Editor's Note: This is Part One in a four-part series on the functions of preaching.
Is there meaning in the text? Has God actually spoken in scripture?
These questions float around the academy, but they are more than academic. They frame a larger conversation in the culture about the nature of truth. While people ponder these questions, they probably don't ask them that directly. And neither will the preacher, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, preachers answer the question indirectly each time we preach by the way we explain scripture.
People ask the question of truth indirectly by the way they live their lives. We answer the question of truth indirectly by the way we preach.
In the evangelical tradition, we herald the truth that is scripture. But the current trend in preaching is to engage the emotions more than the mind. We often illustrate and apply something we have not yet explained. But if sermon illustrations serve to open a window to the truth, and application serves to give the truth "legs," can either of those things be possible if we have not clearly explained the text? This is why the explanation of the text is the first order in preaching—not the last, and certainly not the only, but the first duty of the preacher.
Perhaps the current trend toward engaging the emotions exclusively is a fearful reaction to irrelevant, dry preaching. The classic "boring" sermon is all information and no inspiration. The preacher walks through the text, and his observations fill twenty-five minutes of a warm Sunday morning but fill no one's heart with fire for God. I've heard those sermons. God help me, I've preached those sermons. And they are boring.
But if the curse of the prior generation was the dry informational sermon, perhaps today the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Today we have sermons that are passionate indeed. They make us laugh and make us cry. They move us to the emotional nerve center and hold us there. The goal is to be emotionally connected. "That preacher knows how I feel" is a tremendous compliment. But remember, there are two types of boring: emotionally boring and intellectually boring. In the fear of "dry" preaching, we've plunged into the deep end of human feelings but stayed in the shallow end of the human mind. We place our priority on what people feel instead of what they think.
Perhaps we have moved from sermons that bore the heart to sermons that bore the mind. Perhaps the reason why generations graduate from the church when they graduate from high school is that, while they have felt what we want them to feel, they have not learned to think about God and His word. We laughed and we cried with them, but we did not think together with them. We are trending toward boredom again, but this time it is a boredom of the mind.
The answer of course is not mental stimulation to the neglect of emotional stimulation. The answer is a dependence on the superiority of scripture. We are text preachers. We explain texts. Then, in an effort to make the text compelling and attractive, we illustrate, argue, and apply. But all that comes after—after we have explained. The chronology is critical. What do we have to illustrate and apply unless we have first explained it? We are moving people to engage emotionally, but if that is not grounded in the truth then we are no better than armchair sociologists offering our observations on life—all prognosis and no diagnosis. We loathe the popular self-help psychology that is mass-marketed to our people. Yet this is my fate if I am not committed to explaining a text.
So, in the spirit of sharpening our skills, here are some helps to keep in mind when explaining a text.
First, be off balance. The amount of explanation needed will vary from text to text. The book of James is interesting in this regard. James has some straightforward admonitions. James 2:1-7 is the explicit command to avoid partiality. The preacher can move fairly easily to illustration and application, because the explanation is so clear. In fact, the bulk of the text itself is an illustration.
However, James deftly uses this practical admonition to enter into one of the more difficult theological passages in the New Testament, in 2:14-26. Then he moves to another practical section on the tongue, complete with its own illustrations and applications in 3:1-12. On balance, it may seem that a sermon from James 2:1-7 and 3:1-12 will be heavy with illustration and application, and the sermons from James 2:14-26 will be heavy on explanation. However, this is demanded by the nature of the text. It must be this way to communicate what James is saying, the way he is saying it.
Second, deal with problems. The time we set aside in the sermon to explain the text is where we will surface tough issues in the scripture. James 2:14-26 is a good example here as well. A pattern of thorough explanation of the text will protect us from glossing an important theological issue.