I’ve been intentionally experimenting with my preaching over the past few years. I am grateful for the expository preaching model I was handed at seminary. It’s a good model. It’s the best model. But, there are different flavors within that broad framework. The past few Sundays, I’ve tried something radical for my sermon preparation. It is radical for me, but perhaps not for you. I shall share it, anon.
But, first some observations about expository preaching, as it is sometimes practiced―as I used to practice it!
Against audiobook commentary preaching
I have grown increasingly disappointed with a style of preaching I shall call “audiobook commentary.” This is where the pastor is basically an Audible version of an introductory bible commentary. Abraham Kuruvilla, whom I consider to be the ablest preaching teacher working in North America today, summarizes this pretty well:
This I call the hermeneutic of excavation—the exegetical turning over of tons of earth, debris, rock, boulders, and gravel: a style of interpretation that yields an overload of biblical and Bible-related information, most of it unfortunately not of any particular use for one seeking to preach a relevant message from a specific text.Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 13.
Last year, my wife and I attended a conference where we were subjected to this very approach. During a time while we waiting to be “refreshed,” I dutifully listened to a pastor (with both an earned DMin and a PhD) explain the alleged Latin etymology for the English word “sword.” This pastor was a disciple of John MacArthur, and preached just like him. Indeed, MacArthur personifies this audiobook commentary style of preaching. He is a faithful expositor and a steadfast shepherd, but I don’t believe he is the best preacher. This observation is heretical in some circles, but here I stand. I understand if you disagree.
Exegesis is not preaching. It’s a waypoint on the road to preaching.
You don’t need more commentaries
You don’t need another commentary. There is nothing new to say. I promise. I swear. I just read C.K. Barrett’s remarks on John 4:23 (The Gospel According to St. John (London: SPCK, 1958), pp. 198-199), then cracked open D.A. Carson (The Gospel According to John, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 224). He appears to have copied Barrett, down to the choice of specific phrases, without citing him. At the very least, Carson echoes Barrett to an eyebrow-raising degree. I’ve no idea if he did it deliberately, nor do I care. My point is there is likely nothing new to be said.
You want an exegetical commentary? The language work has been done. It really has. You hopefully had language training yourself, too. Barrett will do you fine. So will Calvin. If you get yourself a small, trustworthy stock of exegetical commentaries, you won’t need to buy anymore.
Most commentaries have little value for preachers, because they specialize in hermeneutical excavation. They don’t help you understand the passage as a passage. As literature. As a composition. As a pericope that God is doing something with. Instead, they often major on grammatical observations, syntactical nuances. They summarize oodles of scholarly literature, then sometimes forget to make observations of their own. They’re good for technical reference, perhaps, but you probably have enough of those.
Their interpretive filters are too often cardboard. I just read R.C.H. Lenski declare Peter uttered an imprecatory curse at Acts 8:20. This is unlikely. Maybe … (and call me crazy) … just maybe Peter utters an angry exclamation! Maybe there’s no theological weight behind his short statement, which I translate colloquially as “you and your money can go to hell!” (cf. Phillips’ translation).
Here’s another example.
If you’re preaching on Stephen’s sermon before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1), a discussion on whether Stephen properly applied Amos at Acts 7:42-43 is useless to you. It means nothing. It does not help you communicate God’s message to your congregation. It might interest you. It might intrigue you. It might pique your interest for an article. It does nothing to help you preach the passage. That’s why most commentaries are unhelpful homiletical aids.
You probably don’t need more commentaries.
Preach by passage, not by verse
How many sermons would you use to preach Stephen’s speech before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1)? Six years ago, I did it in four sermons. A few weeks ago, I did it in one sermon that totaled 50 minutes … and I think it was 10 minutes too long.
I almost titled this section “read the bible as literature,” but thought better of it. However, it’s true. You should try to capture the bible’s flow of thought pericope by pericope, or passage by passage. We express thoughts in paragraphs, in sections. We don’t do it in sentences. Sentences are pieces of a whole. But, that’s too often the way we preach. I just saw a pastor announce on social media that he planned to wrap up his series on Jude, by preaching vv. 20-25. This means he cut his last sermon at v. 19. Why would you do that?
We’ll do one sermon covering Stephen’s false arrest (Acts 6:8-15). Another on God’s promises to Abraham (Acts 7:1-16), where we bring in some Genesis tidbits and wax eloquent about the Abrahamic Covenant. Then, we’ll discuss Moses’ origin story, praise the Hebrew midwives who refused to bow to Pharaoh, etc. (Acts 7:17-23). If we’re adventurous, we’ll fold Moses’ flight to the desert into that sermon (Acts 7:23-29). And so it goes, until we finally dispatch Stephen into Jesus arms by mercifully concluding the miniseries at Acts 8:1.
The problem is that’s not what Stephen did. He selected and deliberately framed (and re-framed) key incidents from Israel’s past in order to make a powerful accusation to the Council. The shape of his sermon should be ours. It was one sermon. One message. It had rhetorical force because of that shape.
“But,” we object, “it would take two hours to preach Acts 6:8 – 8:1 verse by verse!” Yes, it would. That’s why you don’t preach it verse by verse. You preach the passage. You hit key points paragraph by paragraph, discerning and following the shape of Stephen’s argument.
To borrow another insight from Kuruvilla, scripture isn’t a window we point through towards an object inside. It’s a stained-glass window we point at, like a curator at a museum. We show it to people. We describe it. We explain it. Then, we show them what this beautiful picture has to do with their lives, so they can be more like Christ.
It would be criminal to cut Stephen off, to atomize his speech into a miniseries. To turn his denunciation into a sermon about Moses in Egypt. To spend five minutes explaining why Stephen correctly applied Amos 5:25-27. Leave that bit to MacArthur.
I believe that if you go over 40 minutes, you’re going on too long. I know the objections. I understand that, if people consume all sorts of awful content the other six days of the week, they ought to be able to listen to a 50 or 60 minute sermon. I agree. But …
I suspect that, like me, you really don’t have 50 minutes of content. I think you could have made your point better by cutting some stuff out. I’m willing to bet 10-15 minutes of your sermon was unnecessary; the debris from all that excavating. I suspect you “feel” your sermons are better when they’re shorter. If that’s your experience, I don’t believe it’s an accident you feel that way. It’s because they are better when they’re shorter.
Maybe this is all just me. Maybe I’m not gifted enough to fill 50 minutes with dynamic content. Maybe you are. Maybe your pastor is. Maybe you’re awesome, and I’m just ordinary. It’s possible. But, maybe we’re both just ordinary people, and neither of us should really be preaching for 50 minutes?
My goal is 35 minutes. I rarely make it. But for the past three weeks, driven by a quest to be more efficient with my time as a bi-vocational pastor, I’ve changed my approach to sermon prep. This approach has yielded shorter, better sermons (31, 38, and 35 minutes, respectively). They’re tighter, more focused, and more direct. I ruthlessly ditch rabbit-trails that are unnecessary to the author’s point in that passage. In the latest sermon, on 10 October 2021, my notes ran to a mere 866 words―506 of which were the scripted introduction + conclusion. My notes for the body of the sermon ran to 360 words (this is not an outline, but notes regarding the text). I also finished my prep on Thursday, which is unusual for me because I’m bi-vocational.
In the next article, I’ll share a sermon manuscript and how I now prepare my notes. I’ll also embed the video of a sermon.
For now, I’ll leave you with this sermonic gem from Abraham Kuruvilla from a recent chapel session at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he lately took up residence as Professor of Christian Preaching. The content is good, but note particularly the homiletical technique he uses. I’ll explain more, later. For now, behold his sermon: