The way our Sunday worship services look today is certainly not what the first century church experienced. There was no stage, podium, band, or designated building. Even the concept of Sunday as the only or primary day of worship would be foreign to the earliest generations of the church.
So are we doing it wrong today? Do we need to return to house churches, with no production of any kind, and conversational preaching?
Though there is much to learn from the early church, one of the pillars of the evangelical movement is the authority of Scripture over the authority of tradition. So we must be careful not to allow tradition to adjudicate the will of God. We have to always be willing to check our own gauges and determine whether the expectation placed upon the current church comes from tradition or scripture.
One particular area where many Christians seem to get these lines crossed is in regards to preaching. Often, preachers and pastors are judged on whether they “just preach the Bible.”
There is a lot packed into this one phrase, and depending on who you talk to, it might mean something different.
I imagine just about every preacher’s desire is to convey scriptural truth. But what does it mean for someone to actually preach the Bible? Are there clear indicators when someone is or isn’t preaching the Bible?
Most often when someone levies the claim that a preacher doesn’t preach the Bible, they are merely disagreeing with the preaching style. So it’s helpful to understand the different styles of preaching that are most common today in order to assess whether style alone makes a sermon biblical or unbiblical.
Let’s start with the most highly disputed style of preaching first.
Topical preaching is essentially taking a topic or theme and preaching on what the Bible has to say about it. Oftentimes, a church will decide on a themed series that will run a few weeks, and each sermon will relate to the overall theme. This has become a very popular approach to Sunday morning preaching, particularly in larger churches. This style of preaching will typically pull from several different passages where the selected theme can be found.
The critique of this style of preaching is that it’s “not expository” and “human-centered.”
However, I won’t list expository preaching as a style, because it’s not so much a style of presenting a sermon as it is the way you look at the biblical text. Expository preaching has one goal in mind: make the message of scripture clear. That can be done topically.
John Stott describes the goal of expository preaching as, “…[expounding] Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor opens what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed.”
When it comes to topical or thematic preaching, it is absolutely possible for a preacher to find a theme, lay out two to four points, and find a few verses to support those predetermined points, regardless of the authorial intent of the passages they select. Do some preachers default to this approach to preparing for a sermon? Maybe. But I’d like to err on the side of assuming a preacher bears the weight of the call to teach the word of God as they are preparing.
Topical preaching, done well, requires a lot of work. A preacher might labor over a section of scripture for hours, only to find that the message is not about the set theme at all. Then that preacher would need to study a different section of scripture that more accurately speaks to the topic at hand (or change the topic of their sermon, if their marketing team will allow it).
The amount of effort required to fully understand the context and central theme of multiple passages is extensive, but it’s necessary when it comes to preaching on a set theme. Due to the amount of study it takes to properly prepare for a topical/themed message, I can understand how others might assume that the default way to prepare is to arrive at what you want to say first and then shoehorn Bible verses in. And I agree—that is not preaching the Bible.
Topical preaching, in and of itself, is not anti-biblical or anti-expository. If a pastor is willing to put in the work, abandon their original ideas as they study scripture, and preach what the Bible really says on a topic, then this can be a great style of teaching.
This style of preaching is not as common, but is believed to become more well-known in the coming years. Narrative preaching presents the teaching of scripture through a story. This style has a way of weaving the biblical text in the form of a story. It’s not based on points or distinct sections that have become typical in a sermon.
This is the style of preaching Jesus modeled in the parables. He taught people through stories. The goal of narrative preaching is to bring about the central truth of a section in scripture through story. Of all the styles, this one requires not only the work of studying the text and understanding it personally, but also the additional work of crafting the delivery of the central truth in story form.
There’s no denying that stories have great power. The concept of using story to teach has been around for millennia. We still use it today for children. They often remember a lesson when it’s told through the form of a story. Essentially, narrative preaching is trying to lean into this style of learning and use it to teach biblical truth.
Narrative preaching requires someone to be good at not just explaining, but storytelling. It’s a skill that many preachers have not needed to develop. And, similar to topical preaching, it’s possible for a preacher to tell a compelling story yet never actually explain or uncover what scripture is saying and thus fail to preach the Bible.
This style of preaching is probably the most well-known. A preacher will start at the beginning of a book in the Bible and move through it verse-by-verse. Week after week, the pastor will systematically read and explain the text.
To some, this style has become the holy grail of expository preaching. In fact, some use “verse-by-verse preaching” and “expository preaching” as synonyms. But they aren’t. Verse-by-verse or book-by-book is a style of preaching. Expository preaching is the content within the preaching.
Just as with all preaching styles, there are great benefits to verse-by-verse. For one, the work of the pastor builds on itself week after week. Further, books of the Bible are intentional units of thought. To see the full scope of a book from beginning to end is a great way to teach what the author is seeking to convey, rather than what the teacher is trying to convey.
Is it possible for a preacher to teach verse-by-verse incorrectly? Yes. The downfall to verse-by-verse is that a preacher can become so entrenched in each detail of one verse or one word that they lose the forest for the trees. Yes, even in a verse-by-verse approach, a preacher can pull a verse out of context and fail to preach the Bible. They might go so far down the rabbit hole of the original language that now the intended truth of that passage is lost.
The Bible was not written with verse segmentation. So the one-verse-at-a-time style can cause a preacher to split a unit of thought in a way the biblical author never intended.
Preaching the Bible Means Faithfully Conveying Its Message, Not a Particular Communication Style.
All three of these styles of preaching run the risk of pulling verses out of context or not accurately teaching the text. Depending on the preacher’s approach to studying the text, they may or may not be teaching the Bible. But style alone does not instantly determine whether a section of scripture is being faithfully taught.
So how do we know if a preacher is teaching the Bible? One of the easiest ways to know is if you are personally reading your own Bible.
Instead of passively receiving the truth being taught, actually do further reading. For example, I’ve heard many great preachers who have delivered sermons that conveyed biblical truths, but I’m not as certain those biblical truths came from the passage from which they were teaching. Nevertheless, I would still listen to them preach again, because I know that one sermon didn’t instantly make them a heretic.
Reading the Bible is incredibly accessible to us. Now, you might not have 20 hours a week to study one passage, as your pastor does. Nevertheless, when you read the verses around the text being taught, you will have a pretty good gauge of whether what they are preaching is completely accurate.
Be that as it may, preachers may not always hit the nail on the head, and we need to allow grace for those sermons. But there are far less preachers out there truly “not teaching the Bible” than you would think. Just because you don’t like their preaching style, that doesn’t mean they are a heretic or that they did not properly exposit scripture.
Preaching styles, just like many other aspects of the church, have changed over the centuries. The changes are not always good, and they are not always bad. But that doesn’t make them unbiblical. Too often, we make scripture and church far more rigid than Jesus ever did.