“You keep hitting the same key on the piano.” That’s an expression roughly translated from Portuguese, meaning that you are being repetitive. It’s a sign that you need to consider changing the subject — and quickly. I can’t help, though, but feel that I am not yet done with the subject of what is the trouble with “Church.” So here I go again.

I have been around churches my whole life and I think I can say with confidence that we have an unprecedented pulpit crisis in many of our churches. What many preachers deliver in our pulpits today is at times appalling. Conversely, what many congregants describe as “biblical preaching” is equally troubling.

Today I will focus on the latter. Church services used to be 1.5 to 2 hours long. It was normal for pastors to preach for one hour. Like me, most of these guys went to seminary and learned to prepare sermons that were “expository” in nature. Since they had more time, they could dwell on every textual minutia, explain all different interpretations, and give reasons why one view was preferable to others. Over time, however, “expository” became shorthand for “verse-by-verse.”

Many people still have a memory of the one-hour-long, verse-by-verse sermons and they expect their pastors to continue to preach that way in less than half of the time they used to have. Ironically, sometimes the same people who complain about a lack of verse-by-verse preaching are the ones who get upset if the service runs past noon.

I have preached through many books of the Bible and though I am not averse to verse-by-verse, I don’t always take that approach. But does that mean that my style is NOT expository? Hardly. To exposit a text means to explain it in its context, taking into consideration the original intent of the authors to the original hearers and the universal intent of the Holy Spirit to all future hearers. That is my definition of “expository preaching.”

I call this a “textual” approach — one that is concerned with the original meaning of the text (understood by the language, the geography, the history, and the entire context of text) and the universal intent (understood by the larger lesson, the transcendent, universal truth that can be translated into a “true to life” value, resulting in a charge to be different). These are big words, I know, but let me explain.

The best definition of what I mean by “textual” preaching I found in an article by Pastor Greg Laurie, “By expository,” he said, “I mean taking the text and letting it unfold. We don’t impose our views on the text; we let the text impose its views on us. It is not for us to add things to the text.”

A good sermon is like a two-tiered superhighway: a palpable transformational value on top, anchored by solid biblical scholarship below. A good sermon is not concerned so much with what an outside author says about a text but with what the text says about itself. According to this understanding, a preacher can preach an “expository” sermon, whether he preaches verse-by-verse or topically.

I find it odd that people who are not verse-by-verse-rs are often accused of preaching to “felt needs.” “Great,” I say, “they are in good company.” Think about many of Jesus’ teachings. “If your brother sins against you….” That speaks to the need to forgive and restore relationships. Who hasn’t felt that need? “A rich man’s field produced too much crop…” That speaks to the need of knowing what to do when you prosper. (Okay, granted, this might not be a felt need to most of us, but just in case your rich uncle dies peacefully in his sleep, Jesus had something to say about what you should do with the unexpected windfall.)

Seriously, try to find a lesson Jesus taught that was not addressing a “felt need.” The story of the “good” Samaritan – the importance of loving even the ones our kind rejects. The widow who persisted in her request to the unrighteous judge addresses the need to persevere even in the face of bleak prospects, etc., etc.

Felt needs give us a great opportunity to present God’s perspective in dealing with complicated issues that tug at our heart. God’s perspective, by the way, is more often than not radically different from man’s perspective. I tell you what, I don’t have a problem with preaching to felt needs but I would despair at the thought that there is a need out there to which God’s voice cannot be brought to bear.

A second libel against “non-expository” type of preachers who may or may not be averse to verse-by-verse is that they deliver a steady diet of “low hanging fruits.” Again, that could be misleading. Yes, Paul lamented that he could not serve more “solid food” to the Corinthians and the author of Hebrews castigated his readers for being slow to move on from the elemental things of God. But that does not mean that “low hanging fruit” is the “forbidden fruit.”

In fact, if you want to keep an audience, you almost always have to start with “low hanging fruits.” When Jesus wanted to teach about the different degrees of acceptance to the gospel message, he didn’t start with a complex survey about human resistance to new things, he opened his lesson with these words, “A farmer went out to the field to sow.” Who at that time could not relate to the opening lines of a story like that?

The effectiveness of Jesus’ teaching was so obvious that even ordinary people ventured an evaluation: they said that unlike their teachers of the law, Jesus taught as one who had authority. That is another way of saying that Jesus was not boring and He expected people to respond when He taught. While others taught to deliver information, Jesus taught for life transformation, which may explain why Jesus never had to bring anybody back from the dead who was in the process of hearing one of His sermons, which Paul had to do in Acts 20, because, as Luke, one of Paul’s closest friends says, “Paul kept talking on and on.”

The young man, Eutychus, having slipped into a deep sleep, fell from a third floor window and missed the rest of the sermon. Well, he would have been done sermon-listening period had Paul not come down and brought him back from the dead. Amazingly, after doing this, Paul went back upstairs, ate a little bread, and spoke until morning, presumably to a lot more attentive audience now.

The third and final accusation against verse-by-verse preaching is that the preacher is not preaching “the whole counsel of God,” which we many take to mean the whole Bible. Now I’ve got a problem with that. The fact is that while this is a worthy goal, no one actually does preach through the whole Bible verse-by-verse. If you don’t believe that, just do the math. There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible and 31,000 verses. If you preached a chapter a week (merely a survey) it would take you about 23 years to finish.

I think we have misunderstood the meaning of “the whole counsel of God.” Paul used this expression to refer to his teaching to the elders of the church in the city of Ephesus. But we know Paul didn’t mean that he preached the entire Old Testament verse-by-verse to them. He simply didn’t have time to do that as he was there only for two and a half years. The Greek word translated “counsel” can also be translated “burden” or “will” and it does not refer to a body of written literature.

Earlier in that passage, Paul explained what he meant when he said, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:20-21). Very clearly the “whole counsel of God” includes anything that is “helpful” (or “profitable” – the context indicates that it had to do with the Gospel and specifically blood atonement) and it must lead to an understanding of salvation.

One biblical scholar has a more complete statement. After affirming that Paul could not have meant an in-depth study of every verse in the Old Testament with a full bore explanation, he concludes, “What he must mean is that he taught the burden of the whole of God’s revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively. (D. A. Carson, “Challenges for the Twenty-first-century Pulpit,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson, Crossway, 2007). In other words, Paul taught the essentials so believers would learn to be self-feeders.

Pastors today, whether they realize it or not, are competing with high powered messages delivered with the same quality as Dateline NBC videos to an audience used to reading only clever posts that use 160 characters or less. To be boring is tantamount to pulpit suicide but to compromise on hard content opens one up to libel — for pulpit malpractice!

My advice to you, if you are an old timer, is not to demand from your preacher the same amount of content as you used to have when the service was twice as long. Hopefully there are other places in church where you can go deeper. On the other hand, if you are a young person, don’t settle for superficial presentations that lack bible-based, life-transforming content. And by all means, all of you, don’t rely on a 30 minute sermon, however great, to sustain your spiritual growth. Take charge of your journey with Christ, be a self-feeder, and band with others who will propel you to greatness for the cause of Christ.
And if you are a preacher, I hope to talk more directly to you next week, but for now, don’t forget that you main job is still to “preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Pastor Ivanildo C. Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA