July 3, 2006
The Myth of Expository Preaching & the Commodification of the Word
The summer issue of Leadership, due in mailboxes soon, will focus on the impact of consumerism on our faith and ministries. To get the conversation started, in this post, pastor/professor and regular Ur contributor David Fitch discusses how expository preaching can make Scripture into a commodity that people consume. You can read more about Fitch's critique of consumer driven ministry at his blog, The Great Giveaway.
There is a myth surrounding expository preaching among North American evangelicals. It goes like this: if the preacher follows the text more closely in his preaching, both he/she and the congregation will stay true to the Word of God. No other agendas or human wisdom will slither into the preaching. Implied is, if the preacher but applies the exegetical historical-critical skills learned in seminary and studies the text in its original language, (s)he can arrive at the meaning of the text all by him/herself. This is the mythology I believe is behind expository preaching in the evangelical world.
Why do I label this a mythology? Well first of all, the historical-critical method in the hands of individuals has not yielded a singular meaning as "intended by the author" in over 100 years. Instead what we have is thousands of commentaries on the Bible that present numerous unresolved options for interpreting practically every verse in the Bible. Historical-critical exegesis hasn't generated more unity over Scripture; it has generated less.
In reality what guides interpretation is not individual analysis of the text. It is the broad consensus interpretation for the biblical texts found in the ongoing history of church doctrine. The myth that expository preaching is more faithful to the text is simply not true. There is plenty room for all kinds of human interpretation even within expository preaching.
Even if we could agree that each individual mind under the Holy Spirit can come to the one propositional meaning for the text using exegesis, we cannot assume then that these truths as communicated by the preacher will necessarily be heard as the same to every listener in the pew. As Derrida reminds us, repetition never leads to the "same." Each idea is heard in terms of each hearer's context. The person in the pew takes notes, selects what he or she hears for special notation, and walks away with "the nugget" for the day that can best support his or her current life or context.
Every preacher has had the experience of greeting people after church who thank him/her for what the sermon said. Then the preacher is stunned to hear they took something from the sermon totally different than (s)he had intended. So even if there were a stable authorial meaning inherent to the text, it still could not be communicated intact in the ways expository preaching assumes.
Most disturbing about the myth of expository preaching is the excessive individualism that is promoted by the assumptions that undergird it. Expository preaching can actually encourage the person in the pew to be isolated from further conversation and testing of the Scriptures within the congregation (1 John 4:1). This is because expository preaching commodifies the Word. It carefully dissects the text into three (stereotypically) points and an application, which is then offered to the parishioner as the means to further her Christian life. The person sits isolated in the pew encouraged to take notes, analyze, digest the sermon, rarely giving the Amen. Expository preaching operates under the assumption that the congregation (or radio listener) is composed of individual Cartesian selves isolated and separated from each other, yet capable of listening and receiving truth as information from the pulpit.
By default such a sermon cannot help but situate the parishioner so that (s)he is in control of the Scriptures because it is the parishioner who decides whether, how, and what to accept in the preaching. Ironically, as the expository preacher carefully follows the text in his preaching, the center of control for the meaning of Scripture has shifted from the Bible to the autonomous mind of the listening parishioner. Meanwhile the preacher seeks comfort that somehow the Holy Spirit works in mysterious and unsuspecting ways and His "word shall not return void."
Expository preaching assumes that Christian growth happens individually and cognitively: the believer in the pew hears the sermon, takes notes, and acknowledges an application. (S)he then goes home to apply it in everyday life. Sanctification happens through the cognitive mind digesting a "truth" which then enables the mind to tell the body to do it. And so I fear, that in the large evangelical lecture halls of our day, thousands sit and listen, take notes, and selectively hear what they will hear. The Word has become information to be used for my life as it is. Many times they leave having never confronted the life-changing reality of the Lordship of Christ over their lives.
What I have said above is a pretty heavy indictment. Some might imply that I don't believe preaching is any longer possible in the postmodern worlds. But nothing could be further from the truth. Others might argue the same problem plagues topical preaching. There are those who respond to all of this by dismissing the role of traditional preaching altogether. And some respond with attempts to democratize preaching.
I believe we desperately need the preaching of the Word in the church today. But we need preaching done, not as isolated individuals, but in and through the community of the Spirit. And so in my next post, I will discuss how we can reshape and restore the proclamation of the gospel in the church gathering amid postmodernity.
David Fitch is pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois, a professor of ministry, theology, and ethics at Northern Seminary, and author of The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies (Baker 2006).