A summary guide to any discipline is the “Cliffs Notes” version of the subject. It can be helpful in giving a broad and surface understanding of an extremely complicated and varied field but is unable to give detailed attention to its subtleties and complexities. It’s better with the ‘whole’ than its ‘parts.’ Still there is, by times, the need for a general taxonomy of the schools or approaches within a discipline. It may be helpful for those attempting to enter the field so they might understand the ‘lay of the land.’ Preachers may be helped by looking at their current approach to preaching in relation to others. Scholars in the field will probably be entertained by the reductionism evident in the taxonomy and may be motivated to suggest ways in which it might be improved. So for these reasons, what follows is an attempt to classify the major approaches to preaching within the scope of contemporary North American Evangelicalism.
A word about the approach – there are several differing ways to classify schools of preaching. One way would be to analyze the actual practice of preaching by studying a representative collection of sermons. This process has some merit but would require such a large database of sermons as to be somewhat prohibitive. Another approach might be classification by sermon form – deductive, inductive, narrative, etc. Since it is more generally accepted now that sermon form should follow the form of the biblical text, this approach has lost some of its appeal. A division into expository, textual and topical preaching seems outdated since its critique by Sidney Greidanus in his The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text.1 A classification based on different theological/ epistemological/hermeneutical understandings would be helpful to map the entire North American homiletical landscape. This, of course, has already been done in several recent studies.2Since this article relates solely to Evangelical preaching, a basic Evangelical theological stance and hermeneutic is assumed, even if there are some variations in theory and practice. So what remains is a ‘classification by emphasis.’ Here is where we employ “The Preaching Sphere’ diagram to form the basis of our analysis.
Most teachers and students of preaching have seen or used a similar diagram before. The Preaching Sphere views preaching as a three-sided conversation among the biblical passage, preacher and the people (i.e. the gathered congregation) under the sovereign direction of the triune God. Good preaching, then, maintains the appropriate order and balance among these conversation partners. “Conversation” as used here, is not understood in the same sense as it is employed among ‘radical postmodern’ homileticians who tend to blur the authority of biblical text with the collected opinions of the gathered congregation. The term does connote, however, a reciprocal relationship between each of these three conversation partners surrounded by the guiding and enabling presence of the triune God that highlights the living nature of the preaching task (event). The biblical passage is at the top of the triangle to represent its authority in respect to the other two, but these two are also indispensable to the entire preaching task. Preaching requires a preacher and an audience (or better, a congregation) to be complete. God himself broods over the entire process to bring about his glory — illuminating the text for the preacher, creating unity between preacher and people and conviction in the lives of the entire congregation. At risk of over-simplifying the complexity of all that happens in this ‘conversation,’ the plane between the passage and the preacher can be summarized as ‘exposition,’ the plane between preacher and people (the congregation) as ‘communication,’ and that between the passage and people as ‘application.’
These three planes of the triangle that will serve us in classifying Evangelical preaching. Our three representative schools, then, are: the Exposition School, the Application School and the Communication School. Already certain objections might be forming in your minds. “Do not all Evangelical preachers recognize the importance of all three of these?” The obvious answer is, “Yes, of course.” The difference comes in emphasis. This is not to say that members of one school only give lip service to the other two aspects, but that they have seen fit to emphasize one of the three in particular to address what they feel is the pressing need in preaching today. An explanation of each of the schools is needed.
The Exposition School
Due to our Evangelical commitment to Scripture, biblical exposition should and does figure prominently in our approach to preaching. So how is it that this commitment to exposition is relegated to only one of the schools? First, since we are identifying each school by emphasis, obviously this is not the only school to hold strongly to biblical authority. These preachers, however, see the commitment to biblical exposition as the urgent emphasis for our times. Second, these preachers do not ignore the other planes of communication and application, but these two do tend to receive less attention in relation to the need for a clear exposition of the biblical text. With mounting levels of biblical illiteracy, both inside and outside the church, it is hard to downplay the need for solid biblical exposition. With the best of intentions, this school goes about the task of bringing a clear word from God through the process of careful exegesis and an unflagging commitment to the authority of Scripture. Some of the members of this school are among the best known of our Bible teachers and preachers. Widespread readership of their books and blogs attest to their impact and to the hunger among many for what these expositors have to say.
As can be the case in other dimensions of life, a strength can also be a potential weakness if not balanced against other related concerns. If we feel our primary task as preachers is to correctly explain the biblical text, we may inadvertently encourage a culture of listening without doing – a purely cerebral faith. It may also be possible to emphasize the meaning of a particular text at the expense of the overall biblical story of redemption. When we consider the explanation of the text to be our primary task, application may then be equated either with exhortation/admonition or considered to be the sole province of the Holy Spirit. While the former can indeed be an integral part of preaching a text, not every text is hortatory. We may fall prey to a subtle moralism in our preaching. The latter is, of course, true in what it affirms (preaching, in the end, is a ‘God-thing’), but begs the question of the preacher’s role in the conversation. It is also possible that we hold our views with such passion that we too quickly dismiss or disparage the perspectives of others, even other Evangelicals.
The Application School
As a balance to the Exposition School, those of the Application School would suggest that the purpose of preaching has more to do with life transformation than information explained from the biblical text. While members of this school may be reacting to a caricature of expositional models, their concern is for the applicability and relevance of preaching to contemporary life. There is no hint here that the Bible is out-of-date or irrelevant, but their desire is to highlight the ‘so what’ and the ‘now what’ aspects of the text in specific ways. Exegesis is prized, but as a means of arriving at the ‘business end’ of the text and not as an end in itself. Main points of the sermon often highlight the application value of the text rather than seeing application as being chronologically or logically secondary to its explanation. It is hard not to appreciate the desire to highlight the life-transforming power of God through his Word.
We may, however, overbalance our emphasis on application so our sermons become anthropocentric in focus. Moralism and pragmatism may be potential dangers for us if we are not vigilant. We would do well to remember the seasoned advice of Lesslie Newbigin:
I am saying that authentic Christian thought and action begin not by attending to the aspirations of the people, not by answering the questions they are asking in their terms, not by offering solutions to the problems as the world sees them. It must begin and continue by attending to what God has done in the story of Israel and supremely in the story of Jesus Christ. It must continue by indwelling that story so that it is our story, the way we understand the real story. And then, and this is the vital point, to attend with open hearts and minds to the real needs of people in the way that Jesus attended to them, knowing that the real need is that which can only be satisfied by everything that comes from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).3
The Communication School
A moderating view between the previous two is the Communication School. This is not to suggest that it must of necessity combine the best aspects and be immune to the potential misapplications of the previous two schools. Preachers of the Communication School desire to bring the message of the biblical text to bear on the contemporary congregation in a way that leads to personal response. In a sense, these preachers attempt to balance the message of the text with the rhetorical task of relevant communication. So both exposition and application are important to them. Members of this school often feel free to experiment with different sermon forms so long as they serve the main thrust of the text. What is paramount here is that the main theme or idea of the text is unearthed and communicated in a relevant way. Again, there is ample reason to applaud such an emphasis.
It may be possible, however, for us to focus so intently on the individual pericope that we lose sight of the overarching sweep of the redemption story. So moralism might be a possibility for us here as well. There also may be some texts that by their complexity of argument or movement defy our best efforts to ‘freeze dry’ them into one main theme or idea. We therefore run the risk of miscommunicating the text on those occasions.
The reason for this discussion of perceived schools within Evangelical homiletics is not to increase the ‘party spirit’ between them or to attempt to supply ammunition to those of ‘competing’ schools. Rather, what is needed within the Evangelical family is a greater appreciation of the differing emphases of these ‘complementary’ schools so that together we grow in our common task of preaching the Word with accuracy, passion, relevance and life-transforming power.
Blayne Banting is Associate Professor of Church Ministry at Briercrest Bible College in Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada.
1. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 122-140.
2. Most recent among these has been Paul Scott Wilson’s book Preaching and Homiletical Theory (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004) where he surveys current analyses and then concludes with his own tripartite classification: traditional preaching, New Homiletic preaching and radical postmodern preaching (p. 149).
3. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 151.