Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Sincere Milk of the Word

Preaching today has become, for an alarming portion of the church1, a circus. Preachers have the attitude that if they don't out-entertain everyone else, people will not listen. (This is largely true, if the "people" in question are unregenerate, which is, unfortunately, the case for the majority of people in "churches" nowadays. But I digress.)

In the circles in which I personally ran (until recently), a solid exegesis of Scripture is almost unheard of. In fact, in that society, the more a preacher can manipulate the crowd's emotions through jokes, "tear-jerker" stories, etc., the more accolades he receives. (Off-topic: preachers should not be looking for accolades.)

A couple of months ago (at the initial time of writing), I had the opportunity to converse with with a well-known (in his religio-social group) pastor over lunch. He is popular for his funny, upbeat, topical messages. I asked him why he preaches mostly topical sermons. His response was, essentially, two-fold:
  1. Expository messages are too much work to prepare.
  2. Expository messages are not relevant to his audience.

Before we continue, let me put a caveat on the first one, and an explanation on the second:
  1. This man is not a lazy man. He was not saying that having to work to put together a sermon is a bad thing because it takes away from his fishing time. Not at all. He was saying it's a bad thing because he has too many other duties as the pastor of a church that regularly runs 600+. It is my opinion that most equivalent pastors would agree that this is their case as well.

  2. Nor was he being flippant. He is very sincere about his duties (as he understands them), and believes that expository messages are detrimental to his performance of those duties. To be specific, he used an example of when he walked through the book of Revelation in a series of Wednesday night Bible Studies. He pointed out that, "I had this one couple over here whose marriage was falling apart, another one over here whose teenager had just run off, and this brand new Christian in the front row who needed discipling, not eschatology. Additionally, there was a family about to leave the church,".... et cetera..."and learning about which vial comes first, and how many heads the beast has, was not addressing their needs." Now, that's true. However, perhaps there is more to Revelation than vials and heads? And there are sixty-five other books of the Bible that are also "profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness," on which he could do studies. :)

That said, let's continue.

Do I have a "beef" against Topical preaching? Yes and no. No, if it's done right. But what is "done right"?

Most pastors (fundamental or otherwise) claim a certain hermeneutic for scriptural exegesis. (I know, I know — "Um...what did he just say?") In layman's terms, they claim that the Bible must be interpreted using a certain set of rules, without which there will be misunderstanding at best, outright abuse of the Scriptures at worst. This "set of rules" is called a "hermeneutic", and the application of the "hermeneutic" to the biblical text results in "exegesis", or the explanation of what it means.

Every preacher or Bible teacher has a hermeneutic and does exegesis — whether he realizes it or not, and whether he calls it by those terms or not.

My "beef" is with topical messages in which the hermeneutic is faulty, resulting in abusive exegesis.

Abusive exegesis has been, apparently, a perennial problem, even from the beginning of the church. The Apostle Peter mentioned the problem in the conclusion of his second epistle:
There are some things in them [Paul's epistles] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.2


So the preacher's first point above is true: preparation for an expository message (which tends to be heavy on the exegesis) is a lot of work! But I would contend that it's actually less work than preparing a topical message with proper exegesis.

The reason I say this is that topical messages are frequently done using verses from several (possibly unrelated) passages, chained together. That means that, in order to make sure he is not mangling what the Bible actually says, the preacher must do good exegesis of each passage, and then make sure that what they actually say is, in fact, addressing the topic upon which he wishes to speak.

(NOTE: Whether or not he puts the exegesis into his actual sermon to the people is irrelevant. He's got to do it in study, just to be sure he's not going off the deep end.)

Conversely, an expository message generally addresses only one passage, and so the preacher only needs to do the exegesis for that one passage. (I'm painting with a broad brush here, of course, for reasons of space — I don't have room to address every combination of passages. This post is already too long, and I've still got more to say!)

In my opinion, any preacher who is not willing to do the work necessary to make sure he does not "twist" the Scriptures needs to find another job. But if he is willing to do the work, preparing an expository message around one passage is going to be much quicker than having to prepare a message around several passages.

So what if he is willing to do the work, but he finds himself lacking the time because of his other duties as pastor? The solution to this is delegation, as we see in Acts 6:2-4,
Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.


Too often, a pastor will get it into his head that, to be a leader, he must go above and beyond in every area of work in which he encourages his people to participate. For example, if he tells his people that personal, door-to-door soul-winning is important, then "bless God, I'd better be out there myself at least 10 or 15 hours a week!"3 These things are time-consuming, yes, but frequently more so because of a misplaced sense of quantity necessary for leadership.

Another activity that might get a preacher bogged down is going to conferences. Conferences are cool — I'm not saying they're evil! But if the preacher has to be at every conference, camp, and retreat put on throughout the year by his particular socio-religious circle, he seriously needs to rethink his priorities.

This is why the position of pastor in the New Testament is referred to as "bishop", coming from a Greek word which means "superintendent", or "administrator". The very name of the position indicates that the man must know how to properly order his work.

In conclusion, preachers need to make the time and put in the effort to feed the flock of God which has been entrusted to their care with solid, exegetical instruction, and not just entertain them. Methinks that they will discover that it's actually less work than they though — and definitely less than if they were to properly prepare their topical sermons!

Oh, and it's even less work in the long run because as we all know, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." (II Hesitations 3:8)

OK, I'd better stop now. :)
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1The Protestant branch, anyway.
22 Pet. 3:16b
3BTW: We were taught this exact statement at Bible College.

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