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What is expository preaching? An interview with Bryan Chapell
The book Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell (published by Baker Books) has become one of the key homiletics textbooks in college and seminary classes. That has given Chapell a significant influence in the training of future preachers. An outspoken advocate of expository preaching, Chapell is President of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where he also teaches courses in preaching. Chapell is a new member of Preaching's Board of Contributing Editors and was interviewed last fall by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: Your book Christ-Centered Preaching is subtitled "Redeeming the Expository Sermon." How do you define expository preaching?
Chapell: In the most basic sense I think it is what Augustine said we try to do, which is to say what God says. As I perceive the Bible to be God's inspired Word, my greatest goal is to be able to say, "this is what God says." That involves identifying a segment of scripture -- an expository unit -- and then explain what it means; to demonstrate it if necessary -- I believe that most of the time it is necessary to demonstrate what it means -- and then to apply it to the hearts and lives of the people to whom I am speaking. It is to say to them, "This is what God says to you."
Preaching: How does the expository sermon vary from other kinds of preaching? For example, in what way does an expository sermon reflect what God said as compared to perhaps other models of preaching?
Chapell: These are not new categories, but they are helpful categories. A topical sermon gets its theme or topic from the text, but it is developed elsewhere or according to the nature of the topic. A textual sermon would get its topic plus its main ideas, its main points from the text, but the development of those points is also outside the text itself. An expository sermon gets its main idea, its main points, and its subpoints or its developmental components from the text as well. So it is by methodology binding the preacher to say what the text is saying. The preacher becomes a bond servant of the text, working according to the thought of the original author.
I don't believe that expository preaching is the only "right" kind of preaching, because one can do textual and topical preaching and still be very true to the Bible's message. The expository method has the advantage as an approach to preaching of making sure that we are walking in the paths of the original writer. We can still make interpretive errors but at least there is a lesser tendency to be preaching one's opinions or the philosophy of the age when one is approaching (the text) in an expository method.
Preaching: What do you see as the greatest benefit or benefits of using an expository model for preaching?
Chapell: The thing that I think is most advantageous in an expository method is not only are we being bound to the message of scripture, but the preacher then has the authority of God's Word with which to challenge or encourage people. That one says: "this is not me as a preacher talking. This is what God says to you based upon what this text means." So the chief advantage, I think, is the preacher is allowed to operate with the authority of what God says.
There are other advantages: if one is dealing in an expository approach -- main points, subpoints coming from the text -- I think you create an informed listener. People who listen to expository preaching over time learn to see how scriptures develop, and therefore their own interpretative skills grow. There is the advantage that the preacher is not bound to his own thoughts and opinions. Particularly if he moves consecutively through a text, he is forced to deal with subjects that might not normally appear to his own mind.
The advantage of that additionally is he can address subjects that, had he thought them up, might appear to have been too pointed with perhaps sensitive issues in the congregation. If he is simply moving through the text, he might be able to deal with the subject of gossip where, if he had simply brought that up as the theme for the week and it had no connections to previous weeks he might seem to be responding to his own hurt -- that somebody gossiped about him and so he was just going to get them back in the sermon this week. So expository preaching has the advantage of authority, has the advantage of teaching, has the advantage of pushing us beyond our own opinions and enabling us to touch sensitive subjects without appearing to pick on people.
Preaching: One of the traditional caricatures or attacks on expository preaching is that it tends to be dry -- that it doesn't have the dynamic or the energy of other kinds of preaching. How do you respond to that?
Chapell: It is sometimes a valid criticism if by expository preaching we mean the stereotypical preacher "making a few comments upon the text," where he is just simply making a few extraneous comments -- having looked at a few commentaries first -- kind of as his thoughts appear to him or as the verses or even the phrases appear in sequence. An expository message is not simply commenting upon the text; it is bringing the meaning of the text to bear upon the biblical needs that that text is addressing, and then connecting those biblical needs to the contemporary needs of people today.
What keeps it from being dry, I think, is first of all an attempt to deal with the mutual condition that we share with the audience or writer of the original text. So that we are immediately saying: God was dealing with an issue or a problem or concern in the original setting and since there is no temptation or sin or difficulty that is not common to us, then I have some identification with that person.
That means I am not simply preaching for information; I am preaching for a transformative purpose. I am preaching for transformation. I tell my students, "We are not ministers of information primarily; we are ministers of transformation." Information is part of what we do but we are preaching in order to see lives transformed by the Word of God being brought to bear upon specific situations. If that's the case, then I have the goal not only of dealing with information in the text, but I also have the goal of making sure I am interacting with the lives of the people with whom I am dealing.
I am exegeting the text but I am exegeting the congregation as well. That means that I am considering illustrations that are connecting and have the ability to help people to identify with me. I am using applications that say, "This is where this has meaning today, not just what you should do but where you should do it and why you should do it. What is the motive, and how does God enable you to do that?"
This is more than just a cognitive performance, which is that dry, rationalistic preaching which is rightly criticized. It is an attempt to deal with the whole person regarding the scriptural truth and to show how God is dealing with people today specifically by the eternal truth that He has communicated. That requires that we deal with the truths of the text around the theme, demonstrate its relevance and apply it to people's personal situations. That's what keeps it from being dry.
Preaching: The book I mentioned earlier is entitled Christ-Centered Preaching. How do you, as an expository preacher, make sure that your preaching is, in fact, Christ-centered?
Chapell: When I use the word "Christ-centered" or the phrase "Christ-centered preaching," I am not attempting to say that Jesus has to be shown to be present in every biblical text. Sometimes people hear the words "Christ-centered preaching" and they are preaching a passage where Israel is wandering in the wilderness and they say, "Now where is Jesus? Is He behind that bush or is He in that camel track? I don't see Him."
What I am trying to express is that God has redeemed us, delivered us through the work of Jesus Christ. But that message of grace, that means of communicating to us His deliverance from our human condition, is His consistent way of presenting God's working throughout scripture which finds its culmination in Christ.
I am happy to use the words redemptive preaching, as well as Christ-centered preaching -- to talk about grace-focused preaching as well. My bottom line is that we show how every text in its context is demonstrating that God is the answer to the human condition. We take people away from themselves as the instrument of healing.
So when I talk about Christ-centered preaching, I advise students to always come with two lenses in their glasses as they look at scripture. These two lenses are composed of two questions. The first question is: what does this text reveal about the nature of humankind that requires the deliverance of God? What does it tell me about the character of mankind? The second question is: what does this text tell me about the nature of God who provides for the deliverance of human kind? In essence, what does this tell me about the nature of God?
If I am always asking those questions of the text -- what does this tell me about persons and what does this tell me about God -- I will always think redemptively, because persons are being shown in their dependence upon God and their fallenness -- in their need for something beyond themselves. We won't just say, "David was a good guy; you be a good guy, too." The Bible is telling us more about David in context, whereby David and God's people require more than David's personal goodness. They required a God who would deliver them. David becomes the means of that deliverance, but God is the hero of the text, not David. The bottom line of Christ-centered preaching is always slowing people that they are not the instrument of their own healing. That's Christ-centered preaching throughout the whole of scripture.
Preaching: In the book there is an element you term, "The Fallen Condition Focus." Describe what that is and what role it plays within the expository sermon.
Chapell: The Fallen Condition Focus is attempting to move beyond the question of "What does this text say?" It is also asking the question, "Why was this text written?" So as I am examining a text, looking for the data, the context, the background and the exegesis, I am also asking the question, "Why was this text written in its original context? Why did the Holy Spirit inspire this? What needed to be addressed in the condition of the people to whom this message is being written or in the life of the person even who wrote it?" When I identify that human condition it may be a sin or it may simply be a matter of living in a fallen world of grief -- "I don't know what tomorrow means." "I'm fearful of not knowing all that God has in mind for my life." We identify the reason God wrote the text, and then we identify that fallen condition and we say how are we like those persons.
I often go to II Timothy 3:16-17: "All scripture is inspired by God, is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God might be complete." If all scripture is given to complete us then there is a necessary implication: that we are incomplete. So what I want to do is to identify in the scriptures what incompleteness is being addressed. Now that is to move me beyond thinking about myself. It is to say that if the human is incomplete, then the answer has to be found in God. By dealing with fallen conditioned-ness as the reason behind the text, I always have to bring God's solution into the scene as the answer to the problem.
If we really perceive the scriptures as dealing with our fallenness when propositional truth is being dealt with, then we ought to be able to look at people around us and we ought to be able to see Swiss cheese -- they are incomplete. They have got holes in them. And what identifies Christian preaching is what we say is going to fill the holes. Is it just being a better person, trying harder, working real hard and long? Ultimately that is a human answer to fallenness. If we truly identify in preaching the fallen condition that required the writing of the text, then we are forced to deal with the divine solution to the human condition. So our message has again become redemptively Christ-centered rather than anthropocentric, human-centered. Because I have shown from the very beginning the human answer won't work. We deal with a fallen condition focus, why the text was written, so that we will be able to say what is God's solution to that problem.
Preaching: In the environment in which we live today, what do see as some of the greatest challenges preachers face as they try to communicate God's Word to congregations?
Chapell: I know the politically-correct answer to this question is going to be something about helping people continue to have interest in an age that is habituated to picture thinking; how do we work in an oral medium. So how do we convert preaching of a linear mode to a visually oriented culture? I don't think that is the hardest question. I think preachers who love communicating recognize that our greatest task is to say: how do I make an ancient text understandable, yes, but also relevant to the concerns of contemporary believers?
We often think in very static terms about what preaching is. We say there is explanation, there is illustration, there is application. It is kind of like when you are being taught the color wheel as an artist. There is red paint, there is blue paint, and there is green paint. You paint a little bit and you discover that these colors work together. They all implode on one another. So I am not so concerned that we say: do we do explanation better, or do we do illustration better or do we do application better?
What I encourage people to do is to think, even as they are beginning a sermon, to think in an application mode. It is part of that fallen condition focus mentality of saying: what is the burden of this text? How does this deal with people to whom I am talking? Not only think in exegetical terms but -- to sound like Dr. Seuss for the moment -- to encourage preachers from the very beginning, when they say "how am I going to make this text real to people?" to go in through the "who" door.
Now the who door is asking this question: Who really needs to hear what this text is about? To think of real people that I know, to invite them into my study -- imaginatively, if not really -- and to talk to them about what this text means. If I get into the habit of talking to people across the kitchen table about what this text means, then I will do the most natural things in the world. I will talk in fairly plain terms about what the text means. I will demonstrate with real life, identifiable images and illustrations, and then I'll say this is why you personally need to know this. I will be personal and clear and demonstrative. Simply by thinking in human terms who needs to hear this even as I am preparing the message.
I think that moves us beyond a lot of discussions about whether or not the sermon should be this percentage of illustration, or that percentage of application, or that percent of explanation, or how much of graphic image do you use, or whether you use film clips, or whether you use the overhead. We can debate those issues forever. My own sense is that we have a lot of the debates silenced when we say, "Here is my goal as a preacher: I want to think of real people and the impact of this text upon them, and as clearly and as passionately as I can I want to care for them, telling them what God's Word says to them." That moves us out of the oratorical mode. It also moves us out of the entertainment mode to actual think of pastoring people. When we are pastoring them, we tend to come up with the answers to our relevance-to-culture questions.
Preaching: As you look across the landscape of the whole evangelical world, are there certain preachers that you see as being really good models who communicate in a compelling, relevant way with a strong biblical basis? People you enjoy hearing?
Chapell: There is a dynamic that we all recognize in preaching, which is the feature ethos. The people that I most appreciate hearing are the ones that I most respect for their character, and I listen to what they say and hang on every word because I know what's in their hearts. So I recognize that the people I will typically mention as my favorite preachers are not those that are necessarily best known. They're the ones that I most know and trust their word from God because of what I know of their own hearts.
I would say David Calhoun, who is a church history professor at Covenant Seminary, is one of the godliest men I know; I listen to what he has to say because I know he walks with God. Joe Novenson at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church is a man who deeply imbibes a theology of grace and is a repentant person in character. He exudes humility and a love for the Lord and I love to hear what he has to say. It is contemplative, it is passionate, but quite humble at the same time. Skip Ryan at Park Cities Presby-terian Church, in Dallas, Texas, certainly would be one who I think is just a master in terms of skills but understands the human heart as well.
Among the well known preachers I don't know, I would respect them for different causes and reasons. Steve Brown, for his ability to illustrate and touch the heart. I just love hearing Steve talk about the joy and the freedom that is found in the gospel. He's so wonderful at that. Jim Boice struck me -- until his recent death -- as probably being the best intellectual expositor. Not everybody could listen to him, but he nonetheless had a solid following of people who appreciated his zeal for the Word.
John MacArthur probably is the best of the widely known exegetes. Swindoll, of course, we love him for his ability to communicate. Every one has his own particular strengths and I recognize that is good because we have different kinds of learners -- different kinds of listeners -- and we need people with a variety of skills to be addressing them.
Preaching: Are there particular resources that you recommend to pastors and students who want to really develop as expository preachers?
Chapell: The books that are out there are quite helpful and we have a certain richness of written expression at this point. Haddon Robinson (Bib-lical Preaching) is still, I think, the grand-daddy of books in establishing an organized method for expositional preaching -- certainly a good foundation. Your book (Handbook of Contemporary Preaching), in which you deal with a number of people on noteworthy issues, is quite helpful as a resource when one moves beyond basics to think about selected issues.
I think the thing that is quite helpful to students is seeing people in action. Actually, that little CD-ROM that is being put together by the folks at Moody Bible Institute (that Baker is putting out) -- to me one of the most helpful things on that CD, which puts Haddon Robinson's and my book together, is that there is the ability to look at people doing introductions, doing conclusions, doing main points, and you see a number of different preachers doing that same thing as it is described. To me that is an exceedingly helpful thing -- that you are not listening to whole sermons and trying to pick out components but you are watching snippets of craftsman, master teachers and preachers doing what's being talked about in those components. I have found that a very helpful tool -- more in its examples, candidly, than even in what I or Haddon wrote. I find the examples compiled to be very, very helpful.
For anybody who wants to be a good preacher: listen to as much preaching as you can. Certain things that are on the internet now, places that you can access from the web for listening to good preaching. Those are wonderful resources for us now that we have not had until recently.
Preaching: What have I not asked you that you would like to be able to share a word about?
Chapell: I'm often asked what I think about some of the modern trends in both media and narrative preaching, so let me comment on both of those things. The trends in narrative preaching -- my own sense is that evangelicals are coming to a healthier balance of late. When the narrative preaching movement came through, out of the "new homiletic" and out of the liberal circles, we kind of reacted in two ways as evangelicals. One, I think we just slammed it and we said, "Well, we know all about story telling. We don't want too much story telling and we just don't need that in our culture. That is going to move us away from expository styles." So, at one extreme we kind of slammed it and said they had nothing to tell us.
The other extreme is that we imbibed and said, "Oh, this is great!" For pragmatic reasons we steered a lot of our students and a lot of our pastors into narrative styles, with a very naive understanding of the philosophical underpinnings that said that propositional truth was no longer valid and all there was was experience. Therefore we had to have interlocking conscious views of experience in order to have truth communicated. That is just very dangerous and very unbiblical. I think a lot of what we did to kind of stay up with credibility with liberal scholarship was we had a lot of evangelicals too quickly move down the narrative path and without adequate discrection.
My sense is that there is a healthy critique of the narrative homiletic that is now occuring in evangelical circles, while at the same time there is an understanding that not only our culture but the best preaching in all ages has had a helpful and healthful use of narrative components in messages. We can learn a lot, not just from the homiletic of narrative but from the hermeneutics of narrative which are helpful for us in interpreting scripture well. There is a helpful balance that is now being achieved, of not accepting the philosophical underpinnings but seeking to understand how narrative works for true expository preaching that is often on narrative passages. I think we are coming to a more healthy balance on that.
The other thing that I think is occurring -- which I don't think we have come to a healthy balance on yet -- is the use of extra media in preaching. My sense is that we will discover about the uses of film clips and extra audio and lights on stage and so forth that is occurring -- we will discover a lot of what we did with the overhead projector movement. That is, it is good for attention -- it has a certain didactic power -- but ultimately the preaching that lasts and is transformative is the truth of God spoken by a man of God whose character is known and trusted by the people of God.
Our preaching is not going to be most powerful because it is most highly produced in terms of stage or media production. That's effective, but few people have the time to put into competing with nightly television for what is really professional audio, video, media productions. I certainly want to say I think those can be valid tools. But I don't think any pastor needs to think he has done a second class sermon because he hasn't gotten the latest media in it. Media can be a helpful tool but it will never be the primary means by which preaching communicates what the scriptures are saying.
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