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Paul Roberts

My flock is poorly educated, should I preach expositionally?

By Paul Roberts

Church life has largely become an impersonal game for most church-goers these days, and their churches and pastors seem content to encourage this trend. Just this morning I received a phone call with that familiar recorded voice saying, “If you are interested in a new and exciting church in your area, press 1.” Unfortunately I was using a rotary phone (yes, rotary) and so I remain in the dark and must be satisfied with my existing church fellowship--sarcasm intended.

Most of the members and attenders of the church that I pastor, however, do not typically use rotary phones and I fear that some of them may be tempted to succumb to the lure of greener grass. Some of this is natural. True sheep will indeed yearn for green grass. But human nature naturally sees greener grass where perhaps the grass is not even real. Although I am not so much concerned about the members of the church that I pastor (their membership indicates their commitment), I am concerned about those attenders who are just beginning to sink their teeth into the gospel and are curious about how this gospel is worked out in our local church fellowship.

I recently read an article in The Detroit News describing a new game called Episcopopoly which is intended to teach people how to grow a church. This game of ecclesiology is patterned after the popular Monopoly, but rather than competing to build a monetary empire the players compete to build an ecclesiastical empire. Call me calloused.

The Difficulty of Preaching to Uneducated Congregations

I do indeed hope that what is said in this article does not take on an air of academic elitism, for the gospel and the church formed by it do not require a mind trained in the disciplines of academia. However, pastors of uneducated congregations frequently find themselves in a frustrating intellectual vacuum where the theological chatter of seminary coffee shops is a distant memory. Pastors of uneducated congregations frequently find themselves preparing messages that they would be pleased to deliver--if only they could be understood by his parishioners. We frequently view ourselves as gourmands preparing meals for undeveloped palates. May God forgive us for our pride.

The dilemma, however, remains. It is indeed quite difficult to exposit the sustained theological argumentation of Romans, for example, in a way that those who have not read much of anything (if anything) in years can digest it. In many ways, it is indeed easier for an educated pastor to preach to an educated congregation. And yet we find ourselves, by the grace and Providence of God, preaching an objective, content-oriented gospel to congregations of subjective, emotionally-oriented parishioners.

The question to be addressed, then, is how do we faithfully deliver the Word of God in such a context? Do we view the task as one of merely telling them what the Bible says, assuming that over-exposing them to the difficult concepts contained therein would render the message unmemorable and therefore not useful? Or, do we assume that God creates his people through his Word and walk them through the Bible systematically--expecting the Holy Spirit to specifically apply the content to the believer and to aid the regenerated nature in understanding it? To assume that we must play the part of the Holy Spirit and overly process the Bible through purely topical messages is to lack confidence in the God who’s Word we are preaching. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it this way, “We have become such experts, as we think, in psychological understanding, and at dividing people into groups--psychological, cultural, national, etc.--that we conclude as a result that what is all right for one is not right for another, and so eventually become guilty of denying the Gospel.”[1]

We will never produce congregations discontent with impersonal views of the church as a game by withholding from them a direct encounter with the Word of God.

Put more positively, congregations of interdependent covenanted believers are produced by God through his Word as they are saturated with the very Word of God. John Stott in his modern classic on the art of preaching contends that the primary purpose for the church which the preacher ought to have in his mind is that “the church is the creation of God by his Word.”[2]

What and How to Preach

Charles Spurgeon, that endless source of great quotes, once said “It is foolish to be lavish in words and niggardly in truth.”[3] He continued to say that “Surely the words of inspiration were never meant to be boot hooks to help a Talkative to draw on his seven-leagued boots in which to leap from pole to pole.”[4] His point is that the role of the preacher is not to merely tell the congregation what he thinks about the inspired words of God, but rather to yield accurate explanations of the very words of Scripture.

But this is especially hard to do effectively, and so pastors of uneducated churches are prone to becoming lazy in their study. Anecdotes begin to replace the bulk of exposition. It may be unavoidable that uneducated congregations require more illustrations, but this should not be to the neglect of the expositing of Scripture. Just as our messages will grow and advance with our own spiritual growth, so too will they grow and advance with the spiritual growth of those under our care.

“A sermon comes with far greater power to the consciences of the hearers when it is plainly the very word of God.”[5] And yet, “when didactic speech fails to enlighten our hearers we may make them see our meaning by opening a window and letting in the pleasant light of analogy.”[6] Knowing our flocks and seeking wisdom in discerning their spiritual condition and maturity is at this point an obvious aid to pastors.

Ray Stedman wrote that the what churches need these days is “not so much preaching from the Bible . . . As it is preaching the Bible itself,” while “taking into consideration the needs of the congregation, the level of doctrinal instruction they may not yet have attained, and the spirit of the times we are passing through . . .”[7] In other words, preach the Word! But do so with an awareness of the congregation’s level of maturity. Don’t just exegete (as we are tempted to do when we are feeling particularly heady), but exposit.

The nature of the church may indeed have much to do with the amount of illustrative material in our messages, but the message of our messages ought never to change. This is demanded by the very definition of expository preaching: Exposition is preaching that derives its content from the Scripture directly, seeking to discover its divinely intended meaning, its effect upon those who first received it, and to apply it to those who seek its guidance in the present.[8] If our education ever becomes the cause for laziness in our ministry, even to uneducated congregations, then we have abandoned our commitments. But to put our education to the task of increasing our untrained and uneducated congregations’ knowledge of the glory and beauty of the gospel of God in Christ is a marvelous thing.

“And you must allow me to tell you plainly, that the danger is not that you will have too much of this preparation, that you will be overeducated, or extravagantly learned, but all the reverse. You may get great learning, with a bad motive; you may get little with the same: but all you will ever get, multiplied ten times, will not be too much for your work, or more than the Church and the times demand.”[9]

Our task as preachers to uneducated congregations is to ground them in the Word, equip them to handle the Word themselves, and to provide every opportunity for God to create his people by, with, and through his Word. So do we still preach expositionally to uneducated congregations? Beyond any shadow of doubt, Yes!

Helpful Resources

Books cited in the notes of this article are a good place to start.

Other helpful resources include:

  • John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990). Because people are “starving for the greatness of God,” Piper here describes the task of preaching in glorious terms that surpass the issue of education. In the line of the Scottish preacher James Stewart, Piper describes the aims of preaching as (p19):

    “to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God,
    to feed the mind with the truth of God,
    to purge the imagination with the beauty of God,
    to open the heart to the love of God,
    to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

  • Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). This textbook is a good combination of theology (and the theology of gospel proclamation) with practical theology (including the methodology of preparation and delivery in gospel proclamation).

  • John MacArthur, Rediscovering Expository Preaching: Balancing the Science and Art of Biblical Exposition (Dallas: Word, 1992). A good general introduction to exposition.

  • John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. Originally published in 1870, this work has been reprinted on numerous occasions to the present day. It is another textbook discussion of both theory and practice in preaching.

  • Sermons by English and American Puritans. Though the Puritans were probably not the best model for preachers today, they serve as good examples in how educated pastors (most of the English Puritans were Cambridge grads) can indeed preach substantive messages to uneducated congregations.

  • Books for the purpose of illustration in the sermon. Almanacs, “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” etc.

  • Biographies for the purpose of illustration.

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971) 141-142. The entire seventh chapter of this book is devoted to how the nature of the congregation affects the preacher’s exposition.

[2] John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 109. He expounds this even further: “God’s new creation (the Church) is as dependent upon his Word as his old creation (the universe). Not only has he brought it into being by his Word, but he maintains it through the same Word.” See also Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000) 29. He writes, “God’s Word has always created his people!”

[3] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1990) I.73. The entire fifth lecture of Book I, “Sermons--their Matter” is especially relevant to this discussion.

[4] Spurgeon, op. cit., I.75.

[5] Spurgeon, op. cit., I.75.

[6] Spurgeon, op. cit., III.1. The first lecture of Book III, “Illustrations in Preaching” is also helpful in understanding the balance between exposition and illustration.

[7] Richard Allen Bodey, ed., Inside the Sermon: Thirteen Preachers Discuss Their Methods of Preparing Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990) 201, 203. Stedman, incidentally, gives credit for adopting expositional preaching in his ministry to a wide range of expositors: G. Campbell Morgan, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, R. W. Stott, and J. I. Packer as well as J. Vernon McGee, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Richard Halverson, and Stephen Olford (202).

[8] Stedman in Bodey, op. cit., 201-202.

[9] J. W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1988 [reprint of 1864])123.