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The One Style of Preaching That Should Never Be Out of Fashion

There are many different types of preaching. Generally, they can be divided into five categories, though you must realize that sometimes a single preacher can utilize multiple styles even in a single message. The five main types are:

Anecdotal—Preaching based primarily on the recounting of stories that convey a moral lesson.

Biographical—Preaching that provides a biography of a person and draws moral lessons from the person’s life.

Topical—Preaching where the minister decides on a topic and then searches Scripture for biblical texts applicable to the topic.

Textual—Preaching that refers to a passage of Scripture but does not use the main point of the text as the main point of the sermon.

Expository (expositional)—Preaching that takes the point of the text as the point of the sermon.

Traditionally, Protestant churches have focused on expository preaching, in which pastors would seek to exposit the Word of God to their congregations. They would often preach through a book of the Bible verse-by-verse, seeking to illuminate the words of the text to their congregation and then apply the Scripture to their lives. The greatest benefit of expository preaching is that it forces a pastor to open his heart before God and allow Scripture to change him. Every week, he must dig deeply into the Bible to see what it truly says in a given passage. When research and exegesis is done properly, it is difficult to present false teachings.

In recent times, this style of preaching has fallen out of favor as many people insist that it is no longer effective. To reach people today, they say, we need to focus on meeting people’s felt needs through preaching, and this can generally be done best through topical preaching. With this method, pastors choose a topic for the coming message and then turn to Scripture to find what the Bible has to say about it. Unfortunately, this method rarely allows the pastor to dig deeply into a particular text, and it is easy to assign a wrong meaning to a text. This view has found great favor in the seeker-sensitive church movement, and the vast majority of churches following the leading of men like Robert Schuller (one of the founders of the seeker-sensitive paradigm), Rick Warren and Bill Hybels (both of whom have carried the torch first lit by Schuller) and others have long since abandoned expository preaching. If you have heard these men speak, you’ll know that they do not typically practice expository preaching. As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of the “big” preachers no longer use the expository method, with most favoring either the topical or textual methods.

It came as a great surprise, then, to read in a recent edition of Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox a review of John MacArthur’s book Rediscovering Expository Preaching. There was a rating of five stars (out of a possible five) and the following review:

“MacArthur and other noted teachers and preachers cover all the bases: the basis and necessity of doing expository preaching, the character of the preacher, methods and tools for interpreting Scripture, and the preparation and delivery of the sermon. These 410 pages are packed with principles, guidelines, tips, examples and inspiration. (It was a Preaching Magazine Book of the Year when it was released.) It is a solid guide that will be useful for anyone who wants to preach God’s Word effectively.”

Beneath the review was a quote by Warren in the Saddleback Sayings section, which reads: “Expository Preaching: When the message is centered around explaining and applying the text of the Bible for life change.”

While I have not heard very many of Warren’s messages, I have heard enough to know that he does not use the traditional expository method. It would seem, though, from the review and from his own statement, that he thinks he does. I am willing to concede that in all likelihood he had nothing to do with the review in the Ministry Toolbox (which was likely written by a staff member), but the quote came from the man himself.

I would suggest, though, that Warren’s definition of expository preaching is not accurate. It would be easy to assign his definition to topical preaching as well, for who is going to preach a topical sermon and then deny that he explained the meaning of a text and applied it for life change? What Warren has missed is that the foundation of expository preaching is drawing out the meaning of a text. To explain and apply the text, the pastor must first exegete (studying the passage to understand the meaning) the text properly. A pastor can explain and apply without really understanding the passage. Matthew 18:19-20 is a classic example of this. I wrote an article about the misuse of this passage not too long ago. Understanding must precede explanation, and explanation must precede application.

One need only read Warren’s books or listen to a few of his messages to realize how often he explains and applies passages incorrectly. I assume this is because he has not taken the time to first humble himself before the Scripture and determine what the passages really mean.

So do not be confused and presume that Warren is an expository preacher.