By Jeff Robinson
February 4, 2016
Expository preaching seems to be on the rise among younger evangelicals, but its recovery raises numerous questions. Is verse-by-verse exposition valid for every type of church? Does it appeal to more intellectual audiences than to more emotional ones? And what exactly is “expository preaching” anyway?
Robert Smith has been working through these issues as both a teacher and a practitioner of preaching for the past several decades. He serves as Baptist chair of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches preaching. Previously he served as preaching professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and for 20 years pastored New Mission Missionary Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
There seems to be an unspoken assumption that expository preaching is a heady form of sermonizing, best for “cold and rational” audiences that may be less emotional. Would you say expository preaching is for all churches and Christians from all ethnic and social backgrounds?
I think that’s a false assumption. We’re called to preach the whole gospel to whole persons. Jesus says in Luke 10:27: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The intent of expository preaching is to preach to the whole individual, the emotional as well as the mental, the cranial as well as the cardiological. If I start with the assumption that expository preaching is only for the “cold and rational,” then I won’t meet the standard of Jesus, regardless of my audience. With ethnic congregations, you might have to start with the heart to get to the head. With white congregations, you might have to start with the head and move to the heart. So there are 18 inches between the head and heart that must be traversed in any setting, no matter where you start.
When I’m preaching to a white congregation and start with the head, I’m aiming to teach the mind, and thereby stir the heart and move the will. Moving the will brings transformation. That’s the Holy Spirit’s work. You’re not going to reach them simply with an emotional presentation. You have to start with content. But with many black or multiethnic congregations, you may need to start with emotions, then move to the head.
Think about John the Baptist and Herod Antipas. In Matthew 14, John tells Herod: “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife. It’s adultery, it’s wrong.” He uses a straightforward and cognitive approach. But in 2 Samuel 12, Nathan starts with emotion and imagery. He tells David, who’d committed adultery and murder, a story about a stolen ewe lamb in order to convict him. Both John and Nathan are dealing with the same issue—adultery—but they do so in different ways. John moves from the head to the heart, while Nathan moves from the heart to the head. David repents and Herod doesn’t, but that’s not in the hand of the preacher.
It’s vitally important to know your audience. If we don’t bridge the gap between the head and the heart, we haven’t done our job. Read the rest of the interview at The Gospel Coalition.