Characteristics of Strong Expository Sermons
In every generation there is a debate about the most effective type of preaching style. In our own day, there continues to be a battle between proponents of expository preaching and those of the self-help, psychological model first adopted and advocated by Harry Emerson Fosdick. The massive attendance at these “group counseling” churches tempts many young pastor-teachers to feed their people spiritual porridge rather than beef tenderloin. Yet, God created the human heart to resonate with his greatness and glory, and people learn to experience that best through a solid diet of strong expository preaching. What follows are some thoughts about the traits that define strong expository sermons. First, strong expository sermons are dependent upon solid exegesis. By definition, exegesis is the “process of discerning the truth of Scripture by allowing a text to reveal its meaning and significance, rather than reading the interpreter’s bias into it.”[i] Exegesis requires the “use of the appropriate grammatical and contextual resources to determine the author’s intended meaning of the text and its significance for today’s readers, as guided by the appropriate principles of hermeneutics.”[ii] Consequently, an expository sermon is only as strong as the exegesis upon which it is based. Sadly, many pastor-teachers sacrifice personal time spent in exegesis in favor of the “commentary shortcut.” Rather than do the hard work in the text themselves, they simply pick up their favorite commentary and let the author’s exegesis become their own. While the meaning of the text may not be damaged in this approach (depending on the quality of the chosen commentary), the person who suffers most is the pastor-teacher himself. If we choose this approach, we will teach the text without the zeal that is a by-product of personal discovery and growth. And, like reheated pasta, the leftover of someone else’s study is never as good as the sermon prepared in our own exegetical kitchen.
Second, strong expository sermons are dependent upon a strong knowledge of the main idea of the text (MIT). Identifying the MIT is the final step in the exegetical process, and it may be the most challenging. The goal of identifying the MIT is to answer the question, “What is the author’s intended meaning?”[iii] If we cannot clearly identify the MIT for ourselves, how will we be able to identify it for our listeners? Once solid exegesis has revealed the MIT, we must take that textual idea and write it in a clear and concise sentence. This sentence will serve as the sermon idea and will become the foundation for writing the sermon’s divisions.
Third, strong expository sermons are dependent upon crafting clear sermon divisions. Much has been written about crafting sermon divisions. It is the most tedious and technical part of writing an expository sermon. Sadly, many have settled for an approach that sees sermon divisions as random statements of alliterated abstraction. Divisions like these from Genesis 3, “The Con, the Choice, the Curse, and the Cure,” are creatively alliterated, but they say nothing of a universal/theological nature, and so provide no benefit to the listener. Consider the value of these sermon divisions from the same biblical text: 1. Sin is a result of listening to the wrong voices; 2. Sin is a result of making the wrong choices; 3. Sin results in death-producing consequences. Here, the listener is provided with complete statements of universal/theological truth. If they take these three statements home with them, they have a biblical way to think about Genesis 3, rather than just a couple of pithy slogans.
These divisions also represent an approach to writing sermon divisions that is advocated by Michael Fabarez. In his book, Preaching that Changes Lives, he advocates for writing sermon divisions that communicate the relevance of the content to the listeners rather than simply using them to communicate content.[iv] He recommends writing “the main points of a sermon in terms of the text and what its Author expects from the people who hear it.”[v] This approach to “application based” sermon divisions is one that we should explore and consider using in our expository preaching.
Fourth, strong expository sermons are dependent upon a proper balance between explanation and application. The value of expository preaching is that it keeps the sermon rooted deeply in the biblical text. It is a strong antidote to the poison of topical/felt need/fluffy preaching. That being said, however, this approach comes with its own inherent danger—the temptation to turn the preaching event into an information dump. All of us have experienced this type of preaching. We came away with copious notes, but little else. Our aversion to the self-help, psychological model of preaching that is stunting the spiritual growth of the church is understandable. Yet, if that model reveals anything, it reveals that people are hungry for God’s help in their lives. As a result, we must work diligently to handle scripture carefully (2 Tim. 2:15). God’s word was given to produce spiritual transformation. Transformation requires the appropriate application of truth. This, then, is the ultimate goal of expository preaching—to explain and apply God’s truth for the contemporary listener.
Fifth, and finally, strong expository sermons are dependent upon a proper understanding of communication theory. We are living in a transitional period in human history. After centuries of literary expansion, we are receding back to a more oral approach to language and learning. Today, far more people get their information through TV, movies, music, and Internet media arts than through reading books. While most in the US have a rudimentary ability to read (6th grade level or less), they are choosing to get their information primarily through visual formats. This trend has major implications for the preaching. Fortunately, God has given us a book that is loaded with stories that were first shared in oral contexts. This means that we have orality at our fingertips when we read the Bible. The challenge for preachers is learning to incorporate aspects of orality into our preaching. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you craft your expository sermons.
• Keep the sermon idea in mind at all times. It’s the one thing you want your listener to remember. Don’t overload your listener with unnecessary data. Focus on the main idea and drive it home.
• Use story as the primary illustration option in your sermons. People love stories, and they’re wired to remember them. These stories may be biblical, fictional, historical, or personal, but they will help your audience remain engaged in the sermon event.
• Remember that the goal of every sermon is transformation. As a result, think about the ways in which the text has been given by God to effect life-change. Everything from development through delivery must be directed towards its application to the listener.
These ideas barely scratch the surface of the way in which communication theory influences expository preaching. However, failure to consider them will have a negative impact on your preaching.
I remain convinced that expository preaching is the best model for teaching the whole council of God and growing healthy Christ-followers in our churches. Let’s continue to work hard at studying, crafting, and delivering strong expository sermons for the glory of God!
Dr. Bill Curtis is the founding pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Darlington, SC., where he has served for 10 years. He has a heart for church planting, having led his church to plant four churches to date. Currently, he serves as Vice-Chairman of the Board of NACPF. He also serves as an adjunctive professor of Homiletics at SEBTS and Liberty Seminary. Bill and Lyla have two daughters, Cherie Scholes and Cassie Curtis.
[i] Danny Akin, Bill Curtis, Stephen Rummage, Engaging Exposition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2011), Part one, Ch. 5. [ii] Ibid. For an explanation of the principles of hermeneutics, see Engaging Exposition, part one, chapter four. [iii] Ibid, Part one, Ch. 10. [iv] Michael Fabarez, Preaching That Changes Lives (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 58. [v] Ibid., 59.