Those who study denominations such as the one in which I serve (evangelical, largely Anglo, suburban and middle-class) say that the sermons of our preachers most commonly address the “3M” concerns of our church culture: Morals, Marriage, and Money. These subjects are certainly worthy of Scriptural address, but they obviously do not cover the scope of Scripture’s subjects.

How do we break the preoccupations of our preaching that not only dull hearers to our messages but also blind them to the implications of the Lordship of Christ over the whole of life?

 

Expand Subject Variety

The expositor’s ethic to “say what the text says” will automatically expand our subject categories, if we preach consecutively (i.e., covering texts and subjects as they arise in the course of preaching through books of the Bible). John A. Broadus, the father of modern expository preaching, wisely noted that preaching through books of the Bible (even if we do not advance verse by verse) will necessarily lead to preaching subjects not otherwise considered by the pastor.[1]

Consecutive preaching does not rule out the wisdom of occasional, topical sermons or series (nor does it endorse a dogged ploughing through Isaiah for 144 weeks), but it will lead us to subjects beyond tired categories and personal preferences.

 

Expand Structure Variety

Genre Sensitivity

The more that our sermon structure allows the thought and structure of the text to show and have the impact intended by the original author, the more variety will be in our sermons and the more they will conform to the purposes of the text.[2]

Sensitivity to the text’s nature may mean that the sermon will develop more through mention of events with chronological development, or moves of plot with ironic or surprise development, or echoes of words and threads of themes in poetic development, than by traditionally-worded main points that move from generic principles to particular applications.

Congregation Sensitivity        

This traditional, deductive structure lends itself to stating a problem and then identifying or proving a solution. The problem/solution approach appeals to the academic mind, but it set up an unfortunate dynamic with listeners, if it is a preacher’s only style.

We can vary overall approaches and impressions by recognizing that many texts (and the overall gospel message) are more about declaring a solution than proving a problem. We move toward a more edifying stance, and more structural possibilities, when specifying a problem or need with which our people can identify early in the message (usually in the introduction) and, then, use the bulk of the message to show how the text either identifies a plan for handling the problem, or the advantages of implementing such a plan.[3]

 

Expand Application Variety

Determining what structure is best for the exposition of a text is not merely a matter of personal or congregational preference for the true expositor. A biblical expositor is a servant of the text, and is solemnly bound to employing the measures that best communicate its purpose.

Discern Burden as Well as Facts

We discern the purpose of a scriptural passage by identifying the burden of the text before we explain the content of the text, lest we fall into what a preaching friend calls “factoid preaching.” We must determine why a text was written before we recite the facts it contains.

We determine the burden of the text by first determining what was the reason the text was written to the people in its original context (e.g., Were they sad, lonely, rebellious, fearful, doubting, distracted in worship, distant in affection, or grieving over affliction?). Then, we need to identify how our listeners share that fallen condition (in heart or circumstance or both).[4]

Identify Specifics as Well as Principles

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of identifying the fallen condition our listeners have that is being addressed by the hope of the biblical text. The very reason that they are sitting in church is the hope that the preacher can explain how the gospel has significance for the needs and hurts of their lives. When we demonstrate that we understand that hope, and that Scripture addresses it, then boredom turns to anticipation, and calloused commitment to endure another sermon turn turns into eagerness to hear God’s Word for our lives.

That eagerness will wane, however, if the application remains abstract or merely theoretical. Generic applications of “go thou and do likewise” or “read your Bible more, pray more, and go to church more,” are another cause of sermons that sound too similar to inspire.

The fastest way to move sermons into the crucibles of life is first to discern the significance of the truth a biblical text teaches and, then, to enter congregational lives through the “Who door.” In your study ask, “Who needs to hear this?” Then, in the sermon, do not identify those persons, but identify how their situations are addressed by the biblical truths in this passage.

This approach not only keeps sermons from having the lists of legalisms at the ends of sermons that are “labeled” as applications, but actually enables people to see how the truths of Scripture apply to the situations of their lives.

 

Preach the Fullness of the Gospel

The antidote to tired legalisms or spiritual disinterest is not some weekly repetition of “this is what God requires, but you can’t do it, so trust his grace of forgiveness.” The gospel is more than a message of forgiveness; it is the promise that “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).

We must be clear that the grace pervading all Scripture culminates in the Christ who now indwells his people to ignite love for him and enable their victories over sin (Jn. 14:4-6; Rom. 6:6, 14; 2 Cor. 4:14).[5] If we will take care to disclose the specific burden of each biblical text we preach and the specific aspect of grace that relieves that burden, then we will preach with the variety and power that the gospel of God in Christ Jesus intends.

 

Footnotes

[1] John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, ed. J. B. Weatherspoon (New York: Harper & Row, 1944; orig. 1870), 142.

[2] Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Preaching with Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 16-28 & 86–95.

[3] See Bryan Chapell, “Alternative Models: Old Friends in New Clothes,” in A Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, ed. Michael Duduit [Nashville: Broadman, 1992], 117–31. Tony Merida lists ten organization patterns in Faithful Preaching, 92–92; Barbara Hunter and Brenda Buckley Hunter list eleven organizational patterns in Introductory Speech Communication: Overcoming Obstacles, Reaching Goals (Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt, 1988), 31–32. More possibilities abound; cf. Donald Sunukjian, Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 27–41, 143–55; Anderson, Choosing to Preach, 65, 70, 85. Standard structural alternatives include problem/solution, proof of contention, cause to effect, effect to cause, explanation and application, story with moral, elimination of wrong alternatives (called the “chase outline” because a preacher chases down wrong leads to find a right answer), answers to a provocative question, and unfolding dimensions of a controlling image, story, or biographical sequence.

[4] Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, Baker: 2018), 28-32.

[5] Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 20-22 & 56-69.

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