The other day in one of my seminary classes I heard an older student—a lovely guy who isn’t seeking a degree, and takes language classes here and there so he can study the Scriptures better—talk about the kind of preaching he likes. It was something along these lines: “I love it when a preacher just goes through the biblical text and tells me what it means. I don’t want preachers to get creative or give me a book review, or anything like that. Just tell me what the text means.”
If you are a pastor or in seminary, it’s doubtless that you’ve heard something like this. Preaching is all about getting at what the text means. I don’t need rhetorical flourish, or cute anecdotes, or movie references—the Scriptures can speak for themselves.
This is an admirable sentiment, and I imagine it’s (partly rightly) reacting to some of the poorer preaching we’ve all heard at one time or another—preaching that, while fun to listen to, or deeply moving, or practically applicable, doesn’t interact with the text much. The kind of preaching that leaves us thinking, “Ah, I feel better,” or that leaves us not thinking much of anything at all. The kind of preaching that uses the Bible as a springboard for whatever the preacher actually wanted to talk about that morning.
Preaching of this sort is, of course, wrongheaded. And frankly, while it is well-intentioned, most of it ends up being vapid. But I want to suggest that this other kind of preaching my fellow seminary student described (“just tell me what the text means”) is another well-intentioned, wrongheaded approach to preaching.
Preaching isn’t only teaching. In fact, we have separate words for these two activities precisely because they’re trying to accomplish different goals. But what are these two goals? This is where things get a little hairy, a little controversial. Because there’s certainly a teaching aspect to preaching, and teaching can sometimes feel a little like preaching, so sometimes it’s difficult to nail down the difference between those two things.
But there is, nevertheless, a difference. The way I see things, there are two main distinctives of preaching that differentiate it from teaching: the context and the purpose.
First, the context. Teaching can happen anywhere: a classroom, a living room, a car, a coffee shop. But preaching only happens in the context of worship. Preaching can only begin after the Body of Christ has entered into the throne room of God, sat at his feet to listen to his Word, and taken their seat at his Table to share in his banquet. Worship is about praising God, glorifying God, listening to God, and ultimately communing with God—both in the general sense and with reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is about being with God in a real and intimate way. When we go to a worship service, we don’t read the Scriptures merely to learn about the historical context of the passage, to study the connections it has with other parts of Scripture, or to look at maps—we read the Scriptures to hear God speaking to his Church through his Word. We’re participating in a life-giving, life-sustaining activity.
This is essential for understanding the difference between preaching and teaching, as the setting for these two activities actually determines a lot about their intended purposes. While teaching is designed to give a student deeper understanding about what is happening in a certain passage of Scripture, preaching goes above and beyond this goal by relating the passage to the life of the congregation engaged in worship.
Remember, we are here—in worship—to commune with God, and to hear from God. The purpose of preaching, then, is naturally inseparable from the purpose of worship. This kind of “expository”* preaching espoused by my classmate stops short of the final goal of the sermon, and robs the Church of a beautiful and necessary means of communing with God.
So then application—the import, the “What does it mean for us?”, whatever you want to call it—is a vital aspect of a sermon. In other words, if you don’t have anything to answer the question, “How then shall we live?”, you don’t have a sermon. So don’t just tell me “what the text means.” Please do tell me that, yes. But don’t stop there.
*A note about my use of this word. I know that most pastors who use the word “expository” don't mean exactly what I mean here. Most would say that bringing the text’s meaning to the life of the congregation is an important step in the expositing process. But the definition I’m using here is one I’ve heard quite a lot from laypersons, and this needs to be addressed. I don’t know if this impulse comes purely from a desire to understand the Scriptures more, or if it’s because, subconsciously, we want to get out of any call to action that the passage might give us. I imagine it’s a combination of both. So, I’m sorry if my definition made steam shoot out of your ears—but, hey, I had to get you to click on the link somehow, right?