Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Thoughts on expository preaching

Eric Carpenter has apparently garnered the attention of one of the big guns of the Reformed world, Thabiti Anyabwile. Eric questioned something Thabiti had written in his book on What Is a Healthy Church Member regarding being an “expository listener” and apparently Thabiti read Eric review and responded with his post Who's Doing the Talking in our Church Gatherings?.

Here is the crux of his argument. According to Thabiti and most advocates of expository preaching, what is happening is not one guy talking to a bunch of other people from a platform and behind a pulpit. It is God speaking through His Word, God speaking to His people. According to Thabiti, the structure of the service (something I have railed against many a time) actually facilitates this dialogue between God and man…

The very structure reflects a running dialogue–not between the people gathered, though we “speak to one another in songs,” etc.–but fundamentally between God and His people. We come singing to our God, but He speaks the first word in the “call to worship.” We respond in song. Then God addresses us again by the reading of His word. We then speak to Him in prayer of confession. Following the confession, God speaks to us in the “assurance of pardon” taken from Scripture each week. Hearing His promise of pardon, we then respond in song. God speaks next in the sermon. God gets the bulk of the service to say what’s on His mind, disclosed in the word of God. Following God’s word to us, we respond in praise. We then receive the benediction or words of blessing from God, before sitting in silence (hopefully awe) before the God of the universe.

Here is my problem with that.

From a theological position, we affirm that God is speaking through His Word.

From a practical standpoint, what we get is one guy speaking on behalf of God.

That is a huge difference. Is God’s Word really God speaking to us all the time or only under special circumstances? Is this a dialogue between God and man or is it man telling us what and how to respond to what he has chosen to share from God? From the Scriptures read to the songs we sing to the prayers we listen to, all of it is selected by a few people and imposed on the rest. All of that is done in most churches with the very best of intentions but the reality is that the majority of believers are mute observers of the performance, even when we are permitted to sing along with the songs someone else chose (standing or sitting by their direction of course). In every church we have been involved with up to the gathering we met with in East Lansing, the entire church gathering was focused around one guy, i.e. the pastor, who does virtually all of the speaking. Is there something special, from a Scriptural standpoint, about when a pastor delivers a sermon versus when two brothers are opening the Word over a cup of coffee? Everything we are taught to understand, even the way the church service and building are structured, gives the impression that something special is happening in the pulpit but frankly I have been far more edified by informal conversations with brothers outside of church buildings than I ever have sitting in a pew.

Expository preaching sounds so great. We open the Word of God, study it and then exposit what it is saying. What is not to like about that? Almost everyone I know grew up in a school setting where one person always spoke and the class listened. Many of us had a similar experience in college. That mode of learning is comfortable and familiar to us and that transfer to the church where we are also taught to expect to sit in a pew and listen to the guy in front. Something odd happened as we progressed in college to upper level classes. As I went from a big lecture hall for PoliSci 101 to senior level seminars that dug deeper, there was far less lecturing and far more interaction. Guess what? I needed some basics up front (not as much as the normal college frosh but I digress) but once I had the basics I was able to engage in conversation with my professors and fellow students, in dialogue and not in simply listening. My learning was far deeper and meaningful in those classes. We all know this to be true, but why do we never progress beyond “from the pulpit to the pew” edification?

When we restrict the conversation to talking about expository preaching within the context of our presupposition and culturally attuned preferences, everything is fine but when we take the time to dig into Scripture and ask: what is commanded and what do we see modeled through example, it just isn’t there. It is amazing the more I read through Scripture to find so little of what we take as absolute truth in the church is completely absent and that often the opposite is what we find.

I love a lot of what Thabiti writes and I deeply respect him as a brother in Christ. I just disagree, vehemently, with the idea that being a mute listener is a sign of a healthy Christian. That is a great quality to be desired in a mannequin but not in a fellow follower and disciple of Christ. Certainly there are times to be quiet and listen just as there are times to be active and involved but the determining factor is not whether a preacher gives you permission or not. It is high time that we release Christians from their pews, equip them and exhort them to minister to the world and see what happens!

1 comment:

Steve Scott said...

Well said.

"It is high time that we release Christians from their pews, equip them and exhort them to minister to the world and see what happens!" Hence, the title of my blog, From the Pew!