The Myth of Expository Preaching & the Commodification of the Word

The summer issue of Leadership, due in mailboxes soon, will focus on the impact of consumerism on our faith and ministries. To get the conversation started, in this post, pastor/professor and regular Ur contributor David Fitch discusses how expository preaching can make Scripture into a commodity that people consume. You can read more about Fitch's critique of consumer driven ministry at his blog, The Great Giveaway.

There is a myth surrounding expository preaching among North American evangelicals. It goes like this: if the preacher follows the text more closely in his preaching, both he/she and the congregation will stay true to the Word of God. No other agendas or human wisdom will slither into the preaching. Implied is, if the preacher but applies the exegetical historical-critical skills learned in seminary and studies the text in its original language, (s)he can arrive at the meaning of the text all by him/herself. This is the mythology I believe is behind expository preaching in the evangelical world.

Why do I label this a mythology? Well first of all, the historical-critical method in the hands of individuals has not yielded a singular meaning as "intended by the author" in over 100 years. Instead what we have is thousands of commentaries on the Bible that present numerous unresolved options for interpreting practically every verse in the Bible. Historical-critical exegesis hasn't generated more unity over Scripture; it has generated less.

In reality what guides interpretation is not individual analysis of the text. It is the broad consensus interpretation for the biblical texts found in the ongoing history of church doctrine. The myth that expository preaching is more faithful to the text is simply not true. There is plenty room for all kinds of human interpretation even within expository preaching.

Even if we could agree that each individual mind under the Holy Spirit can come to the one propositional meaning for the text using exegesis, we cannot assume then that these truths as communicated by the preacher will necessarily be heard as the same to every listener in the pew. As Derrida reminds us, repetition never leads to the "same." Each idea is heard in terms of each hearer's context. The person in the pew takes notes, selects what he or she hears for special notation, and walks away with "the nugget" for the day that can best support his or her current life or context.

Every preacher has had the experience of greeting people after church who thank him/her for what the sermon said. Then the preacher is stunned to hear they took something from the sermon totally different than (s)he had intended. So even if there were a stable authorial meaning inherent to the text, it still could not be communicated intact in the ways expository preaching assumes.

July 03, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 35 comments

Jennifer Goss

January 15, 2015  3:03am

I should also mention that, among all the topical and expository sermons I have heard, the error rate for expository seems to be higher. [Though, I would say the error rate for topical is about the same as expository when it comes to sermons geared towards youth/college age]. This perception may be as simple as it is easier to catch error in an expository sermon, but I do not think so. In most topical sermons, there is a great deal of scripture that correlates with other scripture, pulling out a harmonious whole. In expository, cross-references can be under-utilized or even ignored. This often leads to chewing on a passage without understanding how terms are used elsewhere in scripture. Oddly enough, I have caught far more science and history errors in expository sermons as well. This is not to say that topical sermons are without their own weaknesses, but I do think the idea that expository = more accurate is a myth.

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Jennifer Goss

January 15, 2015  2:54am

I have attended services and Bible studies with many different church groups over my life, and as such have been exposed to many different types of preaching. I believe in-depth expository works best in a Bible Study format, vs. preaching, as there is more time for discussion, looking at cross-references, etc. The ideal for sermons is probably a mix of expository and topical. Every topical study should be scripture based and include context/history, and every expository sermon should pull back to the larger picture and include application. However, the 'style' of preaching usually is only a problem if it goes to the extreme (either way). For lack of space I will focus on problems of *extreme*-expository: - Hiding relevant verses to the passage - Hiding relevant history - Ignoring context - Declaring personal opinion as 'gospel truth' - Looking down on topical preachers - Preaching that expository is the only correct/Biblical style - Lack of application - Personality cult can develop

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Robert Barnes

August 09, 2006  8:15am

Just a couple of "points." First, Without revelation from the Holy Spirit, no sermon is productive. Secondly, the letter to the Ephesians teaches us that the primary function of the "gifts to the church" is not to "wow" or "educate" the congregation, but to prepare the listeners for the work of "the ministry." I do not claim infalibility, but think I rely on the Holy Spirit to lead me into my sermon preparation. When I refer to the earlier theologians, it is to see if what I am teaching lines up with what has already been revealed or is being revealed to the church. Sometimes I "switch" methodology depending on what I think I hear the Holy Spirit saying. Our congregation (smallish) knows that I not only "allow," but encourage interruption for clarification, as does our adult Sunday School teacher. I am not sure I see any fault in this method. Blessings and peace to you all.

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Jeremy Pierce

August 01, 2006  5:19pm

Nice straw man. If I didn't know what expository preaching was, I might have been convinced. Unfortunately, I've experienced expository preaching, and what you describe is what I would constrast expository preaching with.

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Robert Campbell

July 28, 2006  10:35pm

Good beginning to a healthy conversation. This would be an unfortunate ending, however. I am exploring some of these same ideas for a DMin dissertation at ACTS Seminaries at Trinity Western University and have initiated some thoughts on my own blog in what I call preaching from the middle. I would maintain that while the expository preacher does bring his own ideas in, just as is said here, it nonetheless will follow the text more closely than many other forms of preaching because it, well, follows the text. If anyone has not headed over to David's blog yet, then be sure to do so.

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Jason Hesiak

July 24, 2006  11:33am

Please, whoever does it, stop referring to the preaching of Jesus or those around his time as "expository preaching". Good gosh. I mean, if you enjoy expository preaching, great. You get more from it than I, which is fine sometimes I suppose. But jeez, that doesn't mean that Jesus did it. I would explain what I mean, but it is a bit complex, and I already did it once from Dave's other blog here:

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Brian Hawes

July 13, 2006  1:45pm

As I was reading the blog post and the accompanying commentaries, some thoughts struck me. The primary one - each person who responded did so through the filters of their own bias. As much was read into what was written as is also read into our sermons when we preach. We've got to understand that, as God has made each one of us differently, we will all preach differently. I tend to preach more topically, but I also preach through whole books. Either form I preach I always approach it expositorily - what does the passage say? What does it mean? What of my biases am I reading into it? How does the Holy Spirit want this truth communicated? How can we apply this truth to our daily lives? What does God want us to believe, feel or do because of this passage? What it all boils down to is that all biblical preaching deals with these issues in every sermon. One form is not better than another. What matters is that we are true to the Word and to the Spirit's leading. People in our churches are going to look at it through their own biases. Those we can't control. But God's Spirit can use our preaching to replace those biases with His own. So let's get along on the playground. The Church doesn't need pastors overanalyzing and/or criticizing what each other is doing. Let's allow Christ to make our one and only bias - becoming more and more like Him.

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Jere Phillips

July 12, 2006  9:19am

It is unfortunate that Leadership mag chooses to give a high profile to attacks on expository preaching. Like so many associated with the emerging church "conversation" this article sets up straw men and knocks them down without an op ed opportunity for debate. In this case, the writer equates expository preaching with "one man show" preaching, and argues nicely for a community approach like Doug Pagitt's progressional dialogue. In reality, the basic premise applies to topical preaching or needs-based contemporary preaching. The issues are separate. First, is a sermon developed in "community" superior to one developed by a "preacher?" No. This premise assumes that the Man of God is just a guy like anyone else without a unique calling to do what he does. The writer also blatantly mocks the working of the Holy Spirit. If he has such a low view of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit, simply increasing the number of people involved will not solve the problem. Second, is expository preaching deficient? No. The preacher does not presume that "all by himself" he can find the one, only, indisputable truth without regard for anyone else. This is the same silly argument that most postmoderns make – that if you cannot find the ultimate truth, you cannot find any truth. The truth is ... pun intended ... that at least with expository preaching you start with the Word of God and make an honest attempt at exposing the truth as closely as you can get to the original author's intention, and then make application and illustration to aid the listeners in making the Word live in their lives. On the other hand, in topical preaching or in progressional dialogue, the beginning place is not the Bible, but the person – or in this writer's opinion, the community. Frankly, I'd prefer at least to try to follow Paul's admonition, "Preach the Word."

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Gary Smitham

July 12, 2006  2:32am

To exposit is to "lay open", "explain", to illustrate, to interpret, (in context) from the undiluted beauty of the inspired Word of God. It is not the only way to communicate truth, but it is an important and biblical method, that is readily useable by the Holy Spirit, and pleasing to God. Perhaps I am too simple for such articles or ideas, but to speak of the "myth" of expository preaching, and then waffle on about nothing...I'm not impressed, but not surprised these days.

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Count Grecula

July 08, 2006  12:24am

It seems to me that expository preaching is based in a thouroughly modern mind-set that seeks to scientifically examine scripture. In theory it seems one does not even have to be a believer in any sense, just educated in the relevant disciplines. Likewise, it implies a scientific response from the listener, perhaps similar to the response expected by watching "An Incovenient Truth". Rationality is not bad, and I remain convinced that it is important to try to get as close as possible to the original intended meaning of the text. That is difficult to do. Preaching is a creative act, and as such is subject to influences that are relational, human and not objectively "scientific". Preachers are not the only ones to be surprised at what people get out of their sermons; songwriters and filmakers get that too ( I know from experience). I'm curious what " in and through the community of the Spirit" means. I've come to the conclusion that evangelicals in particular just place too much importance on preaching. That's why I've ended up in the Anglican Church where there is a much greater emphasis on the sacrament of Communion. I still like there to be an attempt at a sermon that is learned as well as humbly submitted as the Word of God to that particular people for that Sunday.

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