Expository preaching is crucial for the health and vitality of the church. Offering step-by-step guidance for preachers, Helm outlines what must be believed and accomplished to become a faithful expositor of God's Word.
About the Author
David R. Helm (MDiv, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)serves as lead pastor of the Hyde Park congregation of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago. He also serves as Chairman of The Charles Simeon Trust, an organization which promotes practical instruction in preaching. He is the co-author of The Genesis Factor (with Jon Dennis), a contributor to Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching, and the author of The Big Picture Story Bible and1 and 2 Peter and Jude in the Preaching the Word commentary series.
Read an Excerpt
Contextualization is essential to good exposition. And the sermon manuscripts we have from St. Augustine lead some to suggest that he did it quite well.
Thus when Augustine propounded ideas about society that were taken straight from the pagan classics, we should not think that he was doing this in a self-conscious effort to impress pagans with his culture or to woo them into the church by citing their favorite authors. He did it as unthinkingly as we, today, say that the earth is round. ... He presented much of what he had to say ... as a matter of common sense.
I love what Augustine's attitude toward contextualization teaches us about its relationship to preaching. His surprising ability to connect to his listeners was the result of his general interest in life; it was not a calculated outcome brought about by harvesting cultural references in hopes of coming off as relevant. This chapter will address the problems that emerge when contextualization of the latter sort takes over the preacher when he is preparing his message.
In the introduction, we caught a small glimpse of what expositional preaching should be. It is an endeavor to bring out of Scripture what is there, to never thrust into a text what the Holy Spirit didn't put there, and to do so from a particular text in ways that rightly humble the listener, exalt the Savior, and promote holiness in the lives of those present. While we haven't yet described how a sermon should do all of this, it is worth taking time here to consider some common ways our preaching can miss the mark.
THE BLIND ADHERENCE PROBLEM
What do I mean by contextualization in preaching? In simple terms, contextualization in preaching is communicating the gospel message in ways that are understandable or appropriate to the listener's cultural context. In other words, contextualization is concerned with us and now. It is committed to relevance and application for today, which is why I will offer a constructive approach to the topic in chapter 4.
One of the problems with contextualized preaching today, however, is that it often has a misplaced emphasis. By elevating contextualization to a studied discipline overly focused on practical gains, some preachers treat the biblical text in a haphazard and halfhearted way. This is the blind adherence problem. Out of a healthy desire to move the mission of his church forward, the preacher focuses his preparation exclusively on creative and artistic ways he can make his sermon relevant.
Think about it. Some preachers spend more time reading and meditating on our contextual setting than we do on God's Word. We get caught up in sermonizing about our world or city in an effort to be relevant. As a result, we settle for giving shallow impressions of the text. We forget that the biblical text is the relevant word. It deserves our greatest powers of meditation and explanation.
To put it differently, the preacher is bound to miss the mark of biblical exposition when he allows the context he is trying to win for Christ control the Word he speaks of Christ. As I stated in the introduction, this is the undoing of many of our churches. Too many of us unconsciously believe that a well-studied understanding of our cultural context, rather than the Bible, is the key to preaching with power.
Blind adherence to contextualization alters our preaching in at least three ways, and none of them is for the better. First, it impairs our perspective in the study — in his preparation of his sermon, the preacher becomes preoccupied with the world rather than God's Word. This leads to impressionistic preaching. Second, it changes our use of the pulpit — the Word now supports our intoxicating plans and purposes, rather than those of God. This is inebriated preaching. Finally, it shifts our understanding of authority — the preacher's "fresh" and "spirit led" devotional reading becomes the determinative point of truth. I call this "inspired" preaching.
Let's look at each of these a little more closely. I think we will find that some of what we think is expositional preaching actually misses the mark.
In the 1850s, the dominant artistic style of the moment was realism. It was a movement that aimed to represent, as closely as possible, what the artist had seen. Two young students being trained in realism were Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir. They had become friends and began to paint together, along with several others. This younger generation tended to use brighter colors than their realist instructors, and they favored painting contemporary life over historical or mythological scenes, consciously leaving behind the romanticism of previous generations, as well.
The tipping point for helping these young painters to begin to self-identify as a group came in the 1863 Salon de Paris (Exhibition of Paris) art show and competition. So many of their pieces were rejected by the judges that an alternative show was held later, the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of the Refused). During the next ten years, the young artists petitioned to have ongoing alternative shows for their new styles of painting, but they were systematically rejected.
In 1873, Monet, Renoir, and several others formed an anonymous cooperative of artists to show their work independently. The first public exhibition of this new group occurred in April 1874 in Paris. Styles had shifted even further. Renoir had begun to experiment by altering the reality of what he saw — a distinct departure from realism. Monet had begun painting with looser brush strokes. This gave a general form of what he saw rather than a precise rendition, which was still preferred by the older generation. For example, his Impression, Sunrise captures the Le Havre Harbor at sunrise. Recognizing that it was not a realistic view of the harbor, he added the word "impression" to the title when asked for the name of the work. This title was later used by a critic to ridicule the artists, calling them the "impressionists."
One of the boldest innovations of the group was its use of light. For example, Renoir's 1876 Dance at Moulin de la Galette depicts a garden party with dancing in the Montmartre district of Paris. In the painting, Renoir paints white on the ground or on top of a blue jacket to indicate that the sun was shining there. The altering of light begins to exaggerate details and distort what would have actually been seen by the artist.
The impressionist method takes what the eye sees and interprets it, exaggerates it, ignores parts of it, and ultimately distorts it.
Now, think about what you do when you sit down to prepare a sermon. You open your Bible. You don't have a lot of time. You probably have a meeting or two tonight. You might have a family or a staff to guide. You certainly have your hands full with pastoral work. Yet you need something to say on Sunday. So you begin by reading your text and jotting down things on your computer the way an artist might interact with a canvas — quick-hitting, colorful connections between the Word and the world as you know it.
You are looking for things that you know will make an immediate impression upon your listeners. You begin enjoying this momentary diversion. The work is not hard. Soon a main idea emerges. You contextualize well since, just like your congregation on Sunday, you are not that passionate about things historical. In fact, you got this job, in part, because they were impressed with how well you produced attention-grabbing messages from the otherwise inaccessible ancient realism of biblical scenes. A detailed study of the text can wait.
This week's message, like last week's, will concentrate on the relevant impressions you draw from the passage. Applications already seem to emerge like beams of light for you to spread across the congregation in bold color. You glance at your iPhone to catch the time. You have been at work for fifteen minutes.
This is impressionistic preaching.
It happens a lot. In fact, it may be the most significant problem facing preachers today. Impressionistic preaching is not restrained by the reality of the text. It ignores the historical, literary, and theological contours of the text. It brushes past — in a matter of minutes — many of the exegetical tools you spent time developing. Where the realist painter might look at his object ten times before painting a single stroke, the impressionist looks at his text once and puts ten strokes on the canvas of human experience. So, too, the impressionist preacher.
There is no doubt that impressionistic preaching is easier and quicker. It makes more sense, given your busy schedule. But you need to know that it means, at the end of the day, you are doing whatever you want with the text.
Let's look at an example. Imagine that you have to prepare a message for your "young parents" class. You decide to speak on 1 Samuel 2:12–21. Take the time to read it now:
Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD. The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. All that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest's servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, "Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw." And if the man said to him, "Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish," he would say, "No, you must give it now, and if not, I will take it by force." Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.
Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy clothed with a linen ephod. And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, "May the Lord give you children by this woman for the petition she asked of the Lord." So then they would return to their home.
Indeed the Lord visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the Lord.
In your first reading of the text, three things stand out:
1. The text presents you with two sets of parents and children: Eli and his worthless sons, and Hannah and her little Samuel, who is serving God.
2. You are impressed with the contrast between them. Eli's story reads like a manual on bad parenting, while Hannah's patterns get better results.
3. You land on two takeaways for your message. First, bad parents allow their kids to eat too much, while good parents don't. How repulsive it was for Eli's sons to gorge on sacrificial offerings! Second, bad parents don't take advantage of church settings to encourage their children toward godliness, while good parents are always present and available. How wonderful for Hannah to have Samuel at church whenever the doors were open!
There. You've got your outline. Most importantly, you know that your talk will resonate with the young parents in your congregation. After all, the news outlets in your city are reporting on the problem of physical conditioning among local children and the impending legislation to address it. It won't take much for you to contextualize similar principles that apply to their spiritual wellbeing as well.
You deliver your talk. The next thing you know, new children's programs are launched out of this sermon. Weekend retreats devoted to good parenting are planned. It's great, because people are talking about Christian parenting.
This kind of impressionist preaching is growing churches. It's really no wonder we don't spend time working on sermons. We don't need to. We can do this quickly and it works. It's almost improvisational preaching.
Then again, we also miss out on the richness of God's Word. We miss out on the point of the text. If we read it a few more times, we might realize that the primary concern of 1 Samuel 2:12–21 is not parenting at all. It's the holiness of God. That's right, the passage is about God and how the bad leadership of God's people makes a mockery of God himself. The problem in the text is that God is not being properly worshiped. And if we keep digging in the book, we'll realize that there is a replacement motif here within God's family. The text brings up Samuel precisely at this point because he is the alternative to Eli's sons for leading the worship of God in accordance with the Word of God. God can't get his work done because his Word has been undone. Even so, when the situation looks hopeless, God will raise up another man and priest to lead.
Does this mean we cannot preach parenting from this text? Not necessarily. But it means we must not miss the primary point of the passage. The possible applications must never overshadow the primary point of the text. While we can say true things from the Bible about parenting from this text, we should do so in a way that respectfully submits to the emphasis of the text. This is the difference. This is the challenge. We read these stories and end up missing what the Spirit is emphasizing while reducing God's Word to nothing more than principles for godly living. In the example from 1 Samuel, we ended up completely omitting Christ as the replacement for a failed priesthood. We lost Jesus to impressionism. And in his place we have parents who are more committed to moralism than to the Christian message.
It is important to note that impressionistic preaching is not the problem. It is a natural outcome of blind adherence to contextualization and how such an adherence monopolizes our time. We need to remember the conviction that restrained Charles Simeon in the study: to bring out of Scripture what is there. It is easy to let an impressionistic approach dominate your study and preparation for preaching. Especially if you are intrinsically cool (i.e., fashionable or hip), or are trying to be, this approach can become the cocaine you snort in private. And if you have had a little success with it, you can begin to believe that you are an expositor. But as we will see in the coming chapters, biblical exposition requires a different approach in the study.
Let's move out of the study and think about the way we use the Bible in the pulpit. Scottish poet Andrew Lang once landed a humorous blow against the politicians of his day with a clever line indicting them for their manipulation of statistics. With a slight alteration in language, the quip could equally be leveled against many Bible teachers today: "Some preachers use the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamp post ... more for support than for illumination."
This is the inebriated preacher. I suppose I don't have to tell you that you don't want to become one. The fact is, though, many of us have been one and just didn't know it.
Let me explain. On those weeks when we have stood in the pulpit and leaned on the Bible to support what we wanted to say instead of saying only what God intended the Bible to say, we have been like a drunken man who leans on a lamppost — using it more for support than for illumination. A better posture for the preacher is to stand directly under the biblical text. For it is the Bible — and not we who preach — which is the Word of the Spirit (see Heb. 3:7; John 6:63).
With decades of pastoral ministry now behind me, I can think of myriad times I have been the inebriated preacher. I have gone to the Bible to prop up what I thought needed to be said. It became a useful tool for me. The Bible helped me accomplish what I had in mind. At times, I lost sight of the fact that I am supposed to be the tool — someone God uses for his divinely intended purpose. I am to proclaim the light he wants shed abroad from a particular text.
What happened to me in the past can happen to any of us. There are a variety of ways we use the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamppost. Perhaps you have incredibly strong doctrinal views and these become the point of every passage you preach, regardless of what the text is conveying. Perhaps you draw political conclusions or social conclusions or therapeutic conclusions regardless of the mind of the Spirit in the text. In essence, our propensity for inebriated preaching over expositional preaching stems from one thing: we superimpose our deeply held passions, plans, and perspectives on the biblical text. When we do so, the Bible becomes little more than a support for what we have to say.
Let me give you a personal example of how quickly this can happen. Several years ago, I was preaching my way through 2 Corinthians. When I arrived at chapters 8 and 9, I decided to jump over them — forging ahead from chapter 10 onward. My reason for doing so was simple. I wanted to keep 8 and 9 in the bag for a later time in the life of our church. Those chapters are about money, right? I thought to myself, "The elders are going to come to me at some point and tell me to do a sermon on stewardship." At that point, our church was doing well financially. It made sense to save that text for a time when we would need a financial boost to keep ourselves solvent. So I skipped chapters 8 and 9 — something that is rare for me as a rigidly sequential preacher.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Expositional Preaching"
Copyright © 2014 The Charles Simeon Trust.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Old Bones,
3 Theological Reflection,
Conclusion: Dry Bones,
Appendix: Questions Preachers Ask,
What People are Saying About This
“David Helm has written the most helpful, concise, and useful book on expository preaching I have ever read.”
Matt Chandler,Lead Pastor, The Village Church, Dallas, Texas; President, Acts 29 Church Planting Network; author, The Mingling of Souls and The Explicit Gospel
“If I were teaching a preaching class and could assign the students only one book, this might be the one. It’s a rare find that both introduces a topic to the novice and instructs the experienced. David’s humility convicts, rebukes, instructs, and encourages me as a preacher. I pray it will do the same for you.”
Mark Dever,Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC; President, 9Marks
"This little book is simply outstanding. It’s the best short book on preaching I’ve read. Helm’s advice is unfailingly wise, theologically informed, and extremely practical."
Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor,Christ Covenant Church, Matthews, North Carolina
“David Helm’s skills as a preacher and his vast experience as a teacher of preachers make anything he says on this subject of great value. But I read him with greatest appreciation for what is most clear among his commitments: ‘Staying on the line, never rising above the text of Scripture to say more than it said and never falling beneath the text by lessening its force or fullness.’ Here is not merely skill and wisdom, but also faithfulness from which the truest treasures of preaching come.”
Bryan Chapell, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois
“Helm has given us a finely wrought and utterly compelling brief on what needs to be understood and done in order to faithfully preach the Word. This is an important book.”
R. Kent Hughes, John Boyer Chair of Evangelism and Culture andProfessor ofPastoral Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary
“In this compact book, David Helm distills key principles and insights that have encouraged many at the Charles Simeon Trust preaching workshops. I have seen men reengage with the hard work of preaching preparation as David has taught this material. May that same result be multiplied by this book.”
Paul Rees, Senior Pastor, Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, Scotland
“I love to see people’s shocked responses when they learn that expository preaching is the first of the ‘9 Marks of a Healthy Church.’ This priority is affirmed and explained in Expositional Preaching. David Helm issues a stirring challenge to get the message clear and right. May God be pleased to use this book to help you preach faithfully for the health of the church and the glory of God!”
H. B. Charles Jr., Pastor, Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida