By Wayne McDill
Expository preaching usually begins with a biblical text and lets the text shape the sermon. The preacher intends to have the theological message of the text become the message of the sermon. Expository preaching by definition seeks to expose the intended meaning of the text for the contemporary audience. This is usually done by preaching through a Bible book in a series. As a result, expository preaching has been criticized as academic and out of touch with the needs of real people.
An emphasis on human experience may seem to compromise expository preaching and undercut its adherence to the biblical text. But that is not necessarily the case. Granted, felt-need preaching has often seemed more concerned with feelings and needs than with answers from Scripture. Sometimes this kind of preaching mistakes a sympathetic analysis of the trouble as a solution. While sympathy is appreciated, biblical wisdom is what we want.
The skill emphasized here is tracing from theological concepts in the text to the corresponding points of contact in human experience. Notice the emphasis on “tracing.” We begin with theological concepts in a text. We study the words of the text writer to discover the theological ideas he is presenting that will become the truths the sermon presents. We find the one central idea of the text and word it as subject/modifier. We then find what the writer said about that central idea and identify these ideas as predicates.
Tracing from theology to experience must be done throughout the interpretive process. We are thinking about the relevance of the biblical ideas from the beginning. We believe that Bible truth is always relevant to real life. But we also know that these truths can be preached in a sterile and academic way that masks their natural relevance. What God has revealed addresses human experience, but a preacher can miss that connection and thus miss his audience.
Here are five suggestions as to how you can trace from theology to experience:
- Clearly identify the theological ideas the text writer is addressing. Unless you are clear in your own mind and in your words, you cannot communicate the message of the text. Nor can you show its relevance to your audience.
- Think through the wider biblical teaching on the text idea. No text says all there is to say about its subject. Cross-references will fill in the broader scope of biblical theology. They will also help relate the idea to practical application.
- Ask why anyone needs to hear this message and write down as many answers as you can. The test of relevance is whether the truths of your sermon “scratch where they itch.” If your only concern is the church life of your hearers, you will not make contact with their personal concerns. Think about the assumptions, symptoms, and consequences you might see in the lives of those who do not know or do not practice the truth of your message.
- Write a description of the person who most desperately needs this message. Use some imagination to describe an individual who will find the answer to the pressing questions of his life. Think of how he struggles. Imagine his mistaken thinking. Describe how his thinking and behavior affect every aspect of his life and of those around him.
- Plan specific instructions for the person who needs to apply your message to his life. Imagine a person leaving the service and asking, with pad and pen in hand, “Pastor, thank you for the sermon. But I am leaving now. Going home. Tomorrow going to work. Tell me specifically what to do to translate the Bible principles into practice. I am ready to write down what to do.”
Adapted from 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching by Wayne McDill (B&H Publishing Group, 2006)