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The Myth of Expository Preaching & the Commodification of the Word

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I believe there is a myth surrounding expository preaching among N. American evangelicals. It goes like this: if the preacher follows the text more closely in his preaching, both he/she and the congregation will stay true to the Word of God. No other agendas or human wisdom will slither into the preaching. Implied is, if the preacher but applies the exegetical historical-critical skills (s)he learned in seminary and studies the text in its original language, aided by the Spirit, (s)he can arrive at the meaning of the text all by him/herself. Expository preaching, done right (with good exegesis), sticks to the already existing stable perspicuous meaning in the text. Interpretation therefore comes second and can only follow the text. In this way, expository preaching allows God’s Word to drive the message and any interpretation is automatically subordinated to it. This is the mythology I believe is behind expository preaching in the evangelical world.

I label this a mythology. Why? Well first of all, historical-critical methods in the hands of individuals have not yielded a singular consensus meaning as “intended by the author” in over 100 years. Instead what we have is thousands of commentaries on books of the Bible that present numerous unresolved options for interpreting grammatical lexical issues for practically every verse in the Bible. Historical critical exegesis hasn’t generated more unity over Scriptural interpretation, it has generated less. The reality therefore is that what guides interpretation is not scientific individual interpretation of the text. It is the broad consensus interpretation for the Biblical texts found in the ongoing history of church doctrine. The myth then that expository preaching based upon such exegesis is more true to the text is simply not true. There is plenty room for all kinds of human interpretation even in expository preaching.

Secondly, even if we could agree that each individual mind under the Holy Spirit can come to the one propositional meaning of the text using exegesis, we cannot assume then that these truths as communicated by the preacher will necessarily be heard as the same thing to the isolated hearer in the pew when (s)he hears them. As Derrida reminds us, repetition never leads to the “same.” Each idea is heard in terms of each hearer’s context. The person in the pew takes notes, selects what he or she hears for special notation, and walks away with “the nugget” for the day that can best support his or her current life or context. Every preacher knows the experience of greeting people after church who thank him/her for what the sermon meant to her, which the preacher is stunned to then hear is something totally different than (s)he had intended. The hearer hears through the grid he or she walked in with. So even if there were a stable authorial meaning inherent to the text, it still could not be communicated in the ways expository preaching assumes – one individual speaking to isolated individual minds hearing all the same thing. We might say that the Spirit covers all these ills of expository preaching. But in Acts and elsewhere in the NT we find that the testing of the spiirt happens as a community in conversation. It happens in the words “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

The uncovering of this myth leads me to what I find most disturbing about expository preaching in churches of N. America. And that is the excessive individualism that is promoted by the assumptions that undergird expository preaching. Expository preaching can actually encourage the person in the pew to be isolated from further conversation and testing of the Scriptures within the congregation (1 John 4:1) This is because expository preaching commodifies the Word. It carefully dissects the text into three (stereotypically) points and an application, which is then offered to the parishioner as the means to further her Christian life. The person sits isolated in the pew encouraged to take notes, analyze, digest the sermon, rarely giving the Amen. The sermon is crafted to give the individual an application to go home, apply and do to become a better Christian. Expository preaching operates under the assumption that the congregation (or radio listeners) is composed of individual Cartesian selves isolated and separated from each other yet capable of listening and receiving truth as information from the pulpit. And so the expository preacher commoditizes the Scripture putting it at the disposal of the user in the pew. He/she makes the text into an object to be dissected, cut up into three points, and distributed in “nuggets” by the preacher to be used by the parishioner to improve his or her Christian living, and/or to receive salvation. By default such a sermon cannot help but situate the parishioner so that (s)he is in control of the Scriptures because it is the parishioner who decides whether, how and what to consume in the preaching. Ironically, as the expository preacher carefully follows the text in his preaching, the center of control for the meaning of Scripture has shifted from Scripture to the autonomous mind of the listening parishioner. The parishioner’s ego remains firmly in tact governing her consumption of the Word as he/she returns home with what he/she thinks she heard or wanted to hear. And the preacher seeks comfort that somehow the Holy Spirit works in mysterious and unsuspecting ways and His “word shall not return void.”

Expository preaching therefore assumes that Christian growth happens individually and cognitively. Growth in Christian living happens like this: the believer in the pew hears the sermon, takes notes and an application point. (S)he then goes home to apply it in everyday life. Sanctification happens through the cognitive mind digesting a “truth” which then enables the mind to tell the body to do it. And as the sermon applications pile up from week to week, and the believer loses ground week to week, the expository sermon becomes the wellspring of yet another works-righteousness.

And so I fear, that in the large evangelical lecture halls of our day, thousands sit and listen, take notes, selectively hear what they will hear and then they leave ice cold never having been confronted with the life changing proclamation of the Lordship of Christ over their lives. The Word has become information to be used for my life as it is. And it all feeds the evangelical culture of arrogance that we know the Word because the preacher follows the propositions of the text.

What I have said above is a pretty heavy indictment. Some might imply that I don’t believe preaching is any longer possible in the postmodern worlds. But for me, nothing could be further from the truth. Some might also argue the same problem could be said about topical preaching. I would say expository preaching could be more dangerous because it carries a myth of being “truer” to God’s word.” There are those who respond to all of this by dismissing the role of traditional preaching in the church altogether. Or there are some who respond with attempts to democratize preaching (which I think Doug Pagitt could be fairly accused of). Against all of this, I believe we desperately need the preaching of the Word in the church today. But we need preaching done, not as isolated individuals, but in and of community of the Spirit. In this regard I believe that the criticizers of modernity must be heard regarding our practices of preaching. And so in my next post, I will talk about how we must reshape and restore the proclamation of the gospel in the church gathering amidst post modernity. (And I have of course already dealt extensively with this subject in The Great Giveaway ch. 5).

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