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Is Expository Preaching Too Scholarly? (Part Two)

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As much as expository preaching exalts Jesus Christ, there are risks.

To be sure, most of these risks are mitigated by being prepared before stepping into the pulpit and being passionate about the text. The criticisms that preachers sometimes hear do, however, carry some weight. The first complaint that I hear is that expository preaching is often too scholarly or intellectual. I’m certainly not an expert theologian, but I’ve often said that I could confuse my church rather easily by simply not defining theological terms. Robert Smith writes:

People come off the streets who have never picked up a Bible. They are often bombarded with these theological words—justification, sanctification, propitiation, glorification, and the like. They do not understand these terms. We must not jettison or discard traditional theological terms. They must be rebaptized in the solution of contemporary relevance. The traditional theological dictionary must remain the same while the contemporary relevant vocabulary and terminology correspond to the precise meaning of the biblical and theological terms.[1]

Any preacher who is well-read can use big theological words, but they would only impress those who are either seminary trained or those who have spent a lot of time studying. The overwhelming majority of church members and attendees would be confused, making it difficult to follow the rest of the sermon.

The Sunday morning sermon is not a Ph.D. seminar or a demonstration of the preacher’s intellectual capacity. There is certainly truth in the old saying that preachers need to “keep the cookies on the bottom shelf,” meaning that the sermon should be accessible to all who are listening, not just the educated or intellectual. Stott aptly notes: “To preach…over people’s head, is to forget who they are. As Spurgeon once commented, ‘Christ said, ‘Feed my sheep…Feed my lambs.’’ Some preachers, however, put the food so high that neither lambs nor sheep can reach it. They seem to have the read the text, ‘Feed my giraffes.’”[2] A pastor once told me that he thought about a certain person in his church every time he prepared to preach because that person was neither educated nor of high intellect. She loved Jesus, though, and his responsibility to her was to make sure that she learned about Jesus and how to apply the gospel through his preaching. Tony Merida warns against using overly academic language in our preaching: “The overall truth to remember in explaining is to avoid overly academic language. Luther said that when he preached, he aimed at the youth in the church, not the highly educated. Refrain from trying to impress people with your personal study. Make the text plain and understandable, so that you teach the text to all of the listeners.”[3]

In connecting with the people, the preacher can quickly become consumed with keeping things so simple that he fails to challenge his listeners, thus stunting their growth. I believe that the primary way a church is discipled is through the regular preaching each week, so there must be intellectual challenges for the audience. In other words, the cookies need to be accessible, but they can’t stay there. Stott argues:

Although we must not overestimate our congregation’s intellectual capacity, we must not underestimate it either. My plea is that we treat them as real people with real questions; that we grapple in our sermons with real issues; and that we build bridges into the real world in which they live and love, work and play, laugh and weep, struggle and suffer, grow old and die. We have to provoke them to think about their life in all its moods, to challenge them to make Jesus Christ the Lord of every area of it, and to demonstrate his contemporary relevance.[4]

The task of every preacher is to know the Bible with enough knowledge to keep people engaged and to know the people enough to speak to the challenges and difficulties they face.

[1] Robert Smith Jr., Doctrine That Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life (Nashville: B&H, 2008), 86.

[2] John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 146-147.

[3] Tony Merida, The Christ-Centered Expositor: A Field Guide for Word-Driven Disciple Makers (Nashville: B&H, 2016), 180.

[4] Stott, 147.