In John Stott’s classic Between Two Worlds, he depicts the preacher as a man positioned between two civilizations, tasked to bridge the ancient world with the modern, the ancient text with modern ears.
Stott argued that the preacher is a bridge: If he is to be effective, he must be grounded firmly on both sides of the canyon. The preacher must be a careful student of both worlds, exegeting his text and his times. To accomplish this, Stott contended the preacher must ask himself two questions: What did the text mean then, and what does it say now? The latter answer, of course, is rooted in the former.1
Stott’s paradigm speaks to our ministry moment, as well. In 2015, the American church faced unprecedented, often unpredictable, cultural challenges. The American church seems placed in the middle of a never-ending session of bull-in-the-ring, with cultural pressures—especially related to gender, sexuality, marriage and family—coming from anywhere at any time. The preacher’s task—to bridge the ancient world with the modern—is an urgent one and increasingly so.
Stott’s depiction, though offered more than three decades ago, is a helpful reminder of the preacher’s fundamental task: to bring the text of Scripture to bear on the lives of his hearers. However, if one is committed to biblical exposition, and especially to lectio continua (sequential, verse-by-verse exposition), to be a man between two worlds occasionally is to be a man in tension.
The stauncher one’s commitment to lectio continua, the more heightened the tension at times will be. The predicament is clear. Expository preaching—particularly sequential, verse-by-verse exposition—at times is an uneasy partner with the prophet’s burden.
As one staunchly committed to lectio continua, I will argue for the appropriateness of interrupting sequential exposition to engage pressing cultural and congregational concerns; suggest in what circumstances the preacher should interrupt his preaching series; and propose methodologically how one might go about doing so.
Let me frame the dilemma.
Sequential exposition and the urge to deviate from it are rooted in the Bible’s self-attestation that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness, and that the preacher’s primary task is to preach the Word. As he does, he stands on promises such as, “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”2
These passages, among many, provide a rationale for biblical exposition; but they don’t define it. In fact, a consensus definition for expository preaching proves stubbornly elusive. Consequently, and regrettably, in recent years the phrase expository preaching has become quite elastic with much preaching being crammed under that heading, though bearing little resemblance to more classical practitioners of biblical exposition. To focus our thoughts, let me suggest four essential marks of biblical exposition:
1. The necessity of accurately interpreting the text;
2. The necessity of the point of the sermon and the sermon’s points to be derived from the text;
3. The necessity of the sermon’s application to come from the text and for the text to be brought to bear on the congregation; and
4. The priority of lectio continua, or sequential, verse-by-verse exposition.
For example, consider how three leading homileticians define expository preaching, and listen for these common themes.
Alistair Begg defines expository preaching as, “Unfolding the text of Scripture in such a way that makes contact with the listener’s world while exalting Christ and confronting them with the need for action.”3
Haddon Robinson’s definition has been standard issue in seminary classrooms for several decades. He defines biblical exposition as, “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 first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to the hearers.”4
Bryan Chappell argues that expository preaching has occurred when “The main idea of the sermon (the topic), the divisions of that idea (the main points), and the development of those divisions (the subpoints) all come from truths the text itself contains. No significant portion of the text is ignored. In other words, expositors willingly stay within the boundaries of a text (and its relevant context) and do not leave until they have surveyed its entirety with their listeners.”5
Condensing these three, we might simply define biblical exposition as, “accurately interpreting and explaining the text of Scripture and bringing it to bear on the lives of the hearers.” Again, consider the constants within expository preaching: accurately interpreting the text, deriving the sermon point and points from text, and bringing the text to bear on the congregation, preferably in a verse-by-verse way.
Even this minimalistic definition of expository preaching necessitates the sermon’s application be subordinate to the sermon’s text. The preacher does not preach from the text or on the text. He preaches the text, thereby limiting the sermon’s application to the point of the passage preached.
The tension, therefore, shows up in most every form of exposition, but especially through sequential, verse-by-verse exposition; and it forces the question: How does one remain faithful to the text and to sequential exposition, yet adequately engage pressing cultural concerns impacting the congregation?
Conversely, the less committed one is to sequential exposition, the less the tension. A topical preacher just preaches on the desired topic. A loose expositor just manufactures application from the text, even if there is no direct textual connection.
The wager of lectio continua is that in time the accrued week-to-week benefits offsets the weekly adaptability and flexibility offered by topical preaching. The upside of sequential exposition, though, does not obviate the periodic tension the expositor feels.
Allow me to reflect on my own journey in this regard…
In my early years of pastoral ministry, I was committed to preaching through books in the Bible. Generally, next week’s sermon—and every week’s sermon—was pre-committed. That was a conviction with which I began my preaching ministry. It is a conviction to which I stubbornly cling today.
I’d periodically surface to select the next book of the Bible I would preach through, but week-to-week there was little suspense in my life about what I would be preaching. My texts, thus my sermons and their applications, were predetermined.
• Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, July 4th or other national holidays were irritants, as I knew many congregants expected the sermons to reflect the calendar in this regard. I knew it would take time to wean my people off this expectation.
• Christian celebratory days such as Christmas and Easter were easy as they were days for believers to focus uniquely on Christ. Thus, I was happy to plan my preaching schedule with these days in mind.
• However, the vexing occasions for me were days such as Right to Life Sunday; or when issues of sexuality, marriage or family came up in the culture in a way that necessitated focused attention from the pulpit; or most dramatically when an adult entertainment store opened in proximity to the church and the zoning regulations and wrangling that accompanied the opening drew the congregation’s attention. I simply had to address it.
This third category left me conflicted. I was committed to preaching through books in the Bible and to wedding my application to the passage preached. At the same time, I had a nagging sense that I should be instructing my church on the great social urgencies of our day.
Conversely—and of additional concern—I witnessed some ministers hide behind their commitments to expository preaching. They professed readiness to preach boldly about issues of life, gender, sexuality and marriage and to reprove and rebuke with all authority when they come across these issues specifically in the text. Yet these never seemed to come up in the text.
Having framed sequential exposition and the accompanying limitations, let’s consider why it is appropriate to interrupt the series as circumstances dictate.
Simply put, every preaching event occurs in a context, situated in a cultural moment with space and time realities. It is not a sterile or clinical act. That is why seminary preaching labs only accomplish so much. They are artificial, synthetic settings.
A full awareness of the authority and relevance of Scripture and its ability to transform any person in any context should not mitigate the preacher’s alertness to congregation and culture but should intensify it. Thus, every sermon should be a customized sermon, crafted specifically for the recipients.
We do not preach to impersonal groups but to individuals with circumstantial concerns, distractions, questions and urgencies. The aim of the sermon is to speak the Word to the specific crowd gathered. There is a sense in which the Word is powerful enough to be preached anywhere and at any time with effect, but our full confidence in the preached Word should not minimize the need for the sermon to be tailored for the specific moment. The goal of the sermon is to impact and change the lives of those gathered. As York and Decker note, “Sermons are not about just imparting information. They should be custom-built to change lives. We don’t want to fill their heads; we want the proclamation of the Word to grip their souls and motivate them to conform to the will of God.”6
In fact, apostolic preaching was strikingly contextual. For example, Peter and Paul heralded the foundational truths of the Christian faith such as the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and salvation by repentance and faith. Yet as they preached, they engaged their audiences. This follows suit with the New Testament epistles, each of which are written to address specific concerns, doctrinal or otherwise, which believers faced.
Perhaps the preaching of the Protestant Reformation furnishes the best example. As a case study, we can look to the one who rediscovered lectio continua, Uldrich Zwingli. Before Calvin was preaching in Geneva from the New Testament every morning and the Old Testament every evening, Zwingli was recovering lectio continua in the Grossmunster.
Zwingli, citing the pattern of Augustine and Chrysostom, ascended his Swiss pulpit in Zurich on Jan. 1, 1519, and preached from Matthew 1:1, beginning his pattern of lectio continua, and in so doing began the Reformation in Switzerland. Zwingli argued the best way to reform the church was through preaching the whole counsel of God.
The reformers, including Zwingli and Calvin, applied their sermons to the pressing issues facing the Reformation, including social challenges and civic disruption. In fact, to read their sermons is to be confronted with the throes of the Reformation and all the drama that was theirs. What is more, they occasionally interrupted their lectio continua to engage pressing civic and church concerns.
Therefore, we stand on solid biblical and historical ground to engage cultural concerns through our preaching, but knowing when to interrupt lectio continua is an altogether different matter.
When do we interrupt the series?
The preacher must always be engaged in three realms of exegesis—first the text, then his times, and his congregation. Preachers are not called to be politicians, but they are called to be alert. As the preacher exegetes his text and his times, he sees how the two intersect—or don’t intersect—with his congregation.
Exegeting the text, the preacher seeks the authorial intent of the passage, understanding every passage has a human and a divine author. The exegetical process includes the broader context, as well:
• What themes are being carried forward?
• What are the themes of the book?
• What are the concerns the author is addressing?
• What is the cultural setting in which the book was penned?
• What does this passage communicate explicitly or implicitly about Christ?
• How does this passage fit into the overall schema of God’s redemptive history?
I mention this, not as a refresher on hermeneutics but as determinative in the parameters of application. Again, faithful biblical exposition must derive its application from the text. If the text does not speak to the pressing cultural concern, it is better to change to another text to preach than to bend the text to fit your momentary need.
The text is the primary realm of exegesis, but it is not the concluding one. The preacher also must be alert to how the culture is influencing his congregation and what, if any, are the pressing, disrupting concerns of the day.
Finally, the preacher must always be exegeting his own congregation. The best preaching takes place with full awareness of congregation and culture, and the preacher must be familiar with both.
The most likely temptation will be to interrupt sequential exposition too frequently. Therefore, by way of analogy, the preacher should think of himself as a type of insurance adjuster. An insurance adjuster arrives in the aftermath of a car accident and surveys the damage. He analyzes the wrecked automobile, photographs and documents the damage, and writes an assessment of how much it might cost to repair the vehicle.
The preacher functions similarly by assessing the culture and his congregation—both of which are dynamic, ever-changing—and determines if the concern is so great that he should engage the cultural and/or congregational concern. If the answer is yes, he then discerns how best to engage them.
How might the preacher gain clarity in his assessment? Consider these nine questions, which will serve as indicators for the expositor, helping him discern the extent of the concern and whether it should impact his upcoming sermon.
Does the concern affect a significant portion of the congregation in a substantial way? Does this problem, crisis or concern on the minds of the church members move them to come to church hoping (and needing) to hear a direct and timely Word from the Lord? Given the sensationalized and never-ending news cycle to which we now are subjected, the key word is substantial: substantial number of people effected in a significant way.
Should this concern be affecting them? Is the distraction legitimate? Many church members stumble into worship with earthy and earthly distractions, and the last thing the preacher should do is legitimatize or draw attention to them. Everything from college football to pop-culture personalities and circumstances to the rolling events of the never-ending news cycle all clamor for their attention. To seek to engage such is to forfeit biblical exposition altogether. It is to become a topical preacher. Just because there is an elephant in the room doesn’t mean one should engage it. Perhaps it needs to be ignored—or shooed out altogether.
Does this concern pose a threat to God’s people morally, doctrinally or in some other way? The faithful shepherd warns the sheep. This warning most commonly happens through the regular exposition of Scripture, but there are times when a more direct, timely word is needed. Hence, it may be necessary to preach an isolated sermon on the prosperity gospel, historicity of Genesis, biblical sexuality, the Obergefell decision, religious liberty, etc.
Does this concern necessitate a pastoral response of comfort? The faithful shepherd not only warns the sheep but also comforts them. For example, in the context of the Iraq War, I pastored a church comprised nearly 50 percent of military personnel. During the ramp-up to the war when a number of our members were being deployed to combat, I interrupted my series to preach a particularly encouraging sermon from the Psalms. Further, to borrow a more recent event, if one pastored in Paris, it would be ministerial malpractice to ignore the recent terrorist attacks. Also, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the sermon most needed probably wasn’t one of rebuke against the culture but of hope in God and a reminder that Christ is building His church for the congregation.
Does the preacher need to inform the church of a hazardous issue or circumstance? For instance, is there pending legislation, perhaps pertaining to marriage, of which the church must be informed? Is there a forthcoming issue that will roil the congregation? Events such as the Ashley Madison scandal, Planned Parenthood videos or the Obergefell-U.S. Supreme Court decision may necessitate the preacher inform his congregation or interpret the issues for his congregation. Additionally, there may be internal issues which merit direct engagement: issues such as disunity in the church, sexual immorality or some knotty case of church discipline may necessitate interrupting the sermon series.
Is there a clear biblical connection between the concern and a specific text? Does the Bible actually speak to the issue? If there is something worse than not speaking where the Bible speaks, it is to speak where the Bible does not speak. For instance, as the presidential election approaches issues such as taxation, immigration, state rights, the Affordable Care Act, and a host of others, most would be a stretch to engage biblically.
Has this concern come to the preacher? Though I’ve argued the need for a preacher to have an antenna, the biggest concerns surely will find him. Are God’s people clamoring for a word from the Lord?
Is there a biblical therefore to the text and the concern? Does the Bible not only reference the concern, but actually speak to it? For example, regarding the issue of marriage, we not only point out what it is not—same-sex—but what it is—the conjugal, covenant union of a man and a woman.
Are you moved by principle or just wanting to break the boredom? If the impulse to interrupt the series is to alleviate the boredom, the preacher may have bigger issues. If that is the case, you don’t have a problem with the length of the series, but the composition of the sermons, hence a problem with the preacher himself. Be wary of interrupting the series for anything less than a true congregational or cultural urgency.
Engaging Pressing Cultural Concerns:
The wager of lectio continua is that in time, the accrued week-to-week benefits of sequential exposition offsets the weekly adaptability and flexibility of topical preaching. Again, with lectio continua being the preferred approach to preaching, take the proposed steps of engaging current concerns incrementally and only when truly necessary away from lectio continua. Consider five questions to help frame how we might accomplish this.
1.Does this week’s text speak to or touch on the concern? Can you legitimately derive implication or application from the passage before you? If so, the problem is solved. Again, the key is not to bend the text to this end. To do so is to forfeit faithful exegesis. It is always better to change texts then to bend the text.
2.Does an upcoming text sufficiently engage the concern? One upside of lectio continua is that you know not only what you are preaching in the short-term but what you will be preaching down the road. In fact, cultural and congregational realities may rightly inform the book one preaches through.
3.Does this concern merit interrupting the sermon series? The greater the concern, as assessed by the nine questions, the more likely one should interrupt the series. Picture two ascending and correlating lines. The higher up the concern graph, the more likely the concern will merit interrupting sequential exposition to address it.
4.Can you preach a topical, expositional sermon on the urgent concern? Regardless of what one preaches or from which passage one preaches, the congregation should not be surprised by how one preaches. To interrupt sequential exposition in order to let another text speak can reinforce the authority and relevancy of God’s Word. To interrupt sequential exposition for periodic, topical soapbox sermons undermines biblical exposition. It subtly infers that verse-by-verse preaching is what one does when there isn’t a sexy, captivating topic for one to preach.
5.Is this concern a gospel issue answered in Christ? Remember the most ultimate points of application are found in Christ. Run to Christ as the end of the text and the solution to crisis and need; and as you run to Christ, point out the many signs of falleness and the need for the gospel. After all, so much of our pressing cultural concerns go back to the effects of total depravity and the aftermath of Genesis 3.
To this end, Charles Spurgeon famously exhorted a candidate for ordination to find a route to preach Christ from every passage of Scripture. He implored the candidate:
“Don’t you know, young man, that from every town and every village and every hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London? So, from every text of Scripture there is a road to Christ. And my dear brother, your business is, when you get to a text, to say, now, what is the road to Christ? I have never found a text that did not have a road to Christ in it, and if ever I do find one, I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savor of Christ in it.”7
The ultimate point of every sermon is Christ’s saving work, and the most profound points of application for pressing cultural concerns are found in Him. When preachers run first from the text to contemporary application, they may speed by the most prescient point of application of all: the finished work of Christ. Yet when they run to Him, they apply the text to the deepest needs and longings of the human heart.
In fact, Lloyd-Jones argued for expository preaching along these very same lines. Lloyd-Jones noted:
“The ultimate justification for asserting the primacy of preaching is theological. In other words, I would argue that the whole message of the Bible asserts this and drives us to this conclusion. I mean that the moment you consider man’s real need, and also the nature of salvation announced and proclaimed in the Scriptures, you are driven to the conclusion that the primary task of the church is to preach and proclaim this, to show man’s real need, and to show the only remedy, the only cure for it.”8
There is an old saying: When heresy moves in across the street, evangelicals tend to move across town. Though topical preaching certainly is not heresy, when it comes to us most committed to lectio continua, we can overreact against topical preaching by studiously avoiding contemporary concerns and the impulse for relevance altogether, so much so that we may err in running too far in the other direction.
We argue that the Bible doesn’t need to be made relevant, because as the Word of God, it is unfailingly relevant. This is true. While we cannot improve upon the Bible’s relevancy, as we rightly exegete the Bible, our culture and our congregations, perhaps we can make our sermons a touch more relevant.
1 John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).
2 1 Peter 1:23-25.
3 Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 23.
4 Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 21.
5 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 131.
6 Hershael York and Bert Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Approach to Engaging Exposition (Nashville: B&H, 2003), 11.
7 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Christ Precious to Believers,” quoted by David Larsen, The Anatomy of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 168.
8 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 26.