Occasionally I get to take a rest and not preach. Recently, I was on vacation and visited a church in another part of the country. It was Sunday morning, and I looked forward to a time of worship: singing, praying, listening to God’s Word.
The singing and praying were not unlike many of churches where I preach as guest or visit. The preaching seemed to be the same, too. That is, my experience in listening to preaching when I visit various churches has been disappointing. Yes, I know, I’m a preaching professor at a seminary. I have expectations of my students, but I also have expectations of any preacher to whom I listen.
What I’ve discovered after several years of visiting various churches and listening to preachers preach is that the text often is not exposited. That is, the text is not exposed. The idea of the text rarely is emphasized, and the text often isn’t supported in the preaching.
After listening to sermons all these years, I have concluded preachers either talk before the text or talk around the text but rarely talk about the text. What do I mean by these three categories?
Talking Before the Text
As for talking before the text, the preacher provides information about the theme as the preacher sees it presented in the preaching text. Talking before the text may give background information, but again, the background may not be germane to that preaching text.
In addition, when preaching the sermon the preacher may think he or she is making clear the text to listeners by quoting other texts. The buckshot of other texts may have some thematic bearing on the preaching text but does not necessarily mean the context of the Scripture being preached is made clear.
Preaching before the text also may include fillers—ongoing chatter with the congregation to develop rapport or worn-out techniques that one uses to begin sermons. One preacher I know begins every sermon with a joke, which usually has nothing to do with the text or the idea of the text. It is simply the way he always begins his sermons.
Talking before the text is not strategic. It distracts from the text. It rarely helps in achieving the purpose of the sermon, which is communicating clearly the thrust of the text as it intersects the lives of one’s listeners.
Talking Around the Text
Talking around the text skirts the preaching of the actual preaching text. Here the preacher may say biblical, orthodox, helpful, encouraging or insightful things; but the preacher does not actually exposit—deal with—the text.
What do I mean? Some preachers may provide listeners with a fill-in-the-blank outline. Fill-in-the-blank outlines can provide clear structure for logical thinking but often becomes evidence of a weak structure for a sermon when it does not deal with the text. In addition, listeners who are intent on filling in their outlines actually may miss things the preacher is talking about. Examined closely, some outlines become an excuse for the preacher to cover weak exegesis and flimsy homiletics. When not used with solid exegesis, outlines fail to communicate clearly the idea of the biblical text.
In addition, the preacher may come to the text with what he or she wants to say and forces the text to support the sermon. For example, in one sermon I heard, the preacher wanted to talk about the hurry of the holidays. He forced the preaching text from Isaiah 26:3-4, 12 to deal with after-Christmas stress. That text is not about holiday hassle.
Another way the preacher talks around the text is by touching here and there on various Scripture passages, supporting one point in the outline, but does not focus on the text itself. One sermon I heard was about life in the Holy Spirit from Galatians 5:16-26. The preacher did not deal with the contrast between walking in sin and walking in the Spirit in the preaching text but went to other biblical texts to show the contrast. The comparison was right there in Galatians! Yet the preacher ignored it, possibly thinking that going to other texts strengthened his argument. However, the preaching text was not explained. The preacher talked around the text.
Talking around the text puts a sermon out of focus. Preachers should want to help listeners clearly see how the sermon is based on the text by pointing to the text.
Talking About the Text
Talking about the text is what good, solid biblical preaching is about. This kind of preaching is based on exegesis with study of the history of the text, the grammar of the text and literary sensitivity of the text, and what the biblical author wants readers to do. Out of this study is the determining of the dominant idea of the text—and sticking to it. When we commit ourselves to talking about the text, we have the following commitments.
A commitment to dealing with the text at hand: When we preach, we want to deal with the preaching text, the text at hand. We stick to it. We try to figure it out—in its context—and do all we can to be clear as to the idea of the text and how the idea of the text is supported by the biblical author.
A commitment to being clear: The dominant idea of the text is the dominant idea of the sermon. Homiletics reflects the idea of the biblical text. We are committed to what the Bible says is what we say. Therefore the outline—whether published or not—helps listeners see a clear, logical or psychological development of the idea of the preaching text.
A commitment to communicating the clear idea of the text: The sermon zeros in on the idea of the preaching text in explaining, proving and applying of the idea. Rabbit trails and underdeveloped thinking is not tolerated, because we want listeners to follow the preacher easily. After our visit to a church one Sunday, my wife said, “The preacher was pleasant, and he had a theme. He was easy to listen to.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “He was pleasant and sincere, but he didn’t deal with the text.”
“You’re right!” she said. We can do a disservice to our listeners who depend on us for solid biblical preaching when we fail to preach the text at hand.
A commitment to talking about the text: Talking about the text is the preacher’s responsibility. If not, the preacher stumbles into pitfalls that may come across to listeners as being well-prepared or studied but may mask faulty exegesis, forced homiletics, or weak biblical support for one’s sermon.
A commitment to connect the text to one’s listeners: Talking about the text pushes the preacher to make connections for the listeners. When we do it correctly, people say, “How did he know that about me?” or, “Wow, this is how I can move forward in my walk with the Lord.” Haddon Robinson said of this effect, “When the steel of God’s Word strikes the flint of people’s lives.” Talking about the text keeps us on task to make these connections for our listeners and provides solid biblical instruction for growth in discipleship with Christ.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not the phantom preaching professor who stealthily slips into the pews to critique unsuspecting preachers. I am a concerned listener. I am concerned about biblical fidelity and integrity. All I want—all any maturing disciple wants—is for preachers to talk about the text.
Preachers, instead of talking before the text or around the text, let’s determine to talk about the text. Talking about the text is our commitment. Talking about the text is our responsibility.
When Walter C. Kaiser Jr. was president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, he preached each week in chapel and reminded students and faculty, “Keep your finger in the text.” That’s a good reminder to all of us: Talk about the text.
Scott M. Gibson is Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Director of the Haddon Robinson Center for Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.