Those who have attended church twice a week for 30 years have heard around 3,000 sermons. On the other hand, many faithful middle-aged Christians do not understand the Bible very well and struggle to defend their beliefs from the texts of Scripture. Faithful believers who testify to transformation through encounters with God at an altar of prayer are nevertheless unfamiliar with the whole counsel of God.
A new generation—confronted by mass media and a shifting culture—is pressing Christian leaders to explain why the church believes what it believes. Some have drifted away from the faith after no one was willing or able to answer their Bible questions. Awakened to the deficit in depth and alarmed by the departure of some youth, many pastors have accepted responsibility for bridging the gap between experience and knowledge.
Discipleship: More Than a Method
The result is a growing emphasis on what is commonly called “discipleship.” While Christianity has always been about being and making disciples, the word discipleship is now used to refer to systematic teaching in a small group setting, similar to the class meetings of the Wesleyan heritage. These small groups typically cover a series of Bible studies or follow a pre-written curriculum.
I am a strong supporter of small group discipleship. Nearly every week I have people into my home for prayer, Bible study, and curriculum-based teaching. In fact, I largely share Kevin Watson’s conviction that “the future of the people called Methodists starts with unplugging these two wells: Wesleyan small groups and entire sanctification.” However, the recent shift in emphasis has posed some serious concerns.
First and foremost, discipleship is now commonly defined in terms of method. Small groups and discipleship have been conflated to such an extent that some churches have a discipleship pastor and a preaching pastor, as if preaching is not discipleship. And since some churches have been successful with small group teaching (a dialogue), it has caused many to question the primacy of preaching (a monologue) for the ever-connected modern audience. I recently heard comment, “in the contemporary church, small groups will increasingly become the primary way that the church goes forward, even more-so than preaching.”
While we should not be intimidated by small group discipleship, we should be alarmed when it is pursued at the expense of preaching. Wesleyans are benefactors of the triumphs of the Reformation, not the least of which was moving the pulpit to the front and center of church buildings. A sturdy wooden pulpit has been recognized by generations of Christians as a symbol that the preaching of the Word is the most important thing that happens in any church.
The Kind of Preaching We Need
But what about those who have sat in 3,000 preaching services and still feel uncertain about how to walk with God or interpret the Bible? The answer is not to abandon the method of preaching, but to reassess the quality of our preaching and gladly embrace small groups as a vital supplement to the pulpit ministry.
The preaching of the Word is still the most important thing that happens in any church, and small groups are a vital supplement to the pulpit ministry.
To satisfy people’s need for deep, ongoing spiritual formation, we cannot offer them a grab bag of 3,000 inspirational three-point alliterated outlines. Men who share this conviction have championed what is best known as expository preaching.
The heart of expository preaching is not allegiance to a particular method but rather a deep-seated attitude towards the text of Scripture. At its core, expository preaching is about confronting people with the plain meaning of the Biblical text. The text is interpreted in light of the past and applied in light of the present. The expositor preaches in such a way that if Moses or Jesus or Paul were in the audience, he would say “that is exactly what I was trying to say in that passage.” The expositor studies a text of Scripture in its original context, is burdened by the weight of its relevance, and enters the pulpit to declare “Thus saith the Lord.” Having seen the glory of God in the Bible, the preacher is able to impress on people a sense of God’s presence.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains that a preacher is an ambassador who has received a message from the King. The message that the King has given to him is the Bible. In a sermon, “I do not bring my own thoughts and ideas, I do not just tell people what I think or surmise: I deliver to them what has been given to me.” For this reason, John Stott argues that “All true Christian preaching should be expository…. The expositor opens what seems to be closed, makes plain what is confusing, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed.”
Paul commanded Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2)—the Bible and the Bible alone—week in and week out. He was to do this by “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The word “dividing” means “to cut,” especially with precision like a master carpenter. Derek Thomas explains that “cutting” the word meant that “Timothy was to drive a straight path through the Word of God and not deviate to the left or to the right. He was to ‘preach the word,’ meaning not only that he was to preach from the Bible, but that he was to expound the particular passage he was preaching on” (emphasis original).
A successful expositor grounds people in the divine Word of God as it is transmitted through his lips. The hearers are never the same. Lives are transformed as the Holy Spirit moves and convicts men with the truth of the Sciptures. People learn through the example of the preacher how to interpret, understand, and apply their Bibles.
After 15 years and 1,500 sermons from a pastor who preached on seven Bible verses each service, a parishioner would have heard over one-third of the Bible explained and applied—the entire New Testament plus portions of the Old Testament. (Imagine what could be accomplished in 30 years!) This parishioner would have heard multiple sermons on the Father, Son, Spirit, gospel, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, holiness, stewardship, Sabbath, baptism, Lord’s Supper, miracles, marriage, modesty and every other important topic in the scope of Christian teaching. Just as importantly, he would have witnessed for 15 years the correct way to read and interpret the Bible, instilling habits that would naturally carry over to private study. He would understand his Bible very well and know why he believes what he believes. The benefits of expository preaching are difficult to overstate.
Small Groups As a Supplement
Expository preaching bridges the gap between experience and knowledge by grounding our experience in the truths that confront us in the pages of holy writ. We should humbly and prayerfully assess the quality of preaching. Likely, many of the deficits in our churches can be remedied by faithful exposition. Notwithstanding, the resurgence of small groups is not necessarily opposed to this.
We do not need to downplay small groups to elevate preaching.
We do not need to downplay small groups to elevate preaching; likewise, we do not need to downplay preaching to elevate small groups. Both serve an important purpose. When we unleash the power of an expository pulpit ministry, small groups will be able to serve other needs: accountability, sermon review, fellowship, and discussion.
It is important, however, to establish boundaries that guard the primacy of preaching. For example, small group participants should always be encouraged to prioritize preaching services. For several months, I have been teaching a couple every Tuesday evening in my home; however, during the week of our church’s revival services, I chose to postpone both our meeting and lesson assignments to encourage them to attend.
Inviting a small group to discuss recent sermons may also be helpful. Consider starting your meeting by asking, “what did you think about the sermon on Sunday?” It may help to hand out sermon note sheets and discuss questions that your group members wrote down; or, prepare handouts that go along with the Sunday sermon and use them as a springboard.
We must not abandon the primacy of preaching. We must reassess the quality of our preaching and gladly embrace small groups as a vital supplement to the pulpit ministry. May we never lose the primacy of preaching. May we never lose the unique opportunities afforded by small groups.
- Cook, Thomas. Soul-Saving Preaching.
- Koller, Charles. Expository Preaching Without Notes.
- Lloyd-Jones, D. Martin. Preaching & Preachers.
- MacArthur, John. Rediscovering Expository Preaching.
- Muller, George. The Autobiography of George Muller.
- Robinson, Haddon. Biblical Preaching.
- Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students.
- Stott, John. The Challenge of Preaching.
- Thomas, Derek. “The Necessity of Expository Preaching.” Ligonier Ministries.