David Allen is Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and one of the editors of the new book Text-Driven Preaching (B&H Academic). Preaching Editor Michael Duduit recently spoke with Allen about the book and the challenge of biblical preaching today.

Preaching: First of all David, lets touch on that title, Text-Driven Preaching. What’s the difference between text-driven preaching and expository preaching?

Allen: Well, in one sense there is not a great deal of difference. Expository preaching by definition ought itself to be text-driven preaching. Text-Driven Preaching is a term I’ve been using now for probably 15 years as I’ve taught preaching.

The reason we use that term is because the term expository preaching has been stretched to such a point that it covers so many things that we’re not really sure belong under the rubric or the umbrella of expository preaching. It’s sort of like the word evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism is now an umbrella term that covers so many things that 50 years ago never would have legitimately fallen under that term.
So I think what we’re trying to do is further define what we mean by genuine exposition. On the basis of our view of biblical authority, revelation, the inerrancy of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture, such a commitment theologically is really the foundation for the kind of preaching we believe is expositional preaching, and thus text-driven preaching.

In a nutshell, text-driven preaching is a term that says the actual structure of the sermon, to some extent, as well as the substance of the sermon and the spirit of the sermon, all should come from what we find in the text itself. In that sense, the sermon is not topically driven, its not audience-driven; its not felt-needs-driven; it’s not narrative-driven in the sense of the new homiletic narrative as a rubric for how to do preaching. I’m not now talking about preaching actual narratives of Scripture; that’s something different. In order to clarify and define what we mean, we’re using the term text-driven preaching in that fashion.

Preaching: Think about a sermon you may have done or might do and what it would look like as a text-driven sermon versus something that might be called expository preaching that you think is not text-driven.

Allen: A lot of what comes under the umbrella of expository preaching can be a form, a commitment to a certain form, [such as] a sort of a running commentary form that may or may not have application in it.

Preaching: More of an exegetical approach…

Allen: Yes, more of an exegetical kind of a sermon that might treat one or two verses or a whole chapter. Part of what we mean by text-driven is linguistically based. Part of my theory in this approach comes out of my own work as a Ph.D. student in linguistics; for years I’ve been applying principles from that discipline to preaching. Thus, it has to do more with your sermon preparation and less than with the actual product.

The product is going to look in some ways like a traditional expository sermon in that you should explain the meaning of the text, illustrate it and apply it. That’s a pretty general rubric for what we call expository preaching. A lot of times, that’s couched in a three-point outline or an Aristotelian approach to rhetoric. In text-driven, we don’t want to do that. What we want to do is from a linguistics standpoint—whatever is encoded in the text as major semantic material, the most dominant information, which is normally encoded by the verbs of the text and the sentences of the text, as well as the actual independent clauses; that’s what we want to major on in the text in the sermon. That’s how we want to use that to structure the outline.

Then the subordinate material, which is conveyed in subordinate clauses, we don’t want to make those the main points in a text, in a sermon. We want to make those what they are in Scripture: subordinate. So with your subordinate ideas—whether  you call them subordinate points or sub-points or whatever, and whether they are covered in the actual sermon—you are approaching that text from the standpoint of the way the author has encoded main information versus secondary information.

Now that’s a linguistic approach that is not followed by many who do exposition, and thus they may be explaining the meaning of the text, but they’re not always focusing on what the author is focused on in terms of the thematic material and the focus versus the secondary information. Text-driven preaching attempts to determine what is primary in the text and then write the sermon in accordance with that. That’s what I mean when I talk about text-driven preaching.

Preaching: What role does the literary genre of the biblical text play in determining how you approach preaching a text?

Allen: I think it plays a very critical role and that’s a major part of my chapter and a couple of the other chapters. One chapter actually deals specifically with that subject on genre; but it plays a very crucial role, or at least it should. [Because] God was pleased to reveal His Word in different genres, different literary categories, then sermons should not be cookie-cutter sermons that superimpose a particular approach on that genre. For example, the deductive approach that works well in an epistolary genre is not necessarily going to work very well in the narrative genre; and it doesn’t work as well in the poetic genre or the wisdom literature in the Old Testament.

It’d be much better not to feel you have to utilize the same style in outlining that you might use analytically in an epistle when you are in the Psalms or a narrative [such as] Genesis 22. There, instead of having points, you are developing scenes; depending on how you divide the Hebrew text, there are six or seven scenes in the Abraham/Isaac narrative in Genesis 1:1-24.

So the genre should play a crucial role in the actual construction of the sermon and in the outline of the sermon—even in the way that sermon is preached. I believe good text-driven preaching will reflect the substance of the text, the structure of the text and the spirit of the text. You can’t do that without paying careful attention to genre, allowing that to play a role in your sermon structure.

Preaching: I know you did the chapter in the book on “Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon,” and the one right after that is on “Exegesis for the Text-Driven Sermon.” If we could think about those together at this stage, what do you see as some of the unique elements of preparation for a text-driven sermon as opposed to any other type of message?

Allen: There are some key things that I encourage people to do in terms of the actual methodology of preparing a text-driven sermon that might be somewhat different from what they normally do. Let’s assume we’re preaching on an epistle. In the exegetical process, first of all, determine the paragraph boundaries, the paragraph units; then my recommendation would be to preach through the paragraph units. There are linguistic reasons why I would argue that, which we won’t go into now; but I would say once you determine your paragraph boundary, then that paragraph will be the text from which you preach.

What you will do is analyze that paragraph by identifying and doing what I call verb charting. This is something that is not usually found in standard books on expository preaching. Here you actually make a list of every verb that is in your text, every main verb, and then you make a secondary list of verbals, which would be your participles and infinitives. Ideally you would do this from the Greek New Testament; but if you’ve had no Greek, then you would do so as best you can with the help of commentaries and an English Bible. Then you determine the tense, voice and mood of those verbs and you chart that, you identify that.

You use that information to determine what are the independent clauses and what are the dependent clauses in your text, with the underlying sense that the independent clauses are going to convey information that is more dominant in terms of its meaning; and the subordinate clauses are going to contain information, by definition, that is subordinate. You are identifying the actual linguistic or semantic structure of your text; and then from that you move on down from the paragraph level to the sentence level, to the clause level, to the phrase level. You analyze each one of these finally down to the word level where you do word studies.

This differs from a lot of approaches. A lot of times expository preachers are sitting there on Monday morning in their studies, and they’re getting ready to preach on a particular text. The first thing they do is run to the commentaries and then do word studies, and that’s backwards in my view. You should start with the whole and work your way down to the smaller parts, not vice versa. Once you do that, then you’re able to determine what is the relationship not only of the clauses to one another, which is something of a traditional grammar exegetical process, but also the relationship of the sentences to one another in [your] text.

It may be that one sentence is conveying an exhortation, the next sentence is the grounds or reason for that exhortation. That’s the kind of thing this methodology zeroes in on, and thus allows one to understand what the author is really saying in that text in terms of the main verses and sub-points. Then you let that flow into your outlining process and the development of your sermon. I would say that’s a big part of what we’re attempting to do. I use 1 John 2:15-17 as an example of actually how to do this in my chapter. That is a bit different from what is done in more traditional exegetical approaches to writing expository sermons.

Preaching: This particular methodology takes a great deal of preparation and digging in the text, doesn’t it?

Allen: It does, indeed.

Preaching: How long would you say the average pastor probably would need to spend in sermon preparation if he was serious about text-driven preaching?

Allen: I would recommend that a pastor, if at all possible, spend 20 hours a week in the preparation of his sermon or sermons if he’s doing two sermons on a Sunday morning and a Sunday night. Let’s just assume a pastor is writing one sermon a week. If at all possible, I would seek to structure my calendar in such a way that I could devote 20 good hours from top to bottom—from the beginning to the end of the process, 20 hours of actual preparation.

If you’re doing a paragraph—let’s just say you’re dealing with an epistle—on average that’s going to be five to seven verses or four to eight or something like that. It’s going to be more than one or two verses normally and probably less than 12. Any time you get above one or two verses, you’re in a significant text that’s going to require a lot of careful exegetical work to determine what the author is really saying, and it just takes time to ferret that out.

The more you do it, the more you learn how to do it. The more you learn what tools to use, then that shortens the time. So what now may take somebody 20 hours to plod through, down the road he or she may learn how to do that in 12 hours or so. We’re dealing with the Bible as the Word of God, so there is a theological reason for this kind of preaching; and there are theological and practical reasons for making this the very heart of a pastor’s work.

The single most influential place in time—week by week, month by month, year by year—that a pastor will influence the largest number of people is what he or she does from behind that pulpit. Therefore that should get the bulk of [a preacher’s] time in preparation to communicate clearly and adequately the meaning of God’s inerrant and sufficient Word.

Preaching: Clearly you and your fellow authors have a strong burden about the need for text-driven preaching. Step back and look at the broader environment of preaching, let’s say evangelical preaching in the 21st century, recognizing that the word evangelical, as you said, can have a broad definition. How do you judge the state of preaching today?

Allen: Well, first of all, I would say that when it comes to the number of preachers in the broad evangelical world who actually are doing true-blue, genuine expository preaching—preaching that would approximate what we’re talking about here as text-driven preaching—(Unfortunately…that group is still in the minority among preachers)—I think preachers today are still enamored with the topical approach. I think that’s still widely used across the board in mainline denominations, as well as in Baptist preaching. The self-help kind of pop-psychology preaching, where you do series of sermons on how to improve your self-image, etc., still has a strong foothold in the evangelical world; and that is problematic.

I think in the mainline denominations, the new homiletic approach is still being used quite a bit. Interestingly enough, many in the mainline denominations that have advocated the new homiletic—a la Fred Craddock from 1979 until today—are now beginning to realize there’s something lacking; they’re saying, “Our people just don’t have a knowledge of Scripture.” I think a lot of that is out there in the broad evangelical world, as well.

I think that’s problematic theologically. I realize it’s not the PC-thing to say from a homiletical perspective; but those kinds of approaches to preaching—audience-driven, pop-psychology, topical preaching, new homiletic—all are undergirded, in my judgment, by a faulty notion of biblical authority. That’s the problem with those approaches.

They can come up with some really creative, fun stuff that is very heavy on application. You can show them why they should do this in their marriage, why they should feel this way about their self-image—but application is not going to stick with people unless there is textual warrant for that application. That’s the problem with so much of that preaching; thus, I am concerned about it.

The flip side is I’m also encouraged, because I see a generation of preachers coming along, many of whom have rediscovered or for the first time are discovering the vitality of genuine expository preaching; and many are now committed to that kind of preaching. Some of them are young pastors, only been out of seminary three to five  years, and they’re committed to it and seeing God bless it. I get testimonies all the time from former students all over the United States who tell me: “Hey, this kind of thing really works! You can really do a good, solid expositional preaching and grow a church; and people love it. So I’m encouraged by that.

Preaching: Let’s take one step further back. Why does it matter that a sermon be text-driven? What is or should be the role of Scripture within the task of preaching?

Allen: From a biblical perspective, apart from the text of Scripture, you don’t have any preaching. I mean, you can get up and talk about stuff; but what we are to be preaching in terms of the commands of the New Testament, the Pauline commands that find in 2 Timothy 4:2 is to preach the Word. That’s what Paul was doing. What the author of Hebrews does in his own book—which is, by the way, a sermon that does have a text (Psalms 110:1-4)–the Book of Hebrews is an expository sermon that explains, illustrates and applies the meaning of Psalms 110:1-4 to that first century generation and to us, as well by virtue of the fact that its in the canon.

Ultimately, the reason why we use Scripture is that a sermon is not a sermon unless it is not only based on Scripture, but unless it is in fact a development of Scripture and an actual, clear communication of the gospel from the Scripture. I think we find our reformation heritage rediscovers and reinforces that from the Reformation era on [to the present]. The best preaching, in my judgment, always has been that preaching which has held to those theological convictions God has spoken.

He’s spoken in His Word. He didn’t stutter when He spoke. Therefore, what we need to do—the best thing we can do—is give to God’s people and the lost world exactly what God says to them. What manner of hubris does it represent when we who are preachers think we by virtue of our diagnosis of culture have something better to say or that we can say it in a better way than God Himself has said it in His Word? I think these are the factors that ground the necessity of preaching being expositional preaching or being text-driven preaching.

Preaching: David, as you look back at your ministry, what’s something you have learned or are learning about preaching these days that you wish you could go back and tell yourself as a beginning preacher all those years ago?

Allen: I’m glad you couched it in those terms, because when it comes to preaching there are no experts. We are all on an incline, a learning scale, somewhere from kindergarten toward university level; but none of us ever graduates from the school of preaching. There’s always more to learn, and we should always be striving to learn more.

I started pastoring my first church when I was 24 years old. When I look at my preaching 25 years ago, I was committed to exposition, there’s no doubt; but I was woefully unaware. I had somewhat of a cookie-cutter approach to sermons, no matter what the genre was. Part of that probably was due to my upbringing, and part of that was that I was raised in a seminary environment in the Southern Baptist world at that time when expository preaching was not prized and seldom practiced. It was seldom taught properly. Many of us just weren’t trained in that, so then we get out there in the pulpit and we sort of learned by doing.

Specifically to answer your question, in my earlier days I wish I had done more focused work in the area of application in preaching. I feel as if my early sermons were good examples of exposition but that my application was not as well done as it could have been from the text, not as clearly done; and I have learned and am learning the importance of that.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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