David Fitch has a good blog on what he calls “The Myth of Expository Preaching.” What is the myth? Here it is in a nutshell:
“I believe there is a myth surrounding expository preaching among N. American evangelicals. It goes like this: if the preacher follows the text more closely in his preaching, both he/she and the congregation will stay true to the Word of God.”
Fitch then discusses how this myth fosters the commodification of Scripture:
“It carefully dissects the text into three (stereotypically) points and an application, which is then offered to the parishioner as the means to further her Christian life. The person sits isolated in the pew encouraged to take notes, analyze, digest the sermon, rarely giving the Amen. The sermon is crafted to give the individual an application to go home, apply and do to become a better Christian. Expository preaching operates under the assumption that the congregation (or radio listeners) is composed of individual Cartesian selves isolated and separated from each other yet capable of listening and receiving truth as information from the pulpit. And so the expository preacher commoditizes the Scripture putting it at the disposal of the user in the pew. He/she makes the text into an object to be dissected, cut up into three points, and distributed in “nuggets” by the preacher to be used by the parishioner to improve his or her Christian living, and/or to receive salvation. By default such a sermon cannot help but situate the parishioner so that (s)he is in control of the Scriptures because it is the parishioner who decides whether, how and what to consume in the preaching. Ironically, as the expository preacher carefully follows the text in his preaching, the center of control for the meaning of Scripture has shifted from Scripture to the autonomous mind of the listening parishioner. The parishioner’s ego remains firmly in tact governing her consumption of the Word as he/she returns home with what he/she thinks she heard or wanted to hear. And the preacher seeks comfort that somehow the Holy Spirit works in mysterious and unsuspecting ways and His “word shall not return void.”
Now I know these critiques seem to imply that preaching is bad. But that is not Fitch’s conclusion. Although he critiques modern assumptions of preaching, he recognizes there is a place for preaching in our postmodern world.
“What I have said above is a pretty heavy indictment. Some might imply that I don’t believe preaching is any longer possible in the postmodern worlds. But for me, nothing could be further from the truth… Against all of this, I believe we desperately need the preaching of the Word in the church today. But we need preaching done, not as isolated individuals, but in and of community of the Spirit.”
I know preaching style is one of evangelicalism’s “sacred cows” and everyone has more than just an opinion. But I definitely agree with Fitch in one area: Modern Christians have commodified Scripture. Rather than allowing Scripture to be in control of us, we maintain control over Scripture. We decide if certain pastors are worth listening to based on our preferences of style. We use our traditions or personal interpretations or favorite doctrine emphases to analyze and evaluate preaching ministries. I hear it all the time in comments about various pastors’ preaching styles.
But we Western Christians have been duped. As a result of modernity, we’ve been taught that the primary purpose of preaching is either correct doctrine or personal application, never realizing how this idea places the individual, and neither God nor his Word, at the center of the universe. In this view, Scripture revolves around my life. I determine its interpretation and its application.
But God’s Word is more than a source for correct doctrine or an owner’s manual for correct living. If God simply wanted to communicate doctrine or application, the Bible would look very different than how it does. And Jesus and the New Testament writers would have preached and taught in a very different manner.
By the way, if Jesus was a master teacher, then why did he never use expository preaching? In fact, most of his parables were explanations to his prophetic actions. So if we were to follow his style, we would perform prophetic actions and symbolism and primarily speak in parables and stories when people asked for explanations. But I digress.
Instead, through symbols and stories, allusions and actions, Jesus and the New Testament authors captured peoples’ imaginations and exposed the false stories they were living within and reconnected them back to God’s true Story and its multilayered themes. They immersed and saturated them in a dynamic and spectacular Story that began and ended and was filled with God and his loving and faithful purposes for the cosmos. N.T. Wright succinctly summarizes the Story and its themes in Simply Christian:
“Presence, Torah, Word, Wisdom, and Spirit: five ways of saying the same thing. The God of Israel is the creator and redeemer of Israel and the world. In faithfulness to his ancient promises, he will act within Israel and the world to bring to its climax the great story of exile and restoration, of the divine rescue operation, of the king who brings justice, of the Temple that joins heaven and earth, of the Torah that binds God’s people together, and of creation healed and restored. It is not only heaven and earth that are to come together. It is God’s future and God’s present.”
Surely in this Story there is room for correct doctrine and appropriate application. But first and foremost is the Story and the vivid imagination it generates. And preaching, whatever form it takes in the faith-community, must hold that central.