Text or Passage?

I have a confession. I am something of an old fashioned preacher. I’m not very good at the modern therapeutic motivational talk. If I can’t start with the Scriptures then I have no idea where to start! That means, I am by default an expository preacher. Now, outside certain circles that doesn’t win you an audience and, to be fair, I’ve heard some terrible expository sermons in which the preacher did little more than read the passage back to the congregation line by line as if we couldn’t read it for ourselves! Having said that, I’ve also heard too many sermons where after 30 minutes the preacher remembers they haven’t read the Bible, reads out a passage that has no relation to the rest of the talk and then carries on without another reference to the passage. They might deliver a great talk, but in my book at least, you can’t call that a sermon!

I say that because I’m an expository preacher out of theological conviction! I believe that Jesus Christ as attested to by Holy Scripture is the Word of God and therefore people don’t want to hear my thoughts they want to hear what God is saying to them through the Scriptures. But what does that look like in practice?

One thing I find interesting is this: modern expository preaching is quite different from traditional expository preaching. Today, what is considered a good expository sermon will be shaped by the structure, flow, and argument of the passage. The emphases of the sermon will be the emphases of the passage and the application of the sermon will be the application of the passage. This modern approach was made popular in the UK and the US by two great British preachers. John Stott at All Souls Langham Place and Dick Lucas at St Helen’s Bishopsgate were both incredible preachers who defined a movement and continue to exert a huge influence today. Tim Keller, for example often acknowledges the influence of Lucas on his own preaching.

But this approach is something of a departure from the older evangelical tradition of preaching from a text; a single verse. Read any sermon by some of the great preachers of the past such as George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd Jones and you find they tend to preach verses rather than passages of Scripture. Now, obviously this has both pros and cons.

Preaching from a passage ensures your own thoughts and ideas, your hobby horses and hidden agendas are all held in check. It is often said that preachers all have one talk in them. Modern expository preaching extends the range just a little bit! I do wonder though whether the modern expository sermon asks too much of both the preacher and their congregation. Pulling together the flow of a complex passage into a compelling whole is extremely difficult and I have heard enough awkward, unwieldy wooden sermons to know not everyone can do what Stott and Lucas did, or what Keller does. There can be such a determination to faithfully expound the text that the congregation hear a flat, dry exposition of the passage rather than a sermon, with so many points that no one remembers any of them even if all of them are alliterated! This sort of preaching can be overly dependent on the delivery and personality of the preacher.

In contrast, preaching from a verse simplifies matter significantly both for the preacher and the congregation. I realise there is a risk the preacher hangs all their theology onto every verse, but that is not what Spurgeon did. He still did the hard exegetical graft but he boiled his sermon down until it was sweetly concentrated in one simple point from one verse that everyone could take home. If you’re a preacher who finds it difficult to wrestle a whole passage of Scripture to the ground, try preaching from a text or verse for a change. See how it effects your preparation.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not saying stop preaching passages and start preaching verses. For me, the issue is not whether we preach from a passage or from a verse. I enjoy preaching through passages and preaching on verses. I enjoy listening to both types of expository preaching too. I suspect a mixed economy is the way forward. We do both at St Paul’s. The real issue is how many points we make in the sermon. I am increasingly convinced that the three point sermon has had it’s day. It is just too much to ask of the congregation. A good sermon should have only one point that is driven home throughout the sermon, whether the preacher is preaching a verse or a passage.

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