I was on vacation on the coast of Maine having a very pleasant conversation after dinner with a friend of my in-laws. She asks me, "So, Chad, how is the ministry going? I always wonder, is it a lot of pressure to always have to come up with a message for the people every week?"
I knew exactly what she was getting at. I responded, "Actually, I preach through books of the Bible, so whatever the next passage is, that's the message for the week." With an intrigued look she smiled, "Well, that's very interesting. I've never heard of that before!" She was not a particularly religious woman, but chances are the only sermons she'd ever heard were vague monologues filled with moral platitudes and inspiring (or at least pleasant) personal stories.
Sadly, her response is one I hear all too often. In fact, I've had repeat visitors at our church over the past few years who have come back only because the preaching was so strange—like I was some kind of freak show. I have even had visitors invite other visitors to come because they have "never heard anyone preach like that before".
Here in Newberry, SC, expository preaching is a unicorn. It's bizarre. I sometimes have a hard time figuring out whether that wrinkle between their brows is from disgust, conviction, or shock. Of course, our regular members have grown to love going through book after book. Honestly, it feels like home for us. And expository preaching is therapeutic for me.
Book by Book
I went to Southern Seminary where expository preaching was drilled into our brains from day one. I assumed that all of my fellow graduates who walked across that stage and received a diploma intended to go into ministry and plunge right into preaching through book after book. My first Sunday at College Street Baptist Church I preached Matthew's genealogy from Matthew 1. How about that for a real crowd pleaser? Over the next two years, we proceeded through the entire Gospel of Matthew.
I remember attending a conference last year, and Mark Dever—who loves doing audience polls—was asking us about our preaching ministries. At the time, I had begun preaching through the book of Judges. To my shock and amazement, in a room of over 200 pastors convictionally committed to expository preaching, I had by far the longest mapped out series at 9 months—and it's not like Judges is super long (21 chapters). It only confirmed what I had begun to notice - guys who seemed to be all about expository preaching didn't seem to consider preaching through whole books as part of their definition of it.
To be honest, there is something satisfying for me about being able to check books off the list—not that the Bible is just a checklist to accomplish, of course. However, there is a sense of accomplishment in knowing we've been through all of Matthew, all of Judges, all of Colossians, Ruth and, by Thanksgiving 2016, all of Acts. I've found that much of my ministry is difficult to measure. Book by book preaching gives me an attainable and measurable goal. I can chink away at it week after week. It's at least one solid accomplishment to celebrate year by year as I finish each book.
Not My Problem
Perhaps even more importantly, however, is the way that expository preaching relieves me from pressure to perform. Remember that family friend's question from the intro? I have nightmares about trying to preach the way many mainline pastors do. My life is just not that interesting or inspiring! And I would fritter away half the week just wrestling with what topic to pick and what pieces of my experience illustrate some admirable trait. No. I would go crazy if the onus was on me to generate a message from within to feed the sheep every week.
Expository preaching takes the whole burden off the preacher and places it where it belongs - on the Word of God. It is the Word's job to feed the sheep. As the preacher, I just set the table. Man does not live by bread alone or by the stories and anecdotes of Chad, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It is not my responsibility to have just the right message for God's people week after week. It is God's.
And this means every Monday morning when I open my Bible I can breathe a big sigh of relief. This frees me up to relish the Word. It unfetters me from the urgent. I can preach each passage with full conviction without fear of accusation of hobby-horsing or cherry-picking the text to support my agenda.
Brother pastors, there is comfort and even confidence in recognizing our proper role as under-shepherds. Week after week, we fill our mouths with the words of Jesus, calling the sheep to return to the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls. The Holy Spirit knows the hearts of the people—and he knows our heart. Let the Word through the Spirit knit together your hearts together in love for its Author. As pastors, we must learn to cast our burdens upon Him for he cares for us. Our words were not meant to bear the heavy load of exhorting, encouraging, and edifying the people. Only the Word of God can do that.
The quicker we as pastors and congregations come to realize this, the quicker we will all be able to rest easy in the contentment of the Holy Spirit come Sunday night.