By Eddie Lowen
Reading Wayne Smith’s biography by Rod Huron has me thinking about preaching. I am glad it was written because both the man and his preaching have been a source of inspiration to me. I have always been drawn to people who preach well:
• As a college freshman, I was captivated by the first sermons I heard from my gifted communications professor. Barry McCarty didn’t just make me want to preach; he made me want to preach well.
• As a 20-year-old college junior, I first heard Bob Russell preach. Although uniquely gifted, he spoke with an economy of words and subtle voice inflections I couldn’t help but notice.
• Early in our marriage, my wife and I heard Paul Williams deliver a moving sermon. Afterward, Sharon explained that Paul’s memorization, voice, and story-telling made him her favorite preacher. I gave her a chance to correct herself, but she did not! Somehow, despite my wounded ego, I’ve continued to like Paul.
Any guy who fails to qualify as his wife’s favorite preacher should probably avoid writing articles on homiletics. However, the editors have allowed me to select a topic, and I have two preaching principles to propose. They run somewhat counter to a couple of legalistic proclamations about preaching that I’ve been hearing lately. These are not lessons from a pro. Consider the following thoughts from an amateur:
Preaching Must Be Biblical, and Might Be Expository
If I served in a liberal branch of Christendom, one that rejects the Bible as the Word of God, preaching would be enormously frustrating for me. Why? Because the most attractive and effective feature of preaching is biblical authority. The Bible is to preaching what blood is to human life. It is no surprise so many theologically liberal churches are struggling to survive. In the early church, it was “the word of God” that created momentum and vitality (Acts 12:24).
However, while biblical preaching is nonnegotiable, expository preaching (by the narrow definition, at least) is noncompulsory. Like most preachers, I’ve heard the prophetic warnings that “preachers must return to expository preaching,” lest all be lost. If these voices were calling for “biblical preaching,” I would echo the message. But I have several concerns about the insistence on (what I call) narrow-expository preaching:
First, expository preaching is a specific method, not an overarching principle. When a person suffers dehydration, he needs water. The water may come from a stream, a faucet, a bottle, a natural collection point, an IV, or a canteen. It matters not how the water is collected and delivered. If it is uncontaminated, and if it is successfully internalized in sufficient amounts, it will hydrate a person.
Insisting on expository preaching is like insisting that all water be consumed from a marble water fountain. The emphasis should be on the water’s consumption, not the delivery system.
Second, the root problem in Bible-starved churches is not sermon structure, but doctrine. In churches where the Bible is rejected, partially or completely, a call for expository preaching is pointless. Until such churches replace faithless leaders with those who regard the Bible highly, no form of biblical teaching will be welcome, including an expository style.
Third, spiritual growth is rampant in some churches where expository preaching is not the primary delivery method. The Bible clearly identifies the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work. How do narrow-expository-only advocates explain the rich spiritual environments of many congregations in which the expository method is not prominent? This vibrancy suggests to me that the door to spiritual health is not unlocked exclusively by narrow-expository preaching. There is too much evidence to the contrary.
Warning: do not exaggerate my point, please. I am not arguing against expository preaching as a legitimate sermon structure. Neither am I suggesting that the degree of biblical content in a message is unimportant. Some sermons begin and end too far from the Bible. I admit to having discovered (after the fact) that I preached a few.
But I’ve also endured narrow-expository sermons that misinterpreted and neglected biblical material. So, I reject the idea that expository preaching somehow guarantees biblical fidelity, or that narrow-expository-only preachers somehow value Scripture more highly than others. Such claims are simplistic.
Some who initially disagree with me may be surprised to learn that their own preaching does not qualify as legitimate under narrow-expository scrutiny. Although I frequently develop messages from a primary text, and often draw my major points from the same text, narrow-expository advocates have informed me that such sermons are “not really expository.”
These people will not allow themselves to appreciate or respond to preaching that is packaged or structured differently than they wish. I wonder how much God-ordained instruction they have missed by acknowledging biblical truth only when it is packaged according to their specifications.
Preaching Must Be Personal, and Might Be Original
Technology has provided preachers with greater and easier access to the sermons of others, and many preachers are more than glad about these developments. When I began preaching weekly at 28 years of age, I quickly became familiar with books and audio resources that would supply me with material for my sermons.
In retrospect, I became too dependent on them during my first several years of preaching. The upside was that I was preaching worthwhile stuff; the downside was that I was not growing as a sermon writer.
For me, the moment of truth came about three years into my first preaching ministry when an elder-friend pointed out the similarities between my sermon and one he had heard elsewhere. Wisely, I admitted to him that the match was no accident: I had borrowed heavily from one of my favorite preachers. Although I was honest, I did not enjoy having to admit that my sermon material was far from original.
The following month (10 years ago) I began several new disciplines that allowed me to grow as a sermon preparer: reading more, starting earlier, planning ahead, and studying the communication styles of preachers I admired. I didn’t become a sermon machine overnight, but those steps steadily increased my capacity to write messages that were well-prepared and helpful to people.
While I still listen to the preaching of others, and encourage others to do the same, I have no go-to source(s), nor do I use the sermons of others as a template for my own. Recently, I purchased a sermon manuscript that paralleled the theme I was planning to preach. I read it, and enjoyed it, but used only a single illustration in my message, crediting the source.
However, writing sermons is easier for some preachers. I recognize that, aside from anything I have done, God has entrusted me with some modest writing gifts. Some preachers do not have a gift for organizing and writing messages. Although they might work hard at sermon preparation, their gift-mix doesn’t allow impressive results.
Some commentators on this topic suggest, “If you can’t write your own sermons, you shouldn’t preach.” I consider that an extreme position that may interfere with God’s calling on a person’s life. I say: if you can’t write your own sermons, borrow only as much as necessary. Make yourself rewrite each message entirely, and in your own words. Invest yourself in the message. Do not insert your own name in someone else’s illustrations. Use terminology that is natural for you. Preachers, force yourself to stretch and tone whatever sermon writing muscles you possess.
I still play basketball at 42 years of age, and often play with guys half my age. And, I always play hard. However, at 5-feet 9-inches and 148 pounds, there is a limit to what I can do “in the paint.” Sometimes I simply try to survive in there! What reasonable person would expect me to dominate the middle?
Likewise, preachers have different capacities as sermon authors. Church leaders and members should recognize this fact and respond wisely. Don’t play “gotcha” with your minister when it comes to the origin of his sermons. How can that approach possibly benefit a church?
The musicians and teachers at every church use material written by others. Yes, musicians are required by copyright license to give credit. I am not discouraging preachers who borrow sermon material from crediting their sources. But, when ministry throughout the church is taking place weekly using material authored by others, should sermon-borrowing be treated as an act of treason? To the handful of ministers who’ve told me that they access my sermons through our church Web site, help yourself (just don’t borrow illustrations about kissing my wife)!
After all, any worthwhile sermon content comes, ultimately, from the Bible. Our best preaching material is definitely not original.
Eddie Lowen ministers with Westside Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois.