In another of these ramblings I opined that telling a compelling story will often more than compensate for any “sins” of presentation. That is, if our story is good enough, people are willing to overlook “poor” writing, suspect grammar and stilted wording. I went on to suggest that we could improve our expository speaking and teaching by using elements of story in it. In my opinion, doing so would certainly make it a lot more interesting.
About the time I wrote that my wife and I had dinner with some long-time friends. During our conversation they mentioned that they missed hearing expository sermons. At the church they attend expository speaking is unknown – everything is topical.
This is nothing unusual. In my experience, it is the same in the majority of the churches with which I am familiar. Our friends speculated that the reason for this is that these preachers and teachers were trained to speak topically in Bible College. They don’t know how to do anything else. It wouldn’t surprise me if our friends are right. It certainly seems like those coming from the schools associated with our spiritual heritage tend to follow the same patterns in their pulpits. If this supposition is true, it’s disheartening to consider that the training people receive in Bible College is so limited. It’s even more disheartening to realize that so many are seemingly incapable of growing beyond the limitations of their education.
Actually, I suspect the situation is even worse. As we were talking it occurred to me that many preachers and teachers may not even realize that something other than topical speaking exists. They don’t know what expository speaking is. Back in 2006 my wife and I had a hand in starting a new congregation. Instead of having one main speaker, several of us would take turns. We all agreed that the majority of our speaking would be expository. However, it soon became apparent that some of the men didn’t really understand what expository speaking is. They approached the biblical text as though they were preparing a topical sermon. It took a bit of explaining before everyone caught on.
Advantages Of Expository Speaking
What are some of the advantages of expository speaking? One of the great advantages of expository speaking is that topics are covered in the same order and context as the Holy Spirit revealed them. Not only are a great many topics covered, but balance is maintained between them.
Another advantage for those who must speak regularly is that it simplifies the decision about choosing what to say. If one is systematically following a text, the next message will continue from where the previous message left off.
It also allows the speaker to deal with difficult or controversial subjects without being accused of choosing topics with malicious intent. No one can complain if a particular topic comes up in the normal course of events while systematically following the text of a Bible book.
Similarly, the speaker will not have to wrack his brain to find a topic on which to speak. Topics will be determined by the text.
Following a text in this way also preserves the continuity of Scripture. Systematically going through a text follows the original progression from one theme or topic to the next.
Another advantage to this kind of speaking is that it simplifies planning both for the speaker and all those who must coordinate with him. Once a series covering a particular text has been announced, everyone knows what the next lesson or sermon will be about – it will cover the next portion of the text.
What It Ain’t
That’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t explain what expository speaking is. Before defining it, let’s talk about what expository speaking isn’t.
1) Expository speaking is not the same as topical speaking. As suggested by their name, topical sermons are messages on a particular subject. At times our congregations need instruction or teaching about a particular issue. At times it is appropriate to speak on a certain subject because of events which have impacted the church family. For example, if there has been a tragic death in the body, the congregation may need a message which encourages and/or reminds the people of the hope we have in Christ.
While topical sermons are sometimes needed, there are potential dangers in relying on them too much. One potential problem relates to our weaknesses as presenters. No matter who we are, we have preferences and prejudices. Speakers, sometimes without even realizing they are doing it, have a tendency to prepare messages on the subjects which are dear to their own hearts. A speaker may also be tempted to present messages which are popular and avoid controversy. In the same way, we have a tendency to avoid certain topics. Speakers sometimes avoid certain subjects out of the fear of criticism.
The idea for a topical sermon may come from anywhere. In fact, this may be another danger. It can be tempting to present ideas and thoughts which we have gleaned from secular or worldly sources rather than God’s word. Some speakers decide what they wish to say and then try to find passages of Scripture from which they can justify what they present.
Sometimes a verse or passage of Scripture will suggest a particular topic. In fact, this is one of the best ways to choose a topic. Although the speaker does not explain or apply the Scripture which suggested the topic, at least the topic is biblical. Typically, the speaker will use the verse which suggested his topic as the launch-pad for the rest of his message. And if the speaker goes on to present what the Bible says regarding that topic, then his message fills a useful and needed function. However, this highlights another potential problem with topical sermons. In pursuing our topic we must be very careful not to take the passages which mention the topic out of context. It is very easy to make the Scriptures say things they do not by ignoring the context.
2) Expository speaking is different than what books on sermon preparation call “textual” speaking. In a textual sermon a speaker will explain a single verse or thought from the Bible. Such sermons can be very beneficial – particularly when they explain a principle or concept. As with topical sermons, however, the speaker does not explain the context of the verse he presents. His message is limited to that one verse though he may reference many other verses to help develop the theme. The danger of this method is that our explanation of the text may not be totally accurate or complete because we have not paid sufficient attention to the verses which come before or which follow our chosen text.
What It Is
So what is “expository” speaking?
Definition: A systematic explanation of a biblical text with the intent of applying it in our personal or corporate daily life.
‘Systematic’ – An expository message presents biblical truth in the same order as in the text upon which it is based. A series of expository messages progress through a book or long passage in order – the next message beginning where the prior one ended.
‘Explanation of a biblical text’ – The subject of an expository message is the biblical text itself. The meaning of the text is explained rather than using the text to illuminate a subject. Subjects will certainly be addressed in an expository message, but only within the context of the passage being discussed.
‘With the intent of applying it’ – An expository message will contain many facts; people will learn many things about the Bible. Though worthwhile, increasing people’s biblical knowledge is not the main purpose of expository speaking. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “…Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV) Instead, the intent and purpose of expository messages is to make the Scriptures practical. It is to teach principles which people can incorporate into their lives which will help them become more like Christ. It is to equip them for service in God’s Kingdom.
Many speakers avoid this type of message because they find it the most difficult type to prepare. It requires much study and thought to accurately present the meaning of the section of Scripture chosen for the message. The text also constricts and confines what the speaker may say – he is bound by the words of the passage under consideration. He is not free to go off on flights of fancy as he is while presenting topical messages.
I will use Ephesians 2:1-10 to illustrate the three different types of sermons.
While reading verse 10, the phrase ‘good works’ catches the eye. This might raise the question what ‘good works’ are. To find the answer a person would look up every verse good works are mentioned and prepare a message on the subject of good works. The verse in Ephesians has only suggested the topic. Neither it or the context will be explained in the message.
In contrast to a topical message on ‘good works’ a textual message would explain the whole of verse 10. A possible outline of such a message would be:
1) God created us
2) God’s purpose in creating us
3) Prepared in advance
In such a message verse 10 is considered in isolation. The surrounding verses are ignored. By ignoring context the presenter runs the risk of missing the greater purpose of the verse even though he has explained its meaning.
In contrast to a textual sermon, an expository message will explain an entire thought or a whole line of reasoning rather than a single verse. In this case, an expository message would include the entire passage of Ephesians 2:1-10 instead of just verse 10. A possible outline for such a message is as follows:
1) We were dead (Ephesians 2:1-3)
2) God made us alive (Ephesians 2:4-5)
3) The reason God made us alive (Ephesians 2:6-7)
4) The means by which God made us alive (Ephesians 2:8-9)
5) Our response to being made alive (Ephesians 2:10)
I imagine that one of the reasons expository speaking has a poor reputation is that some speakers have the unfortunate tendency to forget the purpose of it. Their messages are scholarly commentaries in verbal form. They shower their audience with Greek and Hebrew words and the intricacies of grammar. Granted, there is a time and place where explaining the nuances of a word is helpful, or even necessary – particularly when there is no exact equivalent in English. There is a place to mention grammar – for example, to show the difference between a statement of fact and a command. But, particularly in a church setting, the purpose of expository speaking should always be to impact the lives of the hearers rather than to show off the erudition of the speaker.
Yes, expository messages are a commentary – of a sort. However, they should fall toward the practical end of the spectrum rather than the scholarly. For an example of how it should be done, consider how Jesus did it. When Jesus gave the parable of the sower, His audience didn’t understand the message. So, when they asked Him what it meant, He explained the meaning. He didn’t launch into a treatise on agriculture. He didn’t go into clinical detail about the causes of unbelief. He didn’t expound on how Satan influences the natural order of creation. He simply explained what each metaphor stood for. He then applied the teaching by asking each hearer to evaluate where he stood in relation to the spiritual conditions the metaphors describe.
It is my opinion that when we follow the same pattern by explaining Scripture in simple terms people can understand, and show people how the text applies to their own situation, our messages will come alive. I also believe that our churches will develop more depth and spiritual growth because we are intentional about implanting the Word into our hearts and lives.