the audience, the message is the script, the atmosphere is casual and laid back, the look is cutting edge and edgy, the feel is more of a contemporary concert. There’s one article that was put in front of me in which this man argues for an approach to the pulpit. He calls for improvisational preaching drawing on insights from stage, from jazz and even from stand-up comedy to profile an approach to preaching that is not dull, not boring, not stuck someplace in the past. It says: “It must come across to those who hear it and share it as someone just talking to us - not preaching at us, not lecturing to us, not trying to get us to do this or that. It is someone who just stands in front of us and shares his or her heart.” “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9

4. Imaginative preaching

That is preaching that looks beyond the Bible in which we imagine the world around us by extension. The Bible is too narrow and too restrictive. Rob Bell has become a real poster child for this, and he writes: “God can be found in all of the interesting things buzzing around us. So, we can take something from here and something from there and bring them together. A friend of mine calls it ‘tying the clouds together’.” That's their approach to preaching ‘tying the clouds together’ - a few verses here and something from the philosophers and something from the business community and something from the culture, and we just tie it all together, and look for unifying threads. He says: “A lot of pastors were trying to read the verse and then read the commentaries but after a while the two are just talking to each other. One’s focus can actually become smaller and smaller until something is funneled into the particular text.” He actually admits this - the text is too restrictive, too confined to simply say what the Scripture says. He says: “Rather than shrinking our vision, the text should become a pair of eyes with which we are able to see even more. There's a great big world out there with quantum physics and architecture and economic theory and the thread count of clothing and the fact that refrigerators in Europe are smaller.” So, he'll take the book at James and read through the book of James and see small refrigerators in in Europe. He said: “I call it the truth behind the truth the mystery behind the mystery reality behind reality.” I would call it hell. He says: “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful joyful place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spins forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. This is misguided and toxic and subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love peace forgiveness.” This is what's out there this is what's going to be across the street from your church. This is what's going to be next door.

5. Positive thinking preaching

From Robert Schuler down to the Word of Faith movement down to Joel Osteen - all of just the positive thinking that God wants you rich and wealthy and healthy, God wants you successful. There is no mention of sin, no call for repentance, no fear of God, no warning of hell. Instead there's just simply ‘Mother's Day’ type preaching every day of the year, full of infant stories, animal stories, children stories, deathbed stories, grandmothers stories, witty one-liners, homespun proverbial thoughts, poems, lyrics, movie titles, allegory's parables, inspirational accounts, backstories to songs personal accounts, tender moments in life - this makes you want to throw up.

6. Culture driven preaching

It’s when we begin with the culture and try to change and transform the culture. We can't change the culture until the individual is born again. In the Reformation there was a transformation of culture, but it was not because they went straight to the culture, it’s because they went straight to the human heart with red hot Bible preaching and were able to see God birth a new generation into the Kingdom of God. And when they went back to the marketplace, to the University, to where they worked in the marketplace, yes, the continent was transformed. But it was only because the center had been regenerated by the spirit of God under the power of the preaching of the Word of God. People now try to redeem the culture or reclaim the culture. Nothing could be more futile than trying to transform an unregenerate reprobate culture. We have that all around us, everything from D James Kennedy wanting to reclaim America to Jeremiah Wright and social justice trying to rewrite history to bringing the arts under Christian worldview, politics, education, literature, medicine, without preaching the Bible directly to the hearts of those who are unconverted. It's like trying to raise the Titanic from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The culture will never be reclaimed until the sinner is regenerated with the Word of God.

7. Moralistic preaching

This is just a litany of ‘how to sermons’ - all application, all exhortation, no exegesis, no explanation of the text, no interpretation - just a list of dos and don’ts, how to have a happy vacation, how to this, how to that which is just all proof texting. It's all duty and no power of the spirit of God in one’s life. It bypasses the text to just simply go straight to the application and it is all just preaching application. It's like trying to build a house but never laying a foundation. All you want to do is put up windows and put up a roof, but you never put up walls or a foundation.

8. Psychological preaching

In this, secular psychology is being brought into the pulpit and people are given a secular diagnosis of spiritual problems. Is that preaching that speaks of repressions, fixations, traumas, neurosis syndromes, disorders, complexes etc. etc. ad nauseam. There is no theology - it's all therapy and there is no disobedience it's just all disorders.

9. Narrative preaching

The preacher becomes a storyteller and the sermon is just one story from the introduction to the conclusion. It is just a narrative, a meta narrative message that lacks propositional truth and theological substance. It is just long on emotional content, in personal stories that are all woven into one story to walk someone through the text.

10. Text spring boarding

In other words, take out a passage, read the passage and then depart from it never to return again. Someone has said it's like the singing of the national anthem - is just something that you hear at the beginning, but you never hear from again. You just read the passage that may even be written in the bulletin but there is never any handling of that text of Scripture. It's never opened up, it's never explained, it's never brought to bear upon the conscience and upon the heart. It's simply a total departure from the text. In fact, the text would get in the way of the message.

11. Data dumping preaching

The sermon really just becomes a lecture and it is just a data dump of disconnected observations of the text, a barrage of exegetical findings, a digest of word studies, a sequence of headings but there's no preaching. It is just a commentary. That is not expository preaching at all. In such an approach to the pulpit there's no exhortation, there's no challenge, there's no appeal, there's no summons, there's no passion. The preacher comes across with the ‘pizzazz of a flat Coke’. There is no sense of urgency about the message and there's no sense of calling for the verdict in the heart of the listener. It's just an information dispenser. The preacher is just a librarian standing in the pulpit who's full of data and full of information but what he gives is nothing more than a lecture. It’s not a sermon it's just a lecture.

12. Decisionistic preaching

It is just John 3:16 every Sunday. There is 20-minute sermon and a 20-minute invitation. It's never aimed at the glory of God; it’s never aimed at growing believers. It is simply aimed at getting someone to walk an aisle, raise a hand, parrot a prayer, come forward and just ‘redecorate your life’. In the model for that preaching, the real teaching they claim is done in Sunday school. When you come to church service it's John 3:16. We love John 3:16 but that's not the full council of God. It has its place in the hall and it needs to be prominent but that is not the whole.


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