Preaching at Willow Creek, Part 1
Willow Creek Church is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. We are a Reformed and Presbyterian congregation, one affirming the creeds of historic, orthodox Christianity as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith. As a Reformed and Presbyterian congregation, we believe that the ministry of the Word is central to the mission and ministry of Christ’s Church. As another Reformed confession, the Belgic Confession, states, the true church is known “in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church” (Article 29)(1).
Needless to say, we strive to take the preaching of the Word seriously. However, our preaching might be different, even quite different, than your past experience in other churches. In this series, I’ll try to offer an explanation of some marks of preaching at Willow Creek Church, as well as our understanding of their biblical basis and practical benefits.
Mark #1: Verse-by-verse, expository
Not all sermons are built and presented the same way. There are many different approaches, and some preachers might invoke multiple styles in a single message. Here are just a few of the most popular.
Many preachers today preach in a topical manner. That is, the preacher first selects a topic and then strives to address it with wisdom from select/various passages of Scripture. In this way, the topic precedes the text.
Topics might include practical matters like resolving conflict, building healthy marriages, effective parenting, wise financial stewardship, dealing with emotions like anger, and more. However, topics might also include doctrinal matters like the attributes of God, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of adoption, and the like. When done carefully and from the Scriptures, this can be a very effective and helpful form of preaching. I’ve been blessed by God mightily through faithful topical preaching.
In textual preaching, the preacher discerns a topic and its supporting ideas directly from the text. However, the development of these ideas does not necessarily flow from the text, and their support might come from sources outside of it. This is also a well-attested form of preaching and, when done carefully, can also be a very faithful and effective.(2)
For a variety of reasons, I tend to teach topically, but preach in a verse-by-verse expository manner.
An expository sermon begins with the text, not a given topic, and seeks to discern the intent of its author, its proper historical and scriptural context, and its genre and grammar. Only then, does the preacher seek to convey the meaning and application of the passage to his contemporary listeners. Bryan Chapell, an expert on expository preaching, says it this way:
An expository sermon takes its topic, main points, and subpoints from a text. In an expository message, a preacher makes a commitment to explain what a particular text means by using the spiritual principles it supports as the points of the message. References to other passages should occur only as the preacher attempts to confirm, corroborate, or elaborate principles that are evident in the immediate text. Unless other passages clarify what the immediate passage says, referencing numerous other texts can distract and confuse listeners - and possibly misrepresent the primary text…The main idea of an expository sermon (the topic), the divisions of that idea (the main points), and the development of those divisions (the subpoints) all come from truths the text itself contains. No significant portion of the text is ignored. In other words, expositors willingly stay within the boundaries of a text (and its relevant context) and do not leave until they have surveyed its entirety with their listeners. (3)
People sometimes complain about verse-by-verse expository preaching, saying that it lacks the flash and “felt need” appeal of many topical messages. I agree. It does. Promoting an upcoming sermon series about sex will undoubtedly seem more immediately relevant and create more buzz than an upcoming series in Haggai. However, after twenty years in ministry, I’ve personally yet to see a form of preaching more capable of producing Christians “thoroughly equipped for every good work” than a steady diet of faithful verse-by-verse expository preaching.
This is not to say that verse-by-verse expository preaching must be dry or boring. In fact, it shouldn’t be! Every delicious steak should come with a side of sizzle, am I right?
It's also not to say that there aren't other faithful and edifying forms of preaching. There are! Some of the most faithful and powerful sermons I've ever heard were topical or textual messages.
Even so, I favor expository preaching for several reasons. Here are just five.
1. Expository preaching promotes faithfulness to the Scriptures. By carefully viewing passages in their larger historical and biblical contexts, understanding the nuances of their genre and grammar, and discerning the author’s original intent in writing them, the message produced is more likely to reflect the overall teaching of Scripture.
2. Expository preaching promotes the value and authority of the Scriptures. Jumping from one passage to the next can leave many passages and verses untouched, potentially creating the unfortunate impression that they have little to no value or authority for the people of God. However, faithful exposition can show that treasures are found on every page of Scripture, even in its smallest details.
3. Expository preaching promotes overall understanding of the Bible and discipleship over time. Verse-by-verse expository preaching offers the whole of God’s Word to the congregation. Sitting under this form of preaching for years can be used by God to form a more comprehensive and cohesive understanding of the Bible and discipleship. Gimmicky preaching can quickly create a crowd, but it probably won’t produce mature disciples. Faithful verse-by-verse, expository preaching will.
4. Expository preaching promotes preaching on difficult but necessary passages and themes of Scripture. Working sequentially through books of the Bible challenges and empowers me to preach on difficult but necessary truths. It also helps protect my flock from a self-directed soap box masquerading as a pulpit.
5. Expository preaching promotes sound personal Bible study. Over time, faithful verse-by-verse exposition of Scripture from the pulpit teaches God’s people how to rightly interpret the Bible for themselves. They will learn important principles of biblical interpretation - issues of context, grammar, genre, and so on - simply by the faithful preacher’s example.
In the next post, I’ll describe the second mark of our preaching at Willow Creek Church, that we strive for our sermons to be Christ-centered.
1. Godfrey, W. Robert. "The Marks of the Church". Retrieved 3/22/2017 from http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-marks-of-the-church/
2. Chapell, B. (2005). Christ-centered preaching: redeeming the expository sermon (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 131.
3. Ibid., 130.