“Too many sermons focus on the biblical text, but fail to exposit the main point of the scriptural passage under consideration”

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It may be fair to say these variant sermon structures are not "expository;" it's another thing to establish that there is anything wrong with them. I do think the "focus and develop the main point of the text" is the right default. Without a good reason to do otherwise, it's the best option... and you can hardly go wrong.

But it's hard to find sermons like that in the Bible or the early church.

So, in defense of my own flexibility on that point, my reasoning is this:

  • Are the subpoints in the text true?
  • Is it ever bad to preach truth from the text?
  • How can it be bad to preach the subpoint?

So what I've often done in expositional series is identify the main point of the text, communicate that main point in the sermon, usually as context for what I'm going to focus on, then devote most of the message to a subpoint.

Why do that? Well, the Scriptures are timeless but are also occasional at the same time. They were written with a primary audience in mind and passages focus on the needs of that primary audience. My audience, though very similar in many ways, is not going to be identical. So sometimes, the subpoint is a truth more desperately needed in our times or in a particular congregation or--because of things going on locally--on a particular Sunday.

My advice, feed the sheep what the sheep need. When you don't know what they need, give them the "main point" of the text, letting the subpoints develop, but not eclipse, that main point.

Back to the flexibility idea: the way to do that without abusing the text is to always make sure you have the context clearly in mind (the immediate context+the sectional context+the context of Scripture as a whole), then at least lay out that main point as context (if not focus) for the rest of the sermon. Generally, that context-awareness is going to create strong congnitive dissonance if you try to squeeze something out of a subpoint that isn't true to the intent of the passage.

(And even if you don't see the problem as an expositor, many in your audience probably will! ... and they'll be thinking: that's a great point; it's just the wrong verse to pin it on!)

T Howard's picture

To find the main point, look for the independent clause of the Greek sentence. Often in Paul's epistles, the independent clause is surrounded by many dependent clauses that Preachers mistake for the main point. In some cases, one Greek sentence is the entire English paragraph. So, start by looking at the independent clauses in the portion of Scripture under consideration. The main point will almost never be found in a dependent clause.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Preach the passage, but don't turn into a running commentary. If folks want that, they can tune into JMac!

Preach to your congregation. Couples are struggling, older people are worried about death, etc. Maybe it's not appropriate to make your sermon about something arcane. Save that for Sunday School. 

Be yourself.

Me last Sunday (sermon here):

  • Text: Mark 14:32-72
  • Title: "Are You a Failure!?"
  • Theme: You fail at being the kind of Christian you ought to be. You fail every day. Thank God Jesus came to succeed for us!
  • Message: I framed Gethsemane, the arrest, the "trial" and Peter's denial around the four ways in which Peter failed Jesus that night. Contrasted Peter with Jesus, and encouraged people to turn to Him for strength and comfort in time of need.

In years past I would have atomized the passage. I'm doing passages more than verse by verse these days.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

There are probably a lot of variants on this issue.  Consider:

1. Sometimes there may not be one main point to a text, but multiple main points.  It depends, often, on how big a chunk you are addressing.  Take Romans 3 as per the article. The fact that all have sinned and fall short (Jew or gentile) is a huge summation of what Paul has been doing.  But that leads us to salvation by grace apart from works or law-keeping, precisely because we fall short. And the reason we can be saved by grace through faith is because of Propitiation made on our behalf.

Sometimes Chiasmus helps us locate a main point, the center. But sometimes it does not.  For example, in Romans 3:1-18, we have this chiasmus:

  A(3:1-2)  3:1 What advantage is there then in being a Jew? (3:1)   (τί οὖν)

    B(3:3-4)    3:4 God must be true, though every human being is a liar (3:4)"   (ἀληθής)

      C(3:5-6)      3:5 But if our wickedness provides proof of God's righteousness, what can we say? (3:5)

    B'(3:7-8)    3:7 God's truth redounds to his glory through my falsehood (3:7)   (ἀλήθεια)

  A'(3:9-18)  3:9 Well, then, are we better off? Not entirely (3:9)"   (τί οὖν)

 
   A: Advantage. B: Lie and truth. C: Wickedness and righteousness.

If we try to force a text toward one point -- a text that is not one-pointed -- that isn't good either.

 

2. Also consider that sometimes a text repeats what has already been said, but adds some new details on the side (as might be the case in I John, for example).  Is it then wrong to emphasize what is added to what has already been said before?

Aaron's point is well taken.  The authors of the New Testament, when doing midrash, do not always emphasize the main points of the text they are addressing.

So, as a rule, I agree that the dafault could be, the "main point of the text should be the main point of the sermon," IF the text has one predominant main point.  I'd like to see you preach through even 5 verses of Proverbs this way.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think the author is assuming that, in preaching a single main point, you're also selecting the size of the text portion accordingly. This is pretty easy to do with epistles, as T Howard pointed out a couple posts up. Much harder to do with narrative--and I think Ed is right that sometimes you have to work with larger passages.

Paul told the Ephesians he had preached the whole counsel of God to them. It's an ambiguous phrase, but in church pulpit ministry you want to give the flock exposure to lots of different portions of Scripture over time.... but move quickly enough that they get good a mix in the short run as well as the long run.

So, sometimes, when preaching through I and II Kings, for example, I worked with pretty large chunks of text in a message--sometimes multiple chapters in a single sermon. This can be tricky, I discovered! But it was very satisfying work when it went well.

I once preached through the entire book of Romans in one sermon. It was actually an introduction to a paragraph by paragraph series preaching through the book, but I wanted to cement the context of the whole in my own mind and the mind of my listeners, so we did an "epistle in one sermon" to launch it. I don't know if the congregation thought so, but I think it was one my better pulpit moments.

I heard a guy preach through the whole book of Jonah in one sermon. He began by reading the entire book aloud, which I didn't think was effective, but the rest of it was well done I thought. The book as whole has a main point, so the case could be made that it was even the "right" size text portion. (I preached through Jonah in four or five messages once, and it was a bit difficult, maybe for that reason... the whole has one point.)

Ed Vasicek's picture

I like to do thorough studies of some books, especially the epistles.   Other books can be long, too (like Proverbs or Isaiah, for example).   I have found that breaking it up into smaller series (for example, right now we are doing Romans 1-5) and then alternating series (balancing OT with NT) is a good pattern.  Here is my preaching schedule (which will very much be adjusted and subject to change):

January-March 2019— How We Know We Know (The Epistle of I John)

March-April  2019—  Still Wiser (Proverbs 27) 

May-July 2019— Christianity for Western Thinkers: Sin and Salvation (Romans 1-5) 

August—September 2019 — The Life of Joseph, Genesis 37ff

October—early December 2019, Paul’s Third Missionary Journey, Acts 18:23-21:26

December — Seasonal series

January —March 2020 — Sanctification (Romans 6-8)

April — Catch-up, seasonal, or topical

May-June 2020 — The Boldness of Wisdom (Proverbs 28)

July-August 2020 — Psalms 4-8

September- November 2020 — Acts 21:27-28:31

December 2020 — Seasonal and Topical

January-March 2021 — Sovereignty (Romans 9-11)

April 2021— Seasonal, Topical, and catch up

May-July 2021 — Ezekiel Highlights

August-September 2021 -- Service (Romans 12-16)

October—December 2021 — Wisdom’s Contrasts (Proverbs 29) and seasonal.

January-March 2022 — The Master of Parables (Jesus’ Parables)

April 2022 — Seasonal, topical, and catch-up

May 2022— Deborah and Barak (Judges 4:1-5:31)

June-July 2022—Amos

August-October, 2022 – Philippian Joy

November 2022—February 2023 — The Better Kings of Judah and Israel (I and II Kings) [break for Christmas]

March-May, 2023 – Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)

June-August, 2023 – Gideon Jephthah, Samson

September-October 2023 – I & II Thessalonians

November-December 2023: Seasonal, topical, and catch-up

"The Midrash Detective"

Philip Golden Jr.'s picture

As usual, I appreciate 9Marks and the challenge to really evaluate if I am practicing in my preaching the preaching I claim to practice. I think Aaron's point about "one-pointism" is well made. It may not be the modern homilitician's definition of expository preaching, but that does not necessarily mean it is an errant method of preaching. That being said, the goal is to draw out the one main point and then show how the text supports and develope that one main point. And I must confess that I have been guilty of the observational trap, far too often I'm afraid.

Since we are talking about preaching and, particular, preaching series, I had a question for everyone. How long should a series be? I realize that there is no wrong or right answer but I am curious as to the different ways of thinking about this. Ed seems to stick to a 2-3 month series rotation and I find that seems to be a common practice. Is this the best practice? Should series be longer or shorter? I have been pastoring for 5 years come January. In that 5 years, I have completed three series (Gospel of John, Ten Commandments, Ephesians). I am now working through Psalms and my intention is to continue through them until I get to Psalm 150. (I am not preaching every Psalm but am preaching something like a little more than every other Psalm. (Currently on Psalm 34 and have preached 22 Psalms- the Psalms I do not preach are read during our scripture reading time). I began in May so have been at it for roughly 5 months. At my current speed and number of Psalms, it will take me around 15 more months to complete the series. Do you feel that is too long? Why or why not? Should I break it up with mini-series? Why or why not? Just looking for some general feedback on what you guys do with series.

Phil Golden

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me, as a sometimes teacher in my church's nursing home ministry, that I've first of all been preaching on basically one day in the life of Christ for the better part of a year.  (keep in mind I only teach once a month or so)  Our Lord was more efficient than I, which should surprise no one.  What's the best?  I suppose it is what edifies the body, no?  If God gives a man ten great sermons on Judges 4:21, who am I to complain?  The trick is knowing when you've exhausted your material, and for that matter knowing when the congregation needs you to either dwell on one set of concepts to dig into the depth of Scripture, or to move on to cover its breadth.

Another consideration; is the teacher exciting a love for God's Word among the congregation, or merely teaching them what he thinks it means?  It strikes me that it's not as necessary to go through the breadth of Scripture if one models during the sermon what it means to savor Scripture like a meal from a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Regarding getting the "main point", the same experience suggests to me that a lot of the time, one doesn't have an "Aristotelian prose version" with just one main point, but rather layers of meaning that are unveiled as if one were peeling an onion.   To use Matthew 9 as an example, what's important?  The healings?  The rebukes of the Pharisees and others (implicit and explicit)?  The call of Matthew?  Calling laborers?  Raising the girl from the dead?  Or all that?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think the author is assuming that, in preaching a single main point, you're also selecting the size of the text portion accordingly.

It seems to me that the text normally decides its size rather than the preacher. I don't think we should approach it from the perspective of "how much can I preach" (which would lead to a sort of running commentary) but rather "what is the evident point in the paragraph or section?" It may be that a single sermon stretches over multiple weeks in rare cases, but it may also be the case that one is not actually preaching the text but rather preaching points from the text. Preaching the text means the point of the sermon is the point of the text and the subpoints should support that point. 

I think this is easier to do with narrative because the natural breaks occur with the stories. It might be a longer story and then you are focusing on narrated time and narrative time, which helps us to emphasize what the text emphasizes by the amount devoted to it.

Obviously there is a lot more to it than is communicated here in this short statement.

I heard a guy preach through the whole book of Jonah in one sermon. He began by reading the entire book aloud, which I didn't think was effective.

It is interesting that reading the book aloud is poorly received (as I think it often is, probably due to the reader). People have a tendency to check out on the actual word of God while preferring to listen to someone's explanation of the  Word of God. I think we need to become better readers who read as a sort of drama rather than a drone. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

How long should a series be? I realize that there is no wrong or right answer but I am curious as to the different ways of thinking about this.

I actually surveyed my congregation as part of an academic project for my DMin. They told me it was between 6-10 weeks based on survey answers. I have concluded that is about right for me as well. It is good for me to move to another book or genre and then come back to it. Life is short and there is a lot of Scripture. You want people to hear from all of it. 

The answer is probably shorter than most think. I think a lot of pastors take pride in preaching for X number of weeks out of a book (and I have done it). They think it indicates some great devotion to the text. But it may indicate a devotion to words rather than the text and the point it is making. It becomes what some have called "serial topical preaching." And it may not be helpful to the congregation. There are churches where a new person might come in and hear from only one book of the Bible over several years. It would be better to mix it up some. That longer series will be there in a couple of months. The Bible doesn't change so you can always come back and it will be the same as when you went away from it. Don't wear your people out. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

I think it varies widely depending upon a number of factors, including:

1)  The preacher's ability to hold attention and make each sermon in a series relevant to his people.

2)  The customs and expectations of the congregation.  Some churches are used to a long series.  Others have never experienced this.  If its a relatively new concept, start with a short series, and expand into longer ones when you know your people are eager to hear and benefit from them.

I remember the first series I did early in my ministry.  It was the Kingdom Parables from Matthew chapter thirteen.  I did it on Sunday Night.  My congregation had never heard anything like that before, and they were excited.  They couldn't wait for me to do another similar series.

G. N. Barkman

Don Johnson's picture

I scanned the article, I think the writer makes valid points in a sense. A lot of people will call things expository preaching that really is not expository at all.

An implication of the article (and many comments) is that expository preaching is required for a pastoral ministry. I think a lot of people support this notion, but I think it is a fallacy. I think a balanced ministry will have a mix of many kinds of sermons, topical, textual, expository, and occasionally a few other minor categories I've seen described in the textbooks.

The thing is God's people need biblical messages based on the whole counsel of God, whether expressed in expository sermons or not. No single sermon will build a disciple (though occasionally there may be a moment when an individual sermon brings about a significant decision or growth in someone's life). Disciples are built line upon line, precept upon precept. Over time, in a faithful Bible preaching ministry, God's people should grow in their understanding of the whole of Scriptures and the God of the Scriptures. They should deepen their relationship with God as a result of Biblical preaching. It doesn't really matter what a preachers style tends to be, as long as the preacher faithfully presents God's truth week after week (and not the same truth every week).

How long should a series go? Until its done. If the Lord is working in a preacher through a passage, a book, or a topic, he should preach through it until he is satisfied that he said everything the Lord led him to say.

For me, that tends to be long book series (mostly) in our Sunday mornings, some kind of theological or biblical teaching in our Sunday school, and various shorter series on topics or books or random messages on current issues we face on Sunday afternoons. Wednesdays vary, right now we are back in 1 John, now the third time I've preached it. It is far richer now than the first two, and they were pretty good for back then, if I say so myself. That's due to the content of the book, of course.

The thing is, the Bible is full of so much truth that none of us can really ever exhaust a passage. The new legalism of expository only preaching makes me almost want to go strictly topical from here on out!

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'll go so far as to be legalistic about this: if there is no systematic theology going on, the ministry of the word a church provides is incomplete.

Systematic theology is topical teaching.

The insistence on expository only is an effort to solve two problems, I think:

  • Sermons based little or no Scripture, or misused Scripture
  • Randomness in the subject matter, with a tendency to keep riding the same hobby horses.

These can both be prevented in other ways, but the steady text by text expository approach is one of the easiest, really.

For a long time, I did expository in the AM services and systematic theology in the PM services.

Don Johnson's picture

A friend of mine has that term for the styles you refer to. I agree that we must not misuse Scripture or ride hobby horses.

As a younger preacher, there was security in an expositional book series that helped me to avoid those pitfalls (though not saying I always got it right... fortunately most of the earlier ones weren't taped!)

But the more I've thought  about it and considered the powerful ministries of previous generations, I can't say that all expository all the time is correct either.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Larry's picture

Moderator

I wonder if there is a misconception about expository preaching in use here. Some people think expository preaching means serial preaching, as in preaching through a book. Thus we contrast expository preaching with topical or theological or some such. In reality, even topical preaching should be expository.

Alistair Begg puts it this way: In expository preaching, the text of Scripture establishes both the framework and the content of what is being said. The word "expository" describes the method by which the preacher decides what to say, not how to say it.

"Expository preaching" means the text determines the message, It does not mean that last week's message was the passage immediately preceding this week's message. It does not have to do with a delivery style. In expository preaching, the point of the text is the point that is made from the text. This the way even topical preaching works. In Systematic Theology, the point of the text is the point to be proved from the text.

In short, expository preaching is biblical preaching because it lets the text determine the content. Any other sort of preaching is not biblical at all. 

Don Johnson's picture

but in good topical preaching, though the text determines the message, it's multiple texts. Expository preaching isn't simply "the text determines the message" but "ONE text determines the message". 

I agree that sequential preaching through a book isn't automatically expository preaching. I would contend that it shouldn't be solely expository, but a mix of styles in order to preach the whole counsel of God.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

Most of the "topical" preaching I've seen doesn't really reflect any coherent knowledge of systematics, sad to say.  Rather, it's more of using the texts involved as a springboard to say what the speaker wants to say, generally conditioned by the culture of the speaker.  I'd dare suggest as well that both topical and expositional preaching would be blessed by a better condition of systematics, one that is informed by sound Biblical/OT/NT theology, at the very least as a boundary for reasonable exposition.

And lest it be said that I'm just sour grapes, I do sometimes hear topical preaching done well, with that OT/NT/BIblical/Systematic grounding, and it's a huge blessing.  I just don't hear it often enough, and if (as) men of God prove me wrong one sermon at a time, I will rejoice.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

pvawter's picture

I've been preaching the psalms since October 2015. Tomorrow I'll preach Psalm 111. But rather than 150 in one shot, we've taken a few breaks along the way. When we finished Book 1, I preached a 7-week series on our core values as a church. After Books 2 & 3 I preached through Titus. After Book 4 I preached a series on the sins Jerry Bridges dealt with in Respectable Sins. I take breaks around Christmas and Easter, and for special services like baptisms. 

Not sure where we're going after Psalm 150, but I've got a little time to figure it out and lots of good stuff to choose from. 

Don Johnson's picture

pvawter wrote:

I've been preaching the psalms since October 2015. Tomorrow I'll preach Psalm 111. But rather than 150 in one shot, we've taken a few breaks along the way. When we finished Book 1, I preached a 7-week series on our core values as a church. After Books 2 & 3 I preached through Titus. After Book 4 I preached a series on the sins Jerry Bridges dealt with in Respectable Sins. I take breaks around Christmas and Easter, and for special services like baptisms. 

Not sure where we're going after Psalm 150, but I've got a little time to figure it out and lots of good stuff to choose from. 

we did Psalms on Wednesday's for a few years. After that we kept on going to Proverbs.

Your approach is basically the way I do things. I am preaching through Acts, started 1/17/16, 164 messages so far. It looks like we will finish up chapter 14 by November, then we break for a Christmas series. There are other breaks through the year, sometimes because something comes up, or I am away, or I'm not ready for the next passage in Acts! At this rate, we will be another three years before we are done!

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ed Vasicek's picture

Length of Series:

I have been a pastor for over 40 years without a gap. I was accepted as the pastor of Victory Bible Church (Chicago) on June 1, 1979, and went immediately to Highland Park Church (Kokomo, IN) on Dec. 1, 1983.  For my first 20 years, I did 2 (mostly) expository sermons  (Sunday morning and Sunday evening) and then twenty years ago went down to one (I often teach Sunday nights, but I don't prep a sermon).

I did the Life of Christ is 2.5 years straight through. I often did a series that took 6 months to a year or more.

The problem with this, however, is that some people do better with the theological (Romans), while others enjoy narrative (like I Samuel) and others ethical/practical living stuff (like Proverbs).  If you preach only one genre for a long time, people think of your preaching as only that genre, no matter what you have done over the years.

My styles are very different when I preach narratives from prophetic or poetry.  If you break up larger books into chunks (to which you eventually return), it helps those who struggle with one type of literature endure, knowing that it will not last forever.

About 15 years ago, I began breaking my series up into segments. Back in 1979, when I just started, a pastor I respected (he officiated at our wedding) told me he never preached a series more than 6 months.  Wished I had listened to him then.

Breaking big books into differing series also reviews  what is taught, and this, in turn, helps people retain better.

Varying the speed and thoroughness of a study is helpful. For example, I don't want to preach Ezekiel like I preach Romans or Ephesians.  In Ezekiel, I will have more difficulty holding attention, so I will do highlight chapters and certainly skip the temple measurements, only mentioned their importance to prove a literal millennial temple.

When i end a series, people are usually wishing I would go on.  I want to leave them wanting more, instead of "good grief, I'm glad this is over."

Psalms is a good case in point.  I preach The Psalms of Asaph and The Psalms of the Sons of the Korah.  Nice, compact series.   Soon I will do Psalms 1-5.  By the time I was done with the Psalms of Asaph, a few people (good people) were restless, wanting to move on. 

So this is not a consumer-driven approach as much as a human nature approach.

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"