Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Ten How To's of Expository Preaching

Steve Lawson wrote an article for the Southern Seminary magazine a few years ago about expository preaching. He is one of the "Greats" when it comes to this type of preaching. I hope you enjoy and are educated by his wonderful article.

The Ten How-to’s of Expository Preaching
by Steven J. Lawson

Expositors are not born, they are made. Gifted by the Spirit of God, yes. But such men are, nevertheless, forged in the fire of hard study, hammered on the anvil of rigorous practice and polished over time. Whether you have been preaching for only a short time or a lifetime, whether you preach in a country church or a mega-church, every preacher must be ever refining his pulpit skills in order to powerfully deliver the Word of God.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great preacher of London’s Westminster Chapel, emphatically stated, “The work of preaching is the highest, the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called.” I applaud that statement, not because there is anything special about those of us who preach, but because there is everything special about Him who has called us to proclaim His Word.

Because the Bible is what it claims to be—the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God—preaching is the highest calling known to man. As heralds of the sacred Scriptures, we have been entrusted with the greatest privilege of all—that of being mouthpieces through which the living God has chosen to speak. To us has been committed the greatest privilege of offering the unsearchable riches of Christ to those who are spiritually bankrupt and dispensing the treasures of His wisdom and understanding to those desperately in need of His grace.

As a result, we must be firmly committed to handling His Word with excellence. Anything less would be unfitting for the high calling upon our lives to preach. With this in mind, I want to share with you the essential steps of expository preaching that I use each week to communicate the Word of God to my congregation.

Be the Right Person. Before the preachers can prepare the sermon, God must first prepare the preacher. If our hearts are not right, then our sermons can never be right. As a result, we must always be passionate in our personal pursuit of God. Never study a passage simply to prepare a sermon. We must always study to prepare our own hearts first and foremost. I cannot take others spiritually where I have not already gone. As a preacher, I cannot share what I do not possess.

Robert Murray McCheyne, the noted Scottish preacher, said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” In other words, I must first of all, be a man of God. What I say must be the overflow of who I am. My preaching must occur within the context of a dynamic relationship with God.

Choose the Right Passage. Now, we must decide which passage of Scripture to preach. In order to make this choice, we must exegete our audience, interpret their spiritual needs and determine the most appropriate series that will produce the desired result. Generally, I preach through entire books in the Bible to insure that I cover “the full counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). I also will preach a shorter series through one chapter in the Bible (i.e. Joseph, Genesis 37:50), or a biblical topic (i.e. spiritual gifts, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13). I must emphasize, prayer is always a must in being led by God to make the proper choice.

After a decision has been made regarding what to preach, the expositor must look for the central idea of the text, the “big idea,” or the main point of the passage. We should ask ourselves, what is the core truth the biblical author is trying to communicate? We want to become keenly aware of the passage, reading the text over and over and over with an observant eye. We are to be like a detective poking for clues or a prospector panning for gold. Personally, I prefer to photocopy the passage out of my Bible, marking it up thoroughly as I read it until I have it almost memorized. I want the central idea clearly in mind allowing it to dominate my thinking.

As I investigate the verses, I always ask myself several key diagnostic questions: Who is speaking? Who is the original audience? What is he saying? Why is this recorded? When was this written? What are the circumstances behind this passage? What immediately preceded this passage? What follows? How does this passage fit into the overall theme of the book?

In the process of reading the passage and its expanded context, I look for a unit of thought—a paragraph—that will be my specific text. At this point, I attempt to determine whether I will preach, for example, one, three, five or eight verses. In other words, I will determine how many verses my sermon will cover, after which I summarize in a complete sentence the main idea of the passage.

As I continue to pour over the passage, I look for transitions in the flow of thought, breaks in the action, main verbs, cause and effects, key words and reoccurring themes. At this point, I write a working outline of the passage so I can visually see its general structure and subordinate truths.

Next, the expositor must interpret the passage using the literal, historical, grammatical approach. By literal, I mean the normal, or natural, meaning of words, being careful never to allegorize or spiritualize the text. By historical, I mean the author’s intent as he wrote to his original audience. By grammatical, I mean the understanding of the grammar, syntax and word studies in the passage. In this process we build a bridge between the ancient world of the Bible and our contemporary culture. In preparing my sermons, I take an 8-1/2 by 11 inch pad of paper and record extensive notes using the following tools:

Use Language Tools. Because the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, reading the passage in the ancient languages will yield a greater understanding of the text. Key word studies, verb tenses and grammatical syntax will be paramount. A Greek and Hebrew dictionary will more clearly reveal a word’s meaning, and a lexicon will trace its use in various contexts. Just remember, in a sermon, Greek and Hebrew are like underwear: they add a lot of support, but you don’t want to let them show.

Consult Commentaries. After doing my own in-depth study, I read five to fifteen commentaries and expose myself to the findings of men more gifted than I who have wrestled with this particular passage. I compare my findings with other noted teachers and respected theologians in the body of Christ from church history and the present day. Likewise, I read other expository sermons and listen to tapes of other preachers expounding on the same text. Obviously, an expositor’s library is an indispensable asset.

Check Cross References. We must always interpret Scripture with Scripture. The Word never contradicts itself. One part of the Bible never teaches anything contrary to another part. Therefore, we must turn to cross references to insure accuracy of interpretation.

Investigate Biblical Background Resources. The historicity of a passage often illuminates its meaning. Bible encyclopedias and dictionaries contain helpful articles on matters of historical significance. The culture of the ancient world was vastly different from today’s society. Thus, we must understand the milieu of Bible times, whether it be the Jewish, Greek or Roman culture, to grasp the meaning of the passage. Also, understanding the geography of the Middle East can be helpful in unlocking the meaning of a passage. Along this line, a Bible atlas is often an extremely helpful tool in understanding a text.

Now, we want to take our individual discoveries and collected observations and begin to organize them into a written manuscript that follows a verse by verse progression through the selected passage. Our sermon notes should fall into a sequential pattern that follows a logical train of thought. To accomplish that I:

Construct a Preaching Outline. My initial outline now becomes a more polished outline that will help listeners follow me through the passage. A good outline is like the skeleton of the human body—that upon which the flesh and meat of the sermon are hung. A good outline may illiterate, rhyme or parallel in some way the other points so as to aid the listener. A good rule of thumb is: the shorter the wording of the homiletical point the better.

Incorporate the Research. I now arrange my exegetical findings in a systematic order that lines up under the appropriate point in my homiletical outline. For those who use a computer, this is a simply process of moving around copy. I still write my research by hand and use a photo copier to strip in my exegesis. I restate my findings in words that are more colloquial or more easily understood. Sometimes, communicating through analogies, metaphors and similes is very helpful to convey the truth.

Add Transitions. I now sew together the various parts of the sermon with the silky threads of smooth transitions as I connect one point with another. These transitions should show logical connections and contain summary statements which serve as the glue that binds the exposition together. Likewise, a good transition can also create interest for the next point by asking thought provoking questions.

Sermon preparation is never complete until the text is applied to the individual lives of my hearers. I always must ask myself, does this truth relate to their lives? What does God require of them?

In my seminary classes, Haddon Robinson encouraged us to picture five or six members of our congregation seated around the table in our pastor’s study. Each of these people should represent a cross section of those to who we preach. Ask yourself, what does this text have to say to a successful businessman? A single parent? A college student? A retired grandparent? A young couple contemplating a move? How does this Scripture impact their lives?

At this point, I even manuscript my application to force myself to be accurate and relevant. I don’t want to “wind” the application any more than I want to be3 unprepared with the interpretation. This requires being “in touch” with the people to whom I preach, knowing their struggles, temptations and influences they face. Likewise, reading books, magazines and newspapers will reveal the current trends and tensions of the world in which they live.

I believe the best place to position application is to sprinkle it throughout the message. Each major movement of the sermon should drip with relevancy. If I regularly save all my application for the end of the sermon, my listeners could learn to tune me out while I am teaching the “meat” of the passage and tune back in for the conclusion and the perceived applicable truth. Consequently, I choose to weave “action points” throughout the entirety of my sermon.

Sermon illustrations are like open windows which allow outside light to be shed upon the passage enlightening its meaning. A good illustration can create interest, capture attention, explain a truth, motivate powerfully or insure that the message is unforgettable.

I prefer biblical illustrations—in other words, Scripture illustrating Scripture—because they carry greater authority to reinforce the point. Also, by illustrating from other biblical texts, I can teach Scripture as I illustrate and introduce my congregation to other biblical passages. At the same time, all knowledge—whether it be history, medicine, sports, culture or current events—is available to the preacher as a potential resource with which to illustrate. Likewise, appropriate personal experiences can help connect with and endear us to our audience as we illustrate the passage.

A good illustration will be relevant and memorable. Just make sure it doesn’t overshadow the biblical point you’re making. In other words, an illustration must support the truth but never take the place of, nor compete with, the truth in the minds of the hearers.

Now that the main body of the message has been constructed, we are ready to write the introduction. Think of the introduction as the porch of a house. Proportionally, a porch is smaller than the house itself, yet it serves to provide easy access for all guests to enter the main structure. How strange a house would look if the front porch were too large, or worse, it if were larger than the house itself. Too large a porch would draw too much attention to itself. Rather, it should compliment the beauty of the house. In the same way, the introduction should be large enough to orient the listener to the sermon but small enough not to distract from the main body of the message.

This may be done through various means such as the use of illustration, humor, current events, a striking quote, asking questions, relating a personal experience, describing a hypothetical situation, raising a life-related problem, or any number of other means. Never forget: recruiting eager listeners for the sermon is the goal.

I agree with the oft-repeated three “I’s” of a good introduction: interest, involvement and identification. Ideally, the introduction should create interest, engage involvement or cause the listener to identify personally with the speaker of the subject matter. After the introduction, the preacher ought to be able to sit down and the congregation want him to get back up and finish the rest of the sermon.
Last words ought to be lasting words. The conclusion serves as a final “fork-in-the-road” calling the listener to pursue one of two courses of action based upon the truth proclaimed. Either the hearer will follow the biblical path just laid out or he will reject it. The conclusion should answer the question, “As a result of this message, what does God want the listener to do?” An effective conclusion should either, summarize the main truths, specify application, motivate, confront, challenge the will, encourage or comfort.

I like to think of the conclusion as a pilot landing an airplane. Here is the successful “touch down” of the sermon upon the runway of the listener’s heart. Every sermon must conclude with a clear and motivating call to action.

At this point, the manuscript should be complete. The introduction, main body and conclusion have been written. We now want to review our sermon notes to evaluate the general flow of the message as a whole.

Ask yourself: Is the sermon material under each homiletic point equally distributed? Is the introduction too long or too short? Are there enough illustrations? Is application well distributed? Will the opening lines “hook” the listener? Is there balance and symmetry before the main points? Is a section top heavy and need to be redistributed? Do I have too many points? Do the transitions flow?

After the sermon manuscript is on paper, it must also be indelibly written upon my mind and heart. Of course, this internalization has occurred throughout the entire process of developing the sermon. What I have studied and written must be fully rooted and grounded into my own life. I must become one with my sermon—married if you will. Regarding the truth of the message, I must know it, feel it and live it if I am to deliver it effectively.

My entire being—mind, emotion and will—must be engaged with my sermon. With my mind, I must become intimately acquainted with my manuscript, refreshing my memory with the substance of its truth. With my emotions, I must feel deeply the truth to be preached. And with my will, I must personally obey the message before I can ask others to act upon it.

In the final analysis, the best method of internalizing one’s sermon notes is to pray through them, offering each specific truth to God for his approval and preaching the message, as it were, to myself asking God to make it real in my own life.

The anticipated moment of delivering the sermon has now come as the expositor stands before the congregation in the presence of God. Every preacher will develop his own method of delivery whether he reads his notes, recites them word-for-word from memory, uses them as a launching pad in a more “free form” communication or preaches without notes after thoroughly reviewing them.

Personally, I believe the last two methods are the best options. I bring my notes into the pulpit and use them in an extemporaneous fashion, trusting that God will enable me to “go beyond” my notes during the sermon. This allows the Holy Spirit to use all my preparation to the maximum, yet with freedom and liberty as He guides me spontaneously through the sermon and its outline.

As the Spirit of God fills and controls me, my facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contact and voice inflection will communicate naturally—actually, supernaturally. These external aspects of sermon delivery should be the dynamic result of God working through my own personality and temperament, not something theatrically rehearsed nor intentionally imitated from another preacher. We want to avoid what on preacher wrote in the margin of his notes, “Weak point: yell here!” The goal is to be genuine.

How long should the sermon last? By and large, an expository sermon will take longer than a topical message because more attention will be given to the specifics of the text, i.e., historical background, word studies, cross references, flow of thought and the like. Rarely can a preacher do all this in 25 to 30 minutes and, at the same time, illustrate and apply the truth. I believe this requires a bare minimum of 35 minutes, otherwise theological fiber and doctrinal clarity will be sacrificed leaving the congregation deprived of the meat of the Word. In my pulpit, I shoot for 40 minutes.

Following each of these ten essential steps of expository preaching requires supernatural energy and divine enlightenment. Thus, we must be ever mindful that it is ultimately the Spirit of God who grips and equips the preacher.

May we hear again the stirring words of the greatest Baptist preacher who ever lived, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who said,

We want again Luthers, Calvins, Bunyans, Whitefields, men fit to mark ears, whose names breathe terror in our foemen’s ears. We have dire need of such. Whence will they come to us? They are the gifts of Jesus Christ to the Church, and will come in due time. He has power to give us back again a golden age of preachers, a time as fertile of great divines and mighty ministers as was the Puritan age, and when the good old truth is once more preached by men whose lips are touched as with a live coal from off the altar, this shall be the instrument in the hand of the Spirit for bringing about a great and thorough revival of religion in the land.

I do not look for any other means of converting men beyond the simple preaching of the gospel and the opening of men’s ears to heart it. The moment the Church of God shall despise the pulpit, God will despise her. It has been through the ministry that the Lord has always been pleased to revive and bless His Churches.

May God raise up in this day a generation of expositors who are committed to proclaiming His truth to this world. If God has called you to be His servant, why stoop to be a king?

Preach the Word!

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