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July 27, 2006


Glenn, I like most of what Fitch says. But I think your take on it is right where I am too. Where Fitch is mistaken is on his portrayal of expository preaching. I think he only really speaks about one caricature of exp preaching. He is putting his "best" vs. expository preaching's "worst." A bit unfair, though I do think his other points should be heard.

My style of expository preaching (I preach mostly through passages and books, the point of the passage is point of the message, etc) actually fits well with what he prescribes. I think a Keller-like expository preaching (Driscoll too) is very Fitchian.

Like you, I appreciate much of what Fitch says in the articles, and I think his second post is the more helpful of the two.

Maybe I'm at fault for focusing on his inaccuracies instead of where I agree with him.

Part of my defensiveness about expository preaching-- not that it is always and everywhere the ONLY way to preach God's Word-- is from being 1) a sociologist of religion who does a lot of formal and informal field work in visiting churches and 2) one who runs a research company that provides customized sermon research for pastors.

Putting 1 and 2 together, I travel a lot and observe a LOT of churches, primarily in evangelical circles. These days mostly what I hear is 1) shallow preaching that mostly emphasizes practicals and 2) stories almost exclusively about the preacher. I think stories about the pastor are great but when the almost every illustration is about the pastor....it can seem a bit narcissistic. The personal stories are a GOOD thing, but is it possible that it can be overdone? Some pastors I've heard apparently reject the notion that telling personal stories can be overdone.

So when most of what I hear in my travels is shallow, sometimes intellectually vacuous talks about pop culture and helps, swaddled in personal stories by the preacher, I think, "Why did we lose teaching the Bible? What is so weak about God's Word that we think we can't teach it? Why do we refer to the Scriptures a time or two, and then put them on the shelf while we spend most of our time expressing our creativity? I'm all for clever, creative speech that connects where people live, but I have this old fashioned sensibility that believes that the Spirit-breathed Scriptures can make us "wise unto salvation," and can teach, rebuke, correct and train us in righteousness. Why not MORE of God's Word and less of our stories & creativity.

There was a preacher I heard a lot of in mid-to-late 1980s named Edwin Young. I still have tapes from those years. What I remember, and what I hear when I play those tapes (yes,I continue to listen to those messages), is a preacher who believed God's Word and applied superbly gifted creativity to expositing God's Word. It was great preaching of God's Word, and Christians grew up in the Lord through that preaching, and hundreds and hundreds came to new faith. I remember thinking, the Holy Spirit is working through this preaching and through the Scriptures and CHANGING lives.

I hear some of that kind of preaching today, but in my travels it's not common.

Mostly I find myself asking, "Which is more potent, the preacher with his pop culture references and personal stories and simple practicals, or God's Word exposited?"

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Glenn, I'm in agreement with you in finding overly expository preaching empty. Also, I can't get into a sermon when the preacher focuses entirely on their own story--I want the message to go deeper. My question: is it about the spirit? And if so, what does it take for a pastor to be a "spirited" preacher (obviously they have to be in touch with the Lord...)? I know that I try to be open to whatever's on offer in church, but that some preachers are really engaging and others are hard to hear. Your take on this would be of interest, since you said (above) that you travel around observing sermons and services. So, if someone's trying to preach, and they have the ingredients (scriptures, maybe a story or two) do they need to get in to the spirit to be effective? can a preacher have matter (verses, etc) without spirit? and: how does that work with people who purchase sermon-helps? I'm really interested in this, now that you've written about it--


I really enjoyed those Fitch posts.

This is a good quote: "Preachers must resist all modernist temptations to see the Scriptures as a propositional textbook of religious facts. Scripture is real accounts, testimonies, and witnesses of God’s people. It is alive. So let’s read and speak as ones invited to participate in the continuation of all this story!"

Amen. But I wonder if his point would be better made against overemphasizing doctrinal texts at the expense of less propositional genres. It's hard for me to understand how preaching the best-written narratives and poetry in the history of the world falls short of "funding imagination." But I'm likely missing his point.

I don't think I have a good answer for your question. As I understand Reformed theology, all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit but we move between different degrees of what John Owen (among others) called motification of the flesh.

While God the Holy Spirit is always sovereign over believers' lives, it seems He does part of His work in conjunction with our submission to Him (and that submission on our part is also in response to Spirit grace).

We are to walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and maybe that's what you mean by your language of "be in the Spirit". Evangelicals talk casually about unction and anointing, and our preachers typically pray for the Spirit's enablement before they preach.

Your question gets at the heart of an old debate about whether the Scriptures are efficacious in and of themselves, or are the Scriptures impotent without the accompanying work of the Holy Spirit. Barth's formulation was that the Scriptures "become" the Word of God in the preaching event, so that Christians are to "listen for" the Word of God mysteriously communicated through that preaching event.

The traditional perspective in the Church has been that the Scriptures ARE the Word of God and so Christians listen TO (not "for") the Word of God.

While the traditional perspective resonates more with me than Barth's view, I want also to say that we live our Christian lives in and by the Holy Spirit. He illumines, convicts of sin, and brings to mind the Word of God and guides us into all rightousness. Jesus says apart from Him we can do nothing, and by that I understand Him to mean we can do nothing apart from Christ's empowering, enabling Spirit.

I really, really like this post. I suppose I am in the same vain as most people that visit this site in terms of appreciating and being ministered to by good, grace & truth filled, God-centered expository preaching.

It seems like so often I ask my friends who sit under topical preaching, "so what was the sermon about?" 90% of the time they forgot. They might have a story or two to speak of, however biblical truths lead by the teaching of the Word are a distant third to stories and feeling good about themselves. I think we would all agree that this could happen in both settings, topical/entertainment and expository/seminary-like sermons. However, I would much, much rather chance people being bored and grabbing some biblical teaching than being entertained and knowing more self-puffing stories about the speaker of the day.

The part that really stuck out to me was Fitch's observation about the individual. As I'm constantly learning about ministry to post-moderns, dealing with the autonomous self seems crucial. I guess it's one reason why I was so jazzed about the upcoming Desiring God Conference in late September. I would also say that going through Escape From Reason has been "enlightening" with understanding the process Western's have gone through in the past 400 years.

Anyways, back on task. I like how Fitch brings up the individual and the perpetuation that can happen of that mentality. It does seem to me that expository can kill communal study and discovery of the Word. People leave the sanctuary thinking "its been interpreted for me and the rest of the congregation, so where's Panara?"

Glen, here are some questions that I'm curious about:
1) would you say that expository preaching typically yields individualistic or communal congregations? And what are some good and bad examples?

2) did you have to look up "anachronism"? <-- impressed ;)

3) what are some of those late 20th century examples that you would put out there as contributing to a digression of community building, expository preaching?

Question 1) was asked because of your extensive travels to many congregations.

I'm late here, but GL, if Edwin Young = Ed Young from Second Baptist in Houston... then Amen. He is one of my heros in preaching - it was under his ministry that I recieved my call to preach. Great stuff.

Great questions. I don't think a culture of individualism or a culture of communalism is, like most aspects of culture, complicated and multi-causal. I don't think any form of preaching alone, or even in the main, could be identified as the lead instigator of individualism or communalism.

Off the top of my head I would say that American culture has become highly individualistic, and thus the preaching that grows in the soil of American culture (thus including the Church in America) is likely to be heavily infected by individualism. So expository preaching or any kind of preaching that unconsciously arises in our individualistic culture is likely to reflect and perpetuate that individualism.

Culture is shaped by humans and also shapes humans. Both shaped and shaping occur ongoingly.

I'm more concerned about preaching or communicating that is based on a celebrity model. Many (not all) large churches foster a cult of personality around a charismatic, strong central pastor. Sometimes the pastors may not like this but sometimes the pastors probably encourage the cult of celebrity built around them. Look at how much of a church's communication of itself is centered around the pastor and you know whether the pastor encourages the cult of personality. Some might want to debate me on this, but I think pastors who encourage or allow the cult of personality are engaged in idolatry-- not only do they idolize themselves but also so they incite idolatry among their followers. You know what God thinks of idolatry.

Regarding examples, I think it wisest for me not to "name names". For one, as my old pastor used to say, "All the returns are not in yet." That was his way of saying critics often criticize without having access to all relevant data. For two, my act of "naming names" would be hurtful. For three, better to encourage and love and build bridges among the body than to throw rocks.

Question 2: no, I didn't have to look it up. :)

Question 3: again, while part of me wants to finger pastors and churches that I think are culpable in fueling the already frenzied culture of consumerism in our society, I think it would hurt, cause division, etc. If I ever have an opportunity to make suggestions to some of these pastors (and I probably won't because they're big names and I'm a nobody), I will privately seek to entice them to let go of methods that foster individualism and consumerism and to embrace perspectives that build the Kingdom community.

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