Expository Worship

In his book “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church,” Mark Dever makes Expositional Preaching his first and most important mark of healthy church life.[1]  I want to suggest that Dever is right to give expositional preaching such a central position, but that he does not go far enough.

Why is Expositional Preaching so important?

Dever identifies nine marks that are associated with healthy church life.  These are: Expositional Preaching, Biblical Theology, The Gospel, a Biblical understanding of conversion, a Biblical understanding of evangelism, a Biblical understanding of church membership, Biblical church discipline, a concern for discipleship and growth and Biblical Church Leadership.[2] Dever says that

The first mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this right, all the others should follow.[3]

In fact, he claims,

This is so important that, if you miss this one and get all the other eight marks right, in a sense these others would be just so many accidents. You would have just happened to get them right. They may be discarded or distorted, because they didn’t spring from the Word and their not continually being reshaped and refreshed by it. But if you get the priority of the Word established, then you have in place the single most important aspect of the church’s life, and growing health is virtually assured, because God has decided to act by His Spirit through His Word.[4]

I agree with Dever.  We have already seen that expositional preaching follows naturally from our belief that God speaks to us through Scripture and that we are dependent upon God’s special revelation in Scripture if we want to know the truth about God and His World. Dever distinguishes expositional preaching from topical preaching where “the sermon begins with a particular matter that the preacher wants to preach about,”[5] rather than the sermon starting with “a particular text as its subject.”[6]

As we have already seen, a commitment to teaching through particular books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, week after week sets the precedent that church life will be governed by God’s Word and not the other way round. It will be tempting from time to time to feel pressurised into picking up a specific topic because of circumstances.  For example, if funds are low, there may be pressure to preach on giving and when a series of outreach events are planned, we may be tempted to preach about the importance of evangelism. Yet, when we resist this temptation, we are saying that God will set the agenda and determine the priorities, not us and not our circumstances.

Dever identifies a further reason for expository preaching.  He says.

Many pastors happily accept the authority of God’s Word and profess to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible; yet if they do not in practice regularly preach expositionally, I’m convinced that they will never preach more than they knew when they began the whole exercise.[7]

In other words, the pastor himself becomes stunted in his spiritual growth because he never learns anything new from God; he simply raids the Bible for passages and verses which confirm what he already knows and believes.  Not only that, but the church becomes stunted in its growth and is limited to knowing what the preacher already knew.

By the way, it may seem that this section is primarily aimed at preachers and pastors, but I think it is helpful for all church members.  Whilst pastors and elders determine the preaching programme, they come under a lot of pressure from church members and other leaders about the shape of that programme.

Now, at this point, some may be tempted to object that we are putting the Bible and preaching on a pedestal and committing idolatry. Evangelical Christians and particularly conservative evangelicals are sometimes accused of something called Bibliolatry – making the Bible into a god, a fourth member of the Trinity if you like, that distracts worship away from Jesus.

I think this view is mistaken because it loses sight of how Scripture functions as revelation.  The argument goes something along the lines of “Jesus is the Living Word and He is meant to be central, not the written word about him.”  The point is this.  Jesus the Living Word is revealed to us through the Bible, the written word.  Scripture is where God, the Holy Spirit speaks. The Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us.  Where Scripture is genuinely opened, read and proclaimed, then Christ will be seen clearly, he will be at the centre.  When Christ is not at the centre, then we are unlikely to be really reading and understanding Scripture properly.

If we are trying to make Jesus central without a commitment to expositional preaching, then we make Jesus in our own image.  A few years ago, it was popular to wear little bracelets with the letters WWJD displayed on them.  WWJD stood for “What would Jesus Do?”  The wearer was meant to stop and ask at any point “What would Jesus do in this situation?”  Here’s the problem with this.  First of all, there was the risk that people began to try and imagine what Jesus would do in the situation rather than find out what he actually did do in such situations. Jesus was made in the image of the wearer as they superimposed their own priorities and prejudices onto him.  Secondly, whilst “doing what Jesus would do” sounds like it is generally a good idea, a bit like motherhood and apple pie, it is not necessarily the right thing to do.  For example, imagine you attend church on Sunday and a couple of the older ladies are selling jam to raise funds for a local charity.  Do you:

  1. Buy the Jam?
  2. Have a chat with a church leader expressing concerns about the appropriateness of the sale during Sunday worship?
  3. Push the table over, smash the jam jars and drive the ladies out of the building denouncing them as thieves and robbers?

We know what Jesus did in a similar situation, but should we follow his example? It might not be that clear cut after all!  Now that example may seem trivial and amusing and we may consider ourselves unlikely to fall for that trap, but what about this scenario?  You notice as you sit at your desk that your colleagues carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.  Looking around, you are filled with compassion as you see the burden of guilt and shame etched into their faces.  Do you offer to take their guilt and shame onto yourself?  Actually, whilst our minds are screaming out to us that we should not do this even though that’s exactly what Jesus did, it is what a lot of us do end up doing isn’t it? Yet, exactly because Jesus took our guilt on himself, we are not meant to do what he did. When we do, it crushes and breaks us.

So, making Christ central is not simply a matter of doing what Jesus would do.  We need a complete picture of who Jesus is, what he has done for us and what he calls us to do and that’s exactly why we need to make the exposition of Scripture central to church life.

The Apologetics of Expository Preaching

One of the great things about expository preaching is that, over time, people grow an appetite for it.  They become excited about the transforming power of God’s Word in their lives.  However, committing to this model as preachers and congregations isn’t an easy walk in the park.  It takes time and patience.  The benefits may not seem to be instantly visible.  In some respects, it’s a bit like trying to encourage people to eat healthy food.  Over time, they will discover the benefits of a good diet including fresh fruit and vegetables.  They’ll also discover that good food tastes good.  However, for some time, there will be the pull of junk food. Junk food is addictive: it’s designed to be!  If someone is offering junk food round the corner, then we’ll be lured away from the healthy food.

This means that when we commit to expository teaching in church life, then there will be objections.  Whenever we preach, then the listeners come with a whole host of objections and reasons as to why they should not listen and engage.  To make matters more complicated, these objections often go unstated.  Among such objections I would include the following.

  1. I don’t believe that what you have to say is true:
    1. Because I don’t believe that there is a God, or, if there is a God, it is unlikely that He is interested in us or is speaking to us (atheism and deism)
    2. Because I believe in a different god/gods to yours.  This may include a god that sounds similar to yours but is marked as different because he/she/it is associated with a different ‘gospel’ –a different story of salvation and restoration
  2. I don’t believe that what you have to say is relevant – or at least to me
  3. I believe that what you say will in a sense be true in that it will describe something about the problem of the human condition, but the solution you offer will not be liveable
  4. I am sure that what you have to say will be relevant and interesting, but I simply don’t have time to listen to it as I am too busy. This may include those who are uncertain that systematic expository preaching and teaching is right.  They see themselves as in a hurry; they want you to answer big questions quickly.  By quickly, I mean that they want you to get to the point quickly in your sermon (tell me the answer in 5 minutes: why spend 30 minutes on a text?) and also that they want you to do it in a preaching series.  In other words, why spend six months, a year or longer working steadily through a book of the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter instead of looking at a different topic each week?
  5. I know that what you have to say is important, but I don’t think that I will be able to understand it.  Listening, thinking and engaging will be so hard that I will not enjoy it.  This may well be expressed on behalf of others –e.g. “how will visitors cope?” or “this is too much for the young people….”

This means that when we engage in expository teaching, there’s also some apologetics to be done as well.  How will we counter these objections –especially when they are often assumed rather than stated? Well, here are some thoughts.

First of all, it will be appropriate from time to time to state and make explicit what is assumed.  We will acknowledge that the objection exists and we will respond to it.  Secondly, we will want to think carefully about our sermon introductions: do they encourage people to engage with Scripture?  Are the listeners drawn in?  Do we start with questions, comments and stories that highlight the relevance of the text we are about to look at?  Thirdly, do we answer what Chris Green calls “the so what?” questions. Do people see as we work through the text why it is relevant and how they have come to words of life?  Fourthly, do we model obedience to God’s Word and a love for God’s Word in our own lives?  This means that we will show that we are sitting under God’s Word, including when we are not preaching or teaching ourselves.  It also means that people will see us responding when Scripture challenges and disagrees with us.  We will be doers of God’s Word, not just hearers.

Now, the responsibility for this falls not just on the preacher.  For example, do those who lead worship show a concern for giving Scripture and preaching their rightful place in our meetings?  Are children’s workers modelling expository teaching in their own groups? Not only that, but do they too demonstrate a love for sitting under the teaching of God’ Word?  Or are they content to escape from the sermon to the children’s group? Are they simply working through a Sunday School syllabus on a cycle or is there the sense that when they teach, they are growing in their own knowledge of God and His Word?

More than Just Expository Preaching

This brings us back to our original statement that Dever is both right in his observation and failing to go far enough.  Here’s the problem with talking about expository preaching.  It can give the impression that the responsibility for declaring and expounding God’s Word lies solely with the preacher standing in the pulpit.  But, I want to suggest that the whole of our life of worship should be expositional.

First of all, this means that in a Worship Service, the person leading will want to ensure that exposition of Scripture is given its due place.  They do this through the careful choice of songs, comments, prayers, liturgy etc.  They do this by seeking to ensure that the other elements of a service compliment rather than detract from the preaching of God’s Word.  This will require them to both spend time reading and engaging with the chosen passage of Scripture themselves and by talking through the message with the preacher.

Secondly, the teaching programme for children and young people should be expositional too.  Children and youth workers should learn to expound Scripture, not simply to wander from topic to topic.

Thirdly, the different outreach activities of a church should be Word-centred.  We increasingly seek to ensure that when a new activity is started that those who come understand that engagement with God’s Word will be at the heart of it.  This does not mean that there will always be a central teaching slot, but it does mean that through advice and conversation, God’s Word will be communicated.  Note here that this is another problem with making expositional preaching the mark.  We are still being expositional when we sit down and have a discussion one to one and in groups.

Fourthly, it means that the advice and counsel we give and the decisions we make will be scripturally driven.  We have already seen this when we have looked at pastoral care and apologetics.  Of course, worship applies to the whole of our lives and so Christians should be learning to see how Scripture governs all of their decisions in church, in the family and in the workplace.

[1] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2004), 39.

[2] See contents page, Dever, Nine Marks.

[3] Dever, Nine Marks, 39.

[4] Dever, Nine Marks, 39.

[5] Dever, Nine Marks, 39.

[6] Dever, Nine Marks, 39.

[7] Dever, Nine Marks, 41.

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