The Allure of Expository Preaching
By definition expository preaching means preaching which exposes the meaning of a passage of scripture. As generally practiced this method of preaching, by necessity, deals with portions of the Bible as if they are to be understood in isolation from most of the rest of the Bible. In other words it assumes that the meaning of a small part of the Bible can be determined, relying merely on the words employed, separate and apart from any broader context.
In actual practice, what passes for expository preaching often addresses only a part of the passage under consideration. Even though a limited portion of scripture is evaluated, within this limited text some parts are elaborated upon and others are briefly mentioned or ignored all together. Rarely would an expository sermon deal equally with all parts of the text, partially because of the time constraint inherent in the weekly sermon format. Often in trying to decipher troublesome verses, the expositor will resort to stating what the verse cannot mean, in opposition to what it apparently says. This diversion usually involves citing another text in the Bible which supposedly disallows the apparent meaning of the statement in question. Lost in this standard practice is the obvious question of which passage is the rule and which is the exception.
Despite the high regard which many church goers hold for so called expository preaching, what we experience under that label is not often educational in the sense of providing new knowledge. More often than not, sermons of this type merely repeat a familiar message, reiterating what has been previously presented and generally accepted. Unless new knowledge is shared, no learning can take place.
Any attempt to understand isolated Bible passages is as meaningless as trying to understand any other book based on a small portion thereof. That is especially true of a book which clearly relies on so much symbolism, poetic language, and cultural nuances.
In my observation, this preference for expository preaching is mostly demonstrated by the older generation of church members. It is the bread and butter of their engrained church experience and tradition. Having been raised in an environment where preachers most often read a Bible passage and then expounded thereon, they feel most comfortable with that type sermon.
In contradistinction, we often hear from our younger church generation that they desire sermons which emphasize life applications- how does the Bible affect how I live and how does it prepare me to deal with life issues. Simply reading the Bible and repeating a traditional interpretation to these young people is simply tiresome and not particularly practical and uplifting. In addition, such an approach to sermonizing never promotes a questioning spirit in the listeners, one which might lead to a real spiritual breakthrough and provide the impetus for real personal transformation. Instead this type expository preaching spoon feeds pat answers to complex and confusing life situations and then suggests that rejecting the answers provided is not only disallowed but spiritually dangerous.
Dealing with the Bible is a complex business for sure. In my opinion the best approach involves great open-mindedness. Assume very little and be ready to change your opinion often. Certainly, any Bible study that doesn’t challenge the way I live and call me to re-think what I already believe is not really meaningful. Study implies new learning and learning must have practical application or it becomes simply an academic exercise, effecting no good beyond personal satisfaction at one’s superior knowledge. Bible study can easily become just that, an attempt at personal aggrandizement, hardly a spiritual positive.
In the final analysis, Bible exposition should be a personal effort, one which initiates with few assumptions. The more truth we assume before we open the book and the more we rely on other men and women’s expertise, the more likely we will be to draw unwarranted conclusions and miss the real message.