I recently received a message from someone who heard me speak at a conference on Bible exposition. He thanked me for my ministry. He also asked a question: What advice would you give to help me become a better expositor?
What a great question!
I am a student of expository preaching, not an expert. But I relish the opportunity to answer questions like this.
My heart’s desire is to be a better preacher. I trust that my preaching is clear and consistent. But I still have much to learn about the great task of Bible exposition.
I pray this will always be my disposition. No preacher should ever feel that he has arrived. We all have weaknesses in our preaching. There are blind spots that you cannot see without trusted people being honest with you; but they are there, nonetheless.
Here is what I would recommend to a preacher – rookie or seasoned – who seeks to become a better expositor.
Start early. There is a difference between what is important and what is urgent. At the beginning of the week, many urgent things claim your attention. All the while, the text for Sunday sits there quietly. You ignore it, until the weekend approaches. Then it becomes urgent and important! Yet you are not able to give it your best, because you are operating on limited time. One practical way to avoid the “Saturday Night Special” syndrome is to start as early as possible.
Read repeatedly. Before you study the text, read it. I mean, really read it. Then read it again. Read it slowly. Read it aloud. Read it from different translations. Read it prayerfully. Read it with expectation that God is speaking in and through the text. Reading the text this way will help you become more familiar with the details and language of it. Moreover, there is great power in simply reading the word of God.
Observe carefully. Bible exposition explains what the text means by what it says. Therefore, proper interpretation is key. So is observation. Interpretation asks, what does it mean? Observation asks, what does it say? Before you rush to determine the meaning of the text, pay attention to what it being said. The tools of observation are a Bible, pen, and paper. Or it may be a Bible and computer. Just read and write what you see. Note the grammar. Look for repeated words. Relate the context. Ask questions. Mark connecting ideas. List words to look up. Make preliminary outlines. I call this process “sanctified brain storming.” When I do it well, it is often the seed that yields fruitful study. The more time you spend in observation, the more it will strengthen your interpretation.
Dig deep. There are no better minds, only better libraries. So consult the best resources available to you. Some will tell you not to put much stock in commentaries. I think this advice is foolish and arrogant. There are men who have spent years studying certain books of the Bible. Their life work has then been placed in commentaries. The least I can do is read their insights. Consider it consulting godly friends for spiritual advice. Some of my best friends are commentators whom I have never met. Some are dead. I read as much as I can – exegetical commentaries, homiletical commentaries, even devotional commentaries. I want to dig as deep as possible, to gain all the insights I can on the text that I can. I milk a lot of cows, and then churn my own butter.
Read widely. For most pastors, it is a challenge to spend the adequate time to study for Sunday, along with all of the other personal and ministerial responsibilities we have. This often crowds out time for personal reading. But there are some things you will never had time for. You must make time for them. Reading is one of them. I am convinced, the more you read in general, the more it will strengthen your pulpit work. Read theology, biography, Christian living, popular books, and even a little mental “junk food.” Read blogs, journals, magazines, and newspapers. Read sermons. Reading widely encourages critical thinking, sharpens your focus, encourages your faith, models good writing, and broadens your perspective.
Write clearly. I am a proponent of writing complete sermon manuscripts, whether you take it to the pulpit or not. I think that our diligent study can result in flat sermons, if we do not write ourselves clear. It is not enough to have an outline and to basically wing it from there. Write yourself clear. Craft your introduction. Work through your transitional sentences. Plan your conclusions. Select meaningful illustrations. Find effective cross-references. Construct compelling sentences. Seek to turn the ear into the eye. Help them to see what you are talking about. Most often, this cannot happen extemporaneously. It must be prepared beforehand. Strive to prepare a sermon that is worthy of the truth God has taught you from the text.
Pray fervently. Believing prayer should mark your entire study and preparation process. Do not just check in at the beginning of your study time. Pray throughout. Ask for wisdom. Ask God to yield the wisdom of the writers to you. Ask God for understanding, when you get stuck. Ask God to renew your mind and change your heart by what you study. Ask for a way to present it that will arrest the attention of your hearers. Ask for relevant applications for your congregation. Ask God the Holy Spirit grip the hearts of your people. Ask that God would give then increase, as you plant and water the seed. Ask for strength in preaching. Ask God to glorify himself through the proclamation of the word. Remember, it happens after prayer!
What practical advice would you give a pastor who wants to become a better expositor?