Expository preaching… if that’s what’s even happening.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 November 2019
EXPOUND ɪk'spaʊnd verb. Present and explain (a theory or idea) systematically and in detail.
2. Explain the meaning of (a literary or doctrinal work).
[Exposition ɛk.spə'zɪʃ.(ə)n noun, expository ɪk'spɑ.zɪ.tɔ.ri adjective, expositor ɪk'spɑ.zə.dər noun.]

I regularly run into this situation: People like to compliment their favorite preachers by calling them “great expositors.” Apparently they’ve learned exposition is the very best way to preach, so when they like certain preachers, that’s what they call ’em.

And once again, this is one of those situations where I gotta quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride.


’Cause I listen to these preachers for myself, and find they’re not great expositors. Or even expositors.

Oh, they can preach. They have outstanding abilities as public speakers. They know how to keep their listeners’ attention. Some of ’em have even done their homework, and teach the scriptures admirably. But expositors? Nope.

They get called “expositors” because they’ll go verse-by-verse through a bible passage. They start with verse 1, and talk about it a bit. (Or a lot.) Then verse 2. Then verse 3. And so on. They’re a series of talks, each of ’em prefaced by a verse. Because the preacher does quote every single verse in a passage, people think this is what makes a sermon expository.

Nope. What makes it expository is they expound on the verses. They have to actually analyze and explain what every verse means. Preferably in detail. And their message has to be about explaining what it means.

Whereas most of these “expository” sermons are really just preachers quoting bible, then using the bible verses to riff about the topics they wanna talk about. Whether these topics have anything to do with the verses they just quoted. Sometimes they do. Sometimes not so much.

Expository? Nope. Tangential.

When I’m not teaching a class, but just talking to people, I go off on tangents: One subject reminds me of another, and that subject reminds me of another, and that subject reminds me of yet another, and on and on we go. (Or something you said reminds me of another subject. However it goes.) That’s how my brain works; that’s how many people’s brains work. Great for conversations… and brainstorming.

But awful for teaching, because we’re supposed to stay on topic. I once had a history professor; a fascinating speaker, but he always went off on tangents… and never came back to his original points. It made it a really fun class to listen to, but it was impossible to take notes. Good thing the tests and papers were all based on our reading material, not the lectures.

I’ve had more than one pastor whose entire sermons leapt from tangent to tangent. There was no point in taking notes of those sermons either. They had no outline; no points they wanted to make. Often they were winging it through the entire sermon, and blaming the Holy Spirit for it, as if he inspired their tangents. I myself think that’s a blasphemous thing to say about the Spirit, but enough about this tangent.

So that’s what many an “expository” preacher actually does: They pick a bible passage. They quote a verse. Then they use the verse as a jumping-off point for their own tangents.

In so doing, they discuss whatever favorite topics come to mind. If a verse is about love, they talk love. If grace, they talk grace. If vengeance, vengeance. If a sin, they condemn the sin; if a virtue, they praise the virtue.

But in so doing, they don’t talk about the verse. They don’t take it apart and expound on it. The prophet or apostle who wrote that verse had a point, and was trying to make it to their readers in this scripture, and we should be looking at what their point was. The tangental preacher doesn’t bother; doesn’t care. They have their own thing.

Sometimes they give us an illusion of exposition: They take a verse, pull out a word, tell us the original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic word which that word translates (or, if they’re dunces, tell us how Webster’s defines the English word, as if the writers of the bible had our English words in mind)… and then use that as their jumping-off point for their own tangent. They’re not even preaching the dictionary (which is bad enough); it’s just another way to preach their own thing, but make it look like scholarly study.

Tangental preachers don’t really give a rip about the scriptures. They haven’t striven to learn something new from the passage they’re preaching; they didn’t bother to ask the Holy Spirit for new insights. They just wanna talk. And because they quote a lot of bible, and because Christians don’t know what real exposition is, they get away with it. Even get called brilliant preachers, and scholars. Which they’re not.

Real exposition.

Proper expository preaching sounds like a really good bible commentary. The preacher seriously looked at the text and took it apart. In the sermon they explain to us what they found in there, and put the text back together so we understand how it works, and how we can actually use and change our lives by this new knowledge.

When a passage is properly expounded, people learn a whole lot, and people now know what that particular passage means. They have a bit of the bible they can always go back to, and truthfully say about it, “I get that.”

If this isn’t going on, ’tain’t expository preaching. Oh, it might be entertaining, interesting, captivating, inspiring—even Spirit-filled and life-changing! But it’s not expository. It has the form of it, but nothing got expounded. It’s tangential. Might be good tangents, but still.

Word has gotten round that expository preaching is valuable, and expository preachers are a valuable commodity. And as you can see, it’s pretty easy to fake, ’cause scholars know what exposition is, but laymen don’t. Some self-described “expository preachers” don’t either. (Funny; they looked up every other word in Webster’s.) So people try to pass themselves off as expository preachers, but actually expound little or nothing. They succeed because, like I said, laymen don’t know the difference.

Frequently it’s the laymen who become snobs about expository preaching: “I only listen to expositors.” Well first of all, I get a list of expositors from ’em and find out these folks only listen to fake expositors, ’cause they don’t know any better. And secondly, expository preaching is hardly the only valuable type of sermon there is. Some of the best sermons actually aren’t expository. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t. Heck, there’s very little exposition in the bible itself: Clearly its authors didn’t figure they needed to do it!

Some of the best sermons I’ve heard have been topical: The preacher pulled a whole mess of verses from all over the bible, and presented a general picture of what the scriptures have to say on a particular subject. And speaking from experience, it’s harder to do a proper topical sermon, than it is to do an expositional sermon. (You gotta study every single passage you pull your verses from!)

But when any form of sermon is done right, people learn a lot. It’s never about the form or the style. It’s about whether preachers do their homework and present the results of serious study. Honor any preacher who does that.

Bible study.