During the year 1999 the leadership of Christ Community Church in Piscataway, NJ began to read and discuss Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church (1995). In the Spring of 2000, three staff members and one layperson flew to Orange County, CA and Saddleback Community Church to attend “The Purpose Driven Church Conference” and to experience firsthand the ministry at Saddleback.
The outcome of the discussions and the conference was a new vision for the church and a decision to become more effective in communicating and ministering to that segment of society often termed seekers — people who, though not yet Christian, are generally receptive to the Christian faith.
A New Vision
Early on in this process of change, we realized that we could not and should not try to duplicate Saddleback. But we also recognized that there was much we could learn from Saddleback Community Church and their approach to ministry.
A number of significant changes have resulted from this process. In addition to a new mission statement and a new ministry strategy, we are developing a new strategy for Sunday morning services: We will provide services on Sunday mornings that will edify the people of God and which will be intentionally designed for our members to bring unchurched friends, family, associates and neighbors.
Our strategy for Sunday services includes both Christians and seekers. For numerous reasons we do not feel that Sunday morning should be targeted primarily to either seekers or believers. We do not have the luxury of designing one service for seekers and another one for believers (as does Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago). The lack of our own facility (we rent facilities on Sunday mornings from Rutgers University) and the busyness of people’s schedules seems to preclude that option for us at this time.
Our church has a once-a-month midweek service, small groups, and offers Sunday morning Bible classes. But Sunday morning remains the primary teaching time for our congregation and also the primary entrance-way for people coming into the church. The answer for us then has been to design a service intentionally fashioned for both seekers and believers.
In considering the implications of this strategy for Sunday mornings, we realized that it would affect: music (the amount of music and greater use of special music), the use of creative communication (media, arts, testimonies, etc.) and preaching. This article documents our efforts to understand what it means for preaching to be expository and yet effective in communicating to both believers and seekers.
To that end we asked the following questions: How does being “seeker sensitive” affect preaching? What does it mean to preach to both the baptized and the unbaptized (to use Willimon’s [1994] terminology)? Can a sermon do both? Can a sermon be both expository and yet relevant to seekers? Can we be faithful to the text and yet speak to the needs and concerns of a listening world?
It is our belief that we can speak expository messages that are intended and effective for both believers and seekers.
Definition of Expository Preaching
A standard definition for expository preaching is given by Haddon Robinson. He states: “Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers”(Robinson 1980, 20).
Sidney Greidanus proposes the following definition: “Expository preaching is ‘Bible-centered preaching.’ That is, it is handling the text ‘in such a way that its real and essential meaning as it existed in the mind of the particular Biblical writer and as it exists in the light of the over-all context of scripture is made plain and applied to the present-day needs of the hearers'” (Greidanus 1988, 120).
Graeme Goldsworthy (2000, 120) states that expository preaching is “essentially the practice of explaining the meaning of Scripture.”
Robinson, Greidanus and Goldsworthy agree that expository preaching has to do with exposing or explaining the meaning of the biblical passage. This meaning must relate to the context of the particular passage and also to the context of scripture as a whole. Both Robinson and Greidanus state that expository preaching involves applying the idea of the passage to a particular audience.
The essence of expository preaching then is to explain the meaning of a passage or passages of scripture (correctly understood in the particular context and in the broader context of scripture) so that the scripture can be understood and applied by the hearers. This definition allows for textual expository preaching (using a single verse or sentence), paragraph expository preaching (using a paragraph or pericope from a single passage) or topical expository preaching (using two or more texts) (Warren, 2001, 2).
If this is the definition of expository preaching, it is very possible to preach sermons which are expository and relate to both believes and seekers.
Why Expository Preaching for Believers and Seekers?
The basis for preaching to both believers and seekers is both biblical and sociological.
1) We should preach expository messages for both believers and seekers in order to fulfill the biblical mandates to preach the gospel to all people and to teach those who have already come to faith. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:19, 20). We must do both. Both Christians and seekers need expository preaching. They need to have the Bible correctly explained and applied to their lives.
2) We should seek to preach to both believers and seekers for the rather obvious reason that both believers and seekers are present in our congregations. Our understanding of the preaching task must be affected by our analysis of our audience. The major entrance into the church for seekers coming into our congregations is through our Sunday morning services.
The fact is that seekers are present in churches on Sunday mornings. When people are growing in their faith and excited about their Christianity they naturally bring family and friends and co-workers to church with them. It is essential that we design our preaching to communicate the gospel to both believes and seekers.
It is probably important to note that it is an oversimplification to suggest that we speak to only two groups: believers and seekers. We should recognize that there are a multiplicity of groups making up any congregation: those who have grown up in church and those who are new to church (and to the Bible); those who were born before 1980 and those born after 1980; those who like contemporary music and those who like hymns; those who are more visual in their learning and those who are more linear, etc.
The Apostle Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 16) recognized the makeup of his audience and adapted his message accordingly (he didn’t quote scripture, and he did make use of secular illustrations). Our analysis of our congregation should always affect the way we preach.
The Dangers of a Seeker-Sensitive Approach
Yet, there are dangers in attempting to preach to seekers. The desire to be relevant to those who have not yet come to faith can lead us in some unbiblical directions. I note five:
1) There is the danger of inadequate exegesis and study of the text(s). Because preaching to seekers generally tends to be more topical, there is always the danger that the pressures of time will keep the preacher from a careful exegesis of scripture. It is hard enough to study one passage carefully, much less four or five passages.
Speaking of the difficulty of preaching from both an Old and a New Testament text, Sidney Greidanus (1999, 43) points out that the preacher “will have to do justice expositing not one but two texts in two entirely different historical settings.” And of course, the problem is compounded by the number of texts a preacher is using.
Thus the preacher who uses topical messages must be disciplined to study. Although he will not be able to put in as much time on any one passage, the preacher with integrity will be careful to put in some quality time on each passage. The only way to avoid misinterpretation and misapplication of scripture is through careful exegesis.
In addition, because those who preach to seekers are deeply concerned with being relevant, there can be a tendency to focus on image, illustration and application to such an extent that careful exegesis and interpretation is lost.
2) There is the danger of twisting the text to fit the topic. When we begin with a topic, there can be the temptation to subtly (not so subtly?) twist the meaning of a text to fit the topic. This can lead to what Walt Kaiser calls the proof-text approach to Bible interpretation.
The proof-text approach to understanding the Bible’s meaning emphasizes the practical and pastoral side of life. Typically a biblical meaning is needed for some real-life purpose, and the interpreter then goes searching for some scriptural texts that support the topical theme or pastoral position desired. The scriptural texts are valued more for their short, epigrammatic use of several key words that coincide with the topic or contemporary subject chosen than for the evidence that they actually bring from their own context.
This method, insofar as it ignores context, is completely inadequate. At its worst, it tends to treat the Bible as if it were a magical book or perhaps no more than an anthology of sayings for every occasion. Individual texts, however, belong to larger units and address specific situations, coming out of historical purposes for which they were written and contexts for which they now are relevant.
The proof-text model often relies on a naive reading of the text. It may disregard the purpose for which the text was written, the historical conditioning in which it is set, and the genre conventions that shape it. Consequently, this method is vulnerable to allegorization, psychologization, spiritualization and other forms of quick-and-easy adjustments of the scriptural words to say what one wishes them to say in the contemporary scene, ignoring their intended purpose and usage as determined by context, grammar and historical background (Kaiser 1994, 31, 32).
This is a problem which is not exclusive to those who preach to seekers, but it is fair to say that the temptations are greater for those who place a high value on relevance.
3) There is the danger of not preaching on hard topics. There can be an understandable reluctance to preach on what might be considered ‘hard’ topics (i.e. abortion, homosexuality, passages which speak of the role of women in the church and family, missions, etc.). If these topics and passages are not addressed on Sunday morning, we must ask when they will be addressed. It should be noted that many churches with seeker services do attempt to address difficult topics, but do so in a way that communicates well with seekers.
4) There is the danger of failing to address the issues of biblical theology. Preaching for seekers can unwittingly flatten the landscape of scripture, so that Old Testament texts are used alongside New Testament texts with no regard for the progress of revelation. Graeme Goldsworthy (2000, 73) reminds us that “not all texts stand in the same relationship to the contemporary believer as others.”
Further he states, “It is grossly irresponsible for a preacher to moralize on isolated texts and to convey the notion that the real issue is finding self-esteem, happiness, health, self-fulfillment or any other desirable quality in life, as if these were valuable in themselves. All these good qualities need to be put in perspective through the gospel and its framework of salvation history” (Goldsworthy 2000 79, 80). Preaching for seekers, if it is to be expository, must take the progressive nature of scripture into account.
5) There is the danger of producing moralizing sermons. These are sermons that give “five ways to overcome anger” or “six benefits of reading the Bible”, etc. This type of sermon can give the impression that Christianity is a matter of following a number of rules or principles. The gospel is often ‘tacked on’ rather than central to the heart of the sermon. These sermons often fail to be truly Christ-centered.
But none of these dangers need be fatal. The expository preacher who desires to speak to seekers will be aware of the dangers and will carefully avoid them. These dangers are like rocks that guard a bountiful coast. The careful preacher will not stay out in the deep water of irrelevance but will navigate carefully through the treacherous waters to the fertile shores of both careful interpretation and relevant application.
Expository Preaching for Believers and Seekers
When we are preaching expository messages to an audience that consists of both believers and seekers, there are a number of principles which can help us to be effective in applying the message to both groups.
Preaching to the overlap
There are passages and topics which are of interest to everyone. Seekers care about prayer; they are interested in having a successful marriage. This is preaching to the overlap, the intersection of interests between believers and those who are not yet believers. It is preaching to the common denominator of ideas and issues that affect all people of our day. It is preaching which relates to mature believers, new believers and not-yet believers.
Preaching to seekers is not purely evangelistic preaching. Rather it is Christianity 101: an introduction to basic Christian teachings which relates to the issues of our day. It is scratching where people (not just seekers, but people in general) itch.
In our first endeavor to consciously seek to preach sermons that were oriented toward those who may be described as seekers we did a series entitled “Putting Balance in Your Life.” It dealt with schedules, priorities and the busyness of life from a Christian perspective. It was interesting to find that it was not just seekers who responded positively; it was believers, often mature believers, who responded with great enthusiasm.
Preaching that is overheard
A sermon cannot always be directed to everyone. A sermon must have a perspective. Is it spoken to those who have come to faith, telling them how to live? Or is it directed to those who have not yet come to faith, telling them they must come to faith?
In preaching I may direct my words to believers — but say it in such a way that unbelievers can listen in. “This is what a Christian is like!” The unbeliever overhears the conversation. Sometimes it is the Christian who listens in.
Expository sermons for believers and seekers explain what the Christian life looks like. They directly and indirectly say “Here is what real Christianity looks like!”
When I stand before our congregation on Sunday mornings I am aware that there are almost always “seekers” in the congregation. Although I cannot address everything I say directly to them, I do not have to. What I must do is speak in such a way that they can hear (overhear) and apply the gospel to their lives. Recently in a ser-mon I said, “You are forgiven in Christ.” I was speaking directly to Christians but in a way that non-Christians could understand. I then expanded that thought by saying, “If you have believed in Christ, you are forgiven.”
Preaching in the vernacular
At the core of preaching to seekers is using the common language of the day. When we preach for seekers, we must avoid church or theological language or at least define our terms. At the heart of expository preaching for seekers is not their approval but clarity. The seeker may well not approve the message, particularly if he understands it. The cross is still a stumbling block for many. But we must strive for clarity. Clarity comes through using language the listener can understand.
I was recently at a committee meeting for our denomination where we were interviewing a candidate for ministry. I asked a question of the candidate using the word ‘exegesis,’ mistakenly assuming that everyone there understood its meaning. One of the lay members of the committee quickly stopped me and said, “Whoa, what does that mean?” Our listeners on Sundays can’t raise their hands but they do ask “what does that mean?” We must choose our words with care. Preaching for seekers is often not so much a matter of what is said but how it is said.
Preaching that paints a picture
One key to preaching for seekers is illustration, image and example. Both believes and seekers are attracted to illustration, examples and vivid imagery. It is really not so much a believer/seeker issue as it is a generational issue. Wade Clark Roof tells that “the most important impact of television was that it replaced the word with the image” (Roof,54). Seekers in particular need more than abstract thought – they need us to paint a picture. God has made us so that we communicate through both proposition and imagery. Those who preach regularly to seekers know the importance of using (not overusing) image, illustration and example.
Preaching topics and passages
Preaching for seekers is often topical. One reason for this is that it is often easier to deal with particular themes using a number of passages than it is using only one. In a recent article entitled “Can Topical Preaching Be Expository?” Timothy Warren (2001,1) defends topical preaching. He gives three reasons: 1) People like topical preaching; 2) sometimes situations demand topical preaching; and 3) topical preaching is modeled in scripture.
But preaching for seekers does not have to be topical. It is quite possible to preach relevant sermons from a single passage and it is probably best to do so as often as possible.
Preaching in context
Preaching to seekers should give enough of the biblical context so that listeners over a period of time can gain an understanding of biblical theology and can learn how to understand the Bible for themselves. This helps to re-inforce the idea that the Bible is the source and authority for our preaching.
Robinson explains that the preacher should present “enough of his study to the congregation so that a listener may check the interpretation himself.” (1980,23) Showing the connection between sermon thought and the Bible (both physically “look at this verse with me” and hermeneutically “here is why we should understand that verse in this way”) will help to prevent the proof-text mentality that is so often criticized in seeker-oriented preaching.
Preaching which answers objections
Preaching is in many ways a dialogue. As we preach our listeners are engaged with us in a conversation, asking questions and raising objections. Seekers engage in this activity probably more than Christians do. Part of our responsibility as preachers is to anticipate and answer the objections of both believers and seekers. David Buttrick writes in this regard “We cannot ignore oppositions. What we can do is to design contrapuntal [counterpoint] systems of language to recognize, and, perhaps, defuse the power of opposition. The problem is more urgent today than in the past” (Buttrick, 1987,32).
Preaching to the bottom line
People in general and seekers in particular are impatient to get to the point. They need to have something they can take away from the sermon. The bottom line has to flow out of the text; it must have theological and biblical integrity, but it also has to be practical. Preaching to seekers must be useful preaching. Every sermon must have a bottom line (a purpose). In some sense, the entire sermon must be application. Asking ourselves what a listener should do to respond to this sermon may help us to become more practical in our preaching.
Preaching to seekers means preaching Christ
Paul writes “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Greidanus argues that this does not mean narrowly focusing on the cross but also includes his life, teaching and works (Greidanus 1999,10).
And so Greidanus defines preaching Christ as “preaching sermons which authentically integrate the message of the text with the climax of God’s revelation in the person, work and/or teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament” (1999,10). This means that our ethical preaching always flows from the gospel and finds its ultimate significance in Jesus. And Old Testament texts are rightly understood only in their relation to the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ. Jesus then is central to expository preaching, never tacked on.
Bryan Chapell states “Proper exposition does not discover its Christ-focus by disposing of any passage or by imposing Jesus on the text, but by discerning the place and role of the text in the entire revelation of God’s redemptive plan” (Chapell, 1994,292).
One way to tell if the message is Christ-focused is to ask “If I removed Jesus from this sermon would it still hang together?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then it may be that Christ is not central to the sermon.
Questions To Ask
The following questions may help us as we seek to preach expository messages which relate to both believers and seekers.
1) Have I given quality time and careful exegesis to each main passage I intend to explain?
2) Does this sermon have hermeneutical integrity? Have I considered how biblical theology and the progress of revelation may impact the interpretation of this passage?
3) Is this sermon understandable to someone who is brand new to Christianity? Have I removed or defined theological terms which would not be understood by those unfamiliar with the faith?
4) Is there a bottom line to this sermon? Are there practical applications that people can act on?
5) What objections may people raise to what I have said? Have I adequately answered those objections?
6) Have I made adequate use (not overuse) of image, illustration and example in this sermon? Do the images, illustrations and examples relate well to the audience to whom I am speaking?
7) What is the general perspective of the sermon? Am I preaching to Christians and asking seekers to listen in? Or am I preaching to seekers and asking Christians to listen in?
8) If I removed Jesus from this sermon, would it still hang together? Is Jesus central to this sermon?
Can we preach expository sermons which are relevant to both believers and those who have not yet come to faith? It can be done, although not perfectly. There will always be some tension and some compromises. Some sermons will be more helpful to believers, some may be more directed to seekers. It can’t be done perfectly, but it can be done effectively.
One Sunday shortly after a service in which I had preached, a person who had not yet come to faith came up to me and told me that he was getting closer. I was told by another person, a committed Christian, how helpful the same sermon was for her life. That is the goal of expository preaching for believers and seekers.
Expository preaching for believers and seekers is simply preaching which seeks to communicate effectively the authentic message of the Bible to the entire audience.
Buttrick, David. 1987. Homiletic. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Chapell, Bryan. 1994. Christ-Centered Preaching. Michigan: Baker Books.
Greidanus, Sidney. 1988. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. __________. 1999. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Goldsworthy, Graeme. 2000. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kaiser, Walter C. and Moises Silva. 1994. An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.
Robinson, Haddon W. 1980. Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Roof, Wade Clark. 1993. A Generation of Seekers. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Warren, Timothy. 2001. “Can Topical Preaching Be Expository?” Preaching Today Journal (on-line journal www.preachingtoday.com). July 9, 2001.
Warren, Rick. 1995. The Purpose Driven Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.
Willimon, William H. 1994. The Intrusive Word. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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