I love to preach. Arguably, I love to preach more than I love to teach. Yes, there is a difference. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

I graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) in 2001 with my ThM. I had a double major in New Testament and in Pastoral Ministries. The pastoral ministries department is concerned with practical hands-on training such as the teaching process, leadership development, and counseling. I even had to take a course in the use of media (which came down to how to create a proper PowerPoint presentation). They were all great courses which I often return to for sage advice.

However, the gem of the pastoral ministries department at DTS was the preaching courses. There were a lot of things to fear at seminary (not the least of which was Dan Wallace’s Advanced Greek Grammar course), but nothing more so than the day you had to give you sermon in front of the students and the professor. After your “masterpiece” was delivered, you had to sit through the critique of students (who were just as green as you) and a professor (who was paid to find out what you did wrong). The professor would share how you fell on your face with the whole class using you as an object lesson! Many of us would pray for the rapture just before the critique began.

Above all else, when you graduated from DTS, you were a man who preached (or a woman who “shared”) the word of God. No, not your own thoughts. Not your weekend story about how camping trips can go bad. Not four illustrations from the Bible about how to have a godly marriage. Not even your conversion story. But you were prepared to “preach the word.” We did not preach from the word. We did simply use the word in our preaching. We did not illustrate using the Bible. We preached the word.

Expositional Preaching vs. Topical Preaching

You have not heard about this debate? Come on . . . Let me introduce you to a debate that rivals the number of dispensations, the five points of Calvinism, and, yea, even the six days of creation.

Expositional preaching: preaching through the word of God, verse by verse.

Topical preaching: using God’s word as a springboard to preach on relevant topics.

(You can see the bias of my training coming through here).

Topical preaching focused on the felt needs of the church while expositional preaching let the word of God determine the needs. How is that for another jaundiced comparison? But, hey, I am a DTS product. What do you expect? How about some Martyn Lloyd Jones to get my back?

“One advantage in preaching through a book of the Bible… is that it compels us to face every single statement, come what may, and stand before it, and look at it, and allow it to speak to us. Indeed it is interesting to observe that not infrequently certain well-known Bible teachers never face certain Epistles at all in their expositions because there are difficulties which they are resolved to avoid.”

In truth, while I am not on any mission against topical preaching (for I do taste of its sweetness every once in a while), I am an advocate of expositional preaching. While very few have ever dared to implement true comprehensive expositional preaching (how of us preach through Leviticus or Numbers?), it does allow the Bible to determine the needs of the audience. Preaching the “whole council” of the word of God does compel us to come head to head with many issues that we would otherwise skip over due to confusion, seeming irrelevance, and controversy.

In other words, I agree, promote, and defend a ministry defined primarily by expositional preaching.

However, expositional preaching is not enough. As much as those of my ilk like to take pride in our stance of staying true to the word of God, we need to recognize that expositional preaching is only a small element of the educational program of the church. Alone, yes, it is better, in my opinion, for the Christian disciple to sit under expositional preaching rather than topical preaching. But lets get real: on a scale of 1-10, it moves us from a 3 to a 5.

I have seen Christians who have sat under expositional preaching all their lives and not been able to answer basic questions such as How did we get our Bible? Why do you have sixty-six books in the Scripture? What are the essentials of the faith? How do you know the Christ story is not myth? Why are there so many different Christian traditions? And (ironically) Why do you believe in expositional preaching? To which they respond “expo-what?”

It is not “expositional” that is at fault, it is “preaching.” Really, what I am saying is that preaching is not enough.

I love to preach. Arguably, I love to preach more than I love to teach. Yes, there is a difference. Yes, there needs to be. I do not wish the pulpit to turn into the lectern anymore than I wish the lectern to turn into the pulpit. Preaching has a prophetic aura about it that teaching does not. Preaching is more about conviction than it is about education. People go to a sermon to hear how they are to change their lives. People go to a classroom to be challenged to change their minds. In the sermon, people learn how to behave. In teaching, people learn how to think. Preaching is about establishing people in truth. Teaching is about challenging people in truth. Yes, there is always going to be some teaching in preaching as there is always going to be some preaching in teaching. But they are not the same and they should not be combined. The church needs to have both.

However, in my experience, I have found a famine of good teaching in many of the most revered expositional churches. Many expositional churches’ pews are filled with people who have been indoctrinated for years through good preaching with no avenue to challenge their beliefs in such a way to make them established. Their beliefs remain planted in good soil, but the soil is only an inch deep. When they go to the university and finally have their minds challenged through education, they are forced to choose between the education and critical thinking of the university and the years of sermons whose assumptions have been left unchallenged for over a decade. The teachings of the church are demoted to a sort of deuterocanonical (second-canon) status to the protocanonical (first-canon) status of the university. And you know what eventually wins?

The consequence for the church is alarming. In a recent study about American spirituality 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion (up from 11 percent in 1990). Most importantly, this study found that 73 percent of those that claimed no religion came from religious homes (often reared expositional preaching Evangelical churches). Sixty-six percent of these were described as “de-converts” (source). Drew Dyck identifies a major factor of leaving the church as intellectual challenges faced after they have entered these formative years (source).

But I don’t need these studies to tell me that churches suffer from a lack of intellectual engagement of their minds. I face this fact every day through encounters with those who are desperately seeking to hold on to their faith while scratching their head during expositional sermons. They are created by God to be critical, but often God’s people won’t allow such. There needs to be a place where tough questions can be asked, their faith can be challenged, and their minds can be engaged at a whole different level than the expositional sermon affords.

Those who are from traditions like mine who pride themselves in their preaching style are to be commended much for their commitment to the word of God (I don’t mean to undermine this at all), but they need to seriously consider if expositional preaching is really enough. Truth needs to be preached and taught. The two work together if they work at all.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    21 replies to "Is Expositional Preaching Really Enough?"

    • Lisa Robinson

      Excellent! I have observed, and could be wrong, that churches, in general, are moving away from cathechesis and Christian education. Yet, it is as much needed for discipleship as being exhorted through preaching. This article points to the fact that we need both, especially this statement

      “In the sermon, people learn how to behave. In teaching, people learn how to think. Preaching is about establishing people in truth. Teaching is about challenging people in truth. Yes, there is always going to be some teaching in preaching as there is always going to be some preaching in teaching. But they are not the same and they should not be combined. The church needs to have both.”

    • Nazaroo

      What would a full wholistic sermon look like?

      With today’s uninformed listeners, it would in part begin with teaching.

      Like Stephen’s Sermon, it would recount, recall, and inform the ignorant of basic historical facts, in the story of God’s interaction and covenants with man.

      Then it would move; move to what you call topical preaching: current events, like the Crucifixion and Resurrection, like the miraculous healing of a cripple in downtown Jerusalem, of which the hearers are all witnesses.

      In today’s world, that speech would discuss major world events of similar magnitude, discuss the signs spoken of by Jesus, and expounded in detail by John the Seer. The words of God would come alive, confronting and convicting the audience, for it would emphasize fornication, drug abuse including alcohol, prostitution and warfare for profit.

      Finally, the speaker would move into the Expositional preaching realm, plowing directly into subjects and crises that people everywhere are hoping to avoid entirely, like what they should do now, in response.

      All the while this preaching, this Gospel, would hammer home the fundamentals, like repentance, turning from sin, making restitution for damages, rebuilding the community of believers, assigning emergency tasks like redistribution of goods and services, and above all loving God by loving one’s neighbours in need, extending charity outside the body of Christ, to further the reputation of the message of Jesus.

      Soon the crowd would divide into those on the Lord’s side, and stubborn enemies of God. The preacher would be taken by force, with a tumult arising, and who knows? He might be executed by a drug dealer, or imprisoned by authorities, or his family and community attacked viciously by unbelievers.

      Perhaps after his body being left lying in the street for a few days in distain and hate, God might resurrect him and call him upward, never to return.

      Now thats a sermon.

      peace
      Nazaroo

      • Hone Phillips

        Nazaroo,
        I was impressed with your evaluation of the sermon in Acts except for one thing. It is not an illustration of a wholistic sermon. It and the other examples are topical sermons because they were all made to deal with a particular situation and the situation was the occasion of the sermon.
        Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for topical preaching – and so did the original post – but your example was not expositional for the Scriptures referred to were used to illustrate a point. But, I think your example does make a point.
        A congregation needs a balance of expositional and topical preaching. Yet, I believe it is true as the OP says that for a Church to grow it needs both preaching and teaching. That is why (I believe) the Reformers began the “exercise.” Based on the teaching in I Cor about the need for prophesying (as opposed to speaking in tongues) the instituted a meeting (usually each week) where the point was to teach exegesis (hermeneutics if you like) and to encourage the growth of the men in the congregation in this and other skills.
        They presented the text (which everyone was expected to prepare beforehand) then by questions showed how the exegesis was done, how the text should be applied and determined actions based on the significance of the the presentations and answers to the former questions.
        Similar meetings could be used also for teaching of other important disciplines including how to develop a proper topical approach to using the Bible (where the method would not be “hanging the text on a pretext!”).
        Here is the explanation of how this is being understood in some “Reformation Societies” in the USA: http://twincitiesreformation.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6&Itemid=12

    • Susan

      In our church there has been a notable drift away from expository preaching for the past few years…and also a long-time deficit in the teaching department (of the CMP variety–nonexistent). Unfortunately, this has become the perfect set-up for some unfortunate teaching to subtly invade from the pulpit. The lack of discernment among members of our church is truly disheartening! There are only a few who are deeply concerned and willing to speak to the pastors and elders at our church about these matters. The problem is…by this time it seems that all of the pastors have followed this shift and most of the elders as well (although, two elders have left recently and one more may follow soon). The gospel is slowly and ever so subtly being replaced with a ‘new’ for of moralism. Sadness upon sadness….

    • Don Boucher

      Nazaroo, said it best, expository preaching and topical preaching are not mutually exclusive concepts. Topics can be addressed expositorially, biblical exposition will obviously force you to deal with topics. When covering a scripture in exposition that is controversial I would to see more preachers preach the controversy verses making a decision to cover the controversy with dogma..

    • Leslie Jebaraj

      CMP:

      Much needed post for the day!!

      As I was reading your post, I was thinking of my former pastor who was excellent in his preaching of the Word, but quite failed in teaching. After he retired from the denomination, I slowly started to look out for another church, as the new pastor was not good in preaching either. Fortunately, I now attend a Baptist church, where the pastor is an excellent preacher-teacher type. This is a very small congregration, but the teaching is solid. (Could it be why the chuch ‘size’ is thin, I am wondering!).

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      I think Pastor John MacArthur is a superb expositional preacher of the Word who also does a superb job of topical teaching as well.

      He’s a Both/And Christian Undershepherd with a clear predilection towards exposition.

      It’s not an either/or dilemma for him.

    • Eric Baker

      We have preaching on Sunday, but on Tuesday night we do the AIM study which stands for “Author’s Intended Meaning.” In this study we thoroughly wrestle out the author’s meaning in a passage (one or more thoughts) by following a process we developed, consisting mostly of a discussion with open-ended questions like “What did the author mean?” and “Why did he say it?” The folks in the class are truly learning how to think and how to discern God’s Truth. Pardigms are being dashed and God’s heart is being discovered. It has been very fruitful.

    • Michael Teeter

      CMP,
      I actually think the church I attend does a fairly good job of mixing expositional and topical teaching. If one were to look at a year long outline of the sermons over the last year we have been working through the book of Collosians verse by verse in a very expositional style. However, on occasion a verse might raise a particular issue the pastor wishes to expound on. Thus we may take a 2-4 weeks detour examining other portions of the Bible that relate to the issue raised by the verse in question.

    • JJ

      I think the problem is not simply that one preaches expositionally and one teaches topically. Those topical preaching churches (who mix in expositional preaching) area just as bad with the basics of the faith test… why do I believe what I believe.

      The problem is often that even expositional preaching is not solid enough (and same for topical preaching). I have seen countless preachers who preach “expositionally” who merely take the verse, explains why it fits their theology again… and let’s not even consider that we “are just preaching the passage so that I can teach my theology to my congregation.”

      Example: Parable of the Sower. According to some theology, the final soil is a “saved Christian” the other three are not saved Christians. So, we preach that theology… point out this to our congregants. They, of course, agree. And they just take that parable and through it out. Why? Of course, they are number 4 soil… they are church folk. THEY HAVE TO BE number 4 soil. So, there is no need to even ask if there is an application of the first three soils. (I do not wish to cause a discussion about the proper way to interpret this parable… rather, as an example, you can see how a passage can be preached on expositionally and we simply review our theology with it… thus leaving our congregants empty.) If it helps, I believe that when you apply that parable to the theology of salvation, only the number 4 soil cuts the mustard. But that this parable is not only about salvation. It is about kingdom living…. and how we receive God’s word on any number of ways that we live. Its a matter of application.

      Regardless, when we preach topically or expositionally only to review our theological positions, it is no wonder that our preaching doesn’t go very deep. Most of the parables of Christ are tools for the gifted preacher to review his theology… they are easy to make them say what I want. And there is no deep growth in that…

      • Hone Phillips

        JJ,
        I think you have mad a valid point about the way many preachers do handle Scripture and, though you did not wish to make your post major on the parable you made reference to – what you had to say is significant.
        You said it was to so with kingdom living, yet Jesus’ application was more about the kind of response hearers make to the word of God. (The Gospel of the kingdom)
        Each of those responses will be found in every congregation and, therefore, if application is to be made properly, each member of the congregation should be brought to examine their life and behavior (because that is also a part of the parable) to discover which is actually their response.
        If they can listen to a sermon which allows them to dismiss 3/4 of its application then the sermon has failed in its purpose. Now I acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is the one who actually brings about conviction but the preacher is responsible to make it clear how the hearers are spoken to by the passage under consideration (as did Peter and Paul and Stephen).
        I have listened to Dr Martyn-Lloyd Jones’ sermons and you never came away from any of them without being made aware of how you needed to test yourself by the passage to see if you were (in fact) walking by its light. Perhaps we need to be praying for our preachers and encouraging those who are the most faithful (as well as the less faithful) to be more specific in their applications and less general.

    • Hone Phillips

      Michael,
      What can I say – I think a congregation needs more than expository preaching as well. It is vital that there be good teaching to go with that preaching. I do not, however, think that the whole burden for this task should rest on one man.
      As a convinced Presbyterian, my solution is simpler than for some. I believe the elders of the congregation are called (along with the minister) to prepare the congregation for the work of ministry. I believe that was the reason God gave them the gifts of Apostles and Prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers. I am aware of the fact that some of those who had these gifts in the early Church were called as extraordinary officers whose task was to found it. But I believe there are ordinary elements in those tasks which still apply to leaders in today’s congregations. Even if you only see the gifts as the emphasis or major interest of the elder, how much richer is the session who has all these aspects as a part of their planning and execution in building up the members of the body of Christ.
      Thank you for a post which stirs us up to consider the many possible solutions to the present problem facing the Church.

    • Delwyn X. Campbell

      JJ made an excellent illustration. No one is going to listen to/apply a sermon that does not have any sort of personal relevance – no personal application. We still have to deal with the issue of HOW we apply the passage, for I’m sure that most here would agree, most of our doctrinal disputes center on application, rather than upon contextual explanation. I could think of a number of examples, the perpetuity of spiritual gifts, the nature of Jesus Christ (Son of God only or Son of God And God the Son), tithing and giving, for starters. We “know in part, and we prophesy in part,” but when we stand behind the pulpit, we are assumed to be experts in the subject being preached or taught, either because of our education or “anointing.” I do not recall ever hearing a preacher, evangelist, or pastor, preface his/her message with the words “I believe the text here is about…” Instead, we exude epignosis, if not omniscience, and they, the congregation, expect it. Oh wretched man that I am; who shall deliver me from this burden of ministry – the burden of perfectionism?

    • C Michael Patton

      That is right. My point in this post was not to expound on the values of expositional preaching (as I define as “through the Bible” preaching) above that of topical. I do agree that there is a place for both. I would say about 60/40, with the 60 being spending time going through books. That is what I have done. I also know that you can do topical stuff exegetically where one is not just using the Bible as a springboard for an idea.

      The point is that even when we have the purest form of expositional preaching, this is not enough. There needs to be a forum where people are engaged in the issues at an educational level, where tough questions are encouraged and asked of the teacher. Where things are not always wrapped up in a nice bow like I try to do in preaching.

    • Dave Z

      I find it significant that none of the sermons found in scripture are expository. True, there are not many sermons recorded in scripture, but still…

    • Mike

      It’s not the failure of expositional preaching. It’s the failure of people expecting the pastor to do what God has told us that we should be doing everyday. God’s people starve between the weekly pulpit feeding if they aren’t committing to daily reading, study and prayer. Babies must rely on what they get fed. Adults pick up their own knives and forks.

    • Erik

      “People go to a sermon to hear how they are to change their lives. People go to a classroom to be challenged to change their minds. In the sermon, people learn how to behave. In teaching, people learn how to think. Preaching is about establishing people in truth. Teaching is about challenging people in truth. Yes, there is always going to be some teaching in preaching as there is always going to be some preaching in teaching. But they are not the same and they should not be combined. The church needs to have both.”

      Well said Michael, well said.

    • Jay

      I have to agree with Michael about the state of teaching in most churches. The preacher/pastor may be doing a good job of mixing expository and topical preaching. But, the teaching component is sadly lacking. There is no sense of wonder or joy in learning.

      I would go to Sunday school classes or small group and not learn, be challenged to learn. The worse question to ask in one of these classes was “Why?” or “Where do you get that from?” Many of these people have been going to church for years and would say they were strong in their faith. But, rarely could any provide any answers to their beliefs except for the blanket “God says so”. When I asked these kinds of questions, you would have thought that I did something evil like kicking a dog or slapping their kids.

      This need for a meatier version of teaching helped me find the Credo House Ministry. I desperately need that dose of intellectual power that comes from this blog and its discussions. Ultimately, this need drove me to attend the seminary. This semester I am taking Romans. In a few class meetings, I have gotten much deeper knowledge of doctrine, theology, and the beauty of God’s plan for us than I ever had in the years of sitting in a church pew or classroom.

    • Jay

      Side Note:

      I missed the start of Michael’s Romans class this summer. Now my work schedule has shifted and I can’t seem to get back to it. So, when the seminary offered it last Monday nights I decided that was the class for this session.

    • david

      “I have to agree with Michael about the state of teaching in most churches. The preacher/pastor may be doing a good job of mixing expository and topical preaching. But, the teaching component is sadly lacking.”

      i agree with this statement and would like to add that with postmodernism and its philosophical influnce on society along with secularization, biblical illiteracy(that i’ve seen) is more prevalent. thus resulting in the lack of discernment among members of the church to recognize when false teaching is evident not only in the pulpit but when they are out side of the church walls where the rubber meets the road. expository and topical preaching are great but if people are suffering, lacking, or deprived when it comes to the educational/teaching level then sunday morning will descend into a pep rally of sorts. a recharging of the spiritual batteries to make it to next sunday rather than the declaration and proclamation of Gods word which is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

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