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Occasionally I get to take a rest and not preach. Recently, I was on vacation and visited a church in another part of the country. It was Sunday morning, and I looked forward to a time of worship: singing, praying, listening to God’s Word.
The singing and praying were not unlike many of churches where I preach as guest or visit. The preaching seemed to be the same, too. That is, my experience in listening to preaching when I visit various churches has been disappointing. Yes, I know, I’m a preaching professor at a seminary. I have expectations of my students, but I also have expectations of any preacher to whom I listen.

What I’ve discovered after several years of visiting various churches and listening to preachers preach is that the text often is not exposited. That is, the text is not exposed. The idea of the text rarely is emphasized, and the text often isn’t supported in the preaching.

After listening to sermons all these years, I have concluded preachers either talk before the text or talk around the text but rarely talk about the text. What do I mean by these three categories?

Talking Before the Text
As for talking before the text, the preacher provides information about the theme as the preacher sees it presented in the preaching text. Talking before the text may give background information, but again, the background may not be germane to that preaching text.

In addition, when preaching the sermon the preacher may think he or she is making clear the text to listeners by quoting other texts. The buckshot of other texts may have some thematic bearing on the preaching text but does not necessarily mean the context of the Scripture being preached is made clear.

Preaching before the text also may include fillers—ongoing chatter with the congregation to develop rapport or worn-out techniques that one uses to begin sermons. One preacher I know begins every sermon with a joke, which usually has nothing to do with the text or the idea of the text. It is simply the way he always begins his sermons.
Talking before the text is not strategic. It distracts from the text. It rarely helps in achieving the purpose of the sermon, which is communicating clearly the thrust of the text as it intersects the lives of one’s listeners.

Talking Around the Text
Talking around the text skirts the preaching of the actual preaching text. Here the preacher may say biblical, orthodox, helpful, encouraging or insightful things; but the preacher does not actually exposit—deal with—the text.

What do I mean? Some preachers may provide listeners with a fill-in-the-blank outline. Fill-in-the-blank outlines can provide clear structure for logical thinking but often becomes evidence of a weak structure for a sermon when it does not deal with the text. In addition, listeners who are intent on filling in their outlines actually may miss things the preacher is talking about. Examined closely, some outlines become an excuse for the preacher to cover weak exegesis and flimsy homiletics. When not used with solid exegesis, outlines fail to communicate clearly the idea of the biblical text.

Dr. Gibson joined Gordon-Conwell in 1992 and has brought with him both academic and experiential knowledge of preaching. An ordained Baptist minister, he has served as a pastor and interim pastor in four churches in Pennsylvania and New York since 1985. Dr. Gibson’s scholarly interests include contemporary issues in preaching, pastoral ministry concerns, the history of preaching, the history of evangelicalism and discipleship. His personal interests include fishing, various sports, reading, writing, art, theater, films, antiques, books, and traveling. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in Beverly, MA.

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Talk about it...

William Gestal

commented on Jul 24, 2015

Scott, great observation. Have you written more in this. Another issue is when preachers springboard from the morning text to others. Thank you.

Jason Adams

commented on Jul 24, 2015

you know I had this long drawn out response written and it was well written... then I discovered I didn't actually care about this subject enough to have an opinion

Nathan Nielson

commented on Jul 24, 2015

I appreciate the article - thank you. A quick question for Jason - What do you do to make sure you stay on point with your Biblical teaching? If you don't care about the subject, I hope that means you always stay on point with teaching your congregation the Word. Please let me know some of your techniques for keeping your sermons Bible-centered?

Gabriel Mercado

commented on Jul 25, 2015

Hi Jason: Maybe you're like me, who took a public speaking (or English) class, and the professor thought you when selecting a topic, you should choose a topic that you care about (or are enthusiastic about). I don't think this is completely accurate for preaching. I'd say you can preach something God wants you to preach, and you can do this effectively, if you let God guide you and prepare for the sermon adequately. In a personal speech, you choose your favorite topic, in a for-God-speech, you have to choose His topic. Many blessing!

Douglas Hallman

commented on Jul 24, 2015

Re: Jason's - caring about the subject: My habit is to preach through Bible books in hopefully an expository fashion. One of the challenges I face with this method is coming to a subject about which I care little of have little interest in. Sometimes I have to do a week or two of topical sermons on other subjects (that's when the interruption of special days comes in handy) and spend more time praying through the text (and subject). Often the Holy Spirit generates the interest I need in my heart enabling me to preach the text. And, to my surprise someone says, "I needed that".

William Douglas Johnson, Sr

commented on Jul 25, 2015

I have been in this position only about four years and I appreciate any help I can receive from a man, or woman, who cares about what the Bible has to say to me and those to whom I'm speaking. Thank you for this. Bless you.

Gabriel Mercado

commented on Jul 25, 2015

Dr. Gibson: Thanks for the article! I mostly preach around and before the text, unfortunately. And I think it's partly due to a lack of preparation from my part. It is easier to preach one's own ideas and support them with biblical texts, so when people who invite me to preach only give me one or two weeks to prepare, it seems inevitable to preach around the text and not the text. I'd say the solution is to do in depth studies of the texts and prepare expository sermons before the invitation to preach is received. Many blessings and thanks again!

John Gullick

commented on Jul 26, 2015

Hi - um I think we also need to sit under preaching - trusting that the preacher has listened to the Holy Spirit dialogued with the text and presented what they feel the Spirit is saying to the congregation. I don't think this is necessarily able to be evaluated in a exegetical examination only it is neither before around or anything else it is a mixture of what the preacher feels God is saying out of the text but also into the life setting of his/her congregation. What does God want these people to know and do comes into play blessings

Pastor Paul A. Taylor, Sr.

commented on Jul 27, 2015

I see your point. But the one thing and have to ask Dr. Gibson. In those situations when you feel a preacher is not on point do you tell them so? If there is an area in which I need to improve I would want to know. I'm around preachers that are good about helping. Another thing I have to say, I hope you don't think that everyone has to preach like you do. Have you ever "flunked" a sermon? I think we all have. Your article is well written Dr. Gibson. But I certainly hope you go those preachers in Love and share your expertise with them.

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