Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People (IX Marks; Chicago: Moody, 2010), 105–7, 112:
“We don’t think your preaching will build this church. So we have decided not to nominate you as our next pastor.” That is what the elders of a church said to me toward the end of a three-month interim pastorate.
It was a Sunday. We had just finished the church’s evening service, which I had led. My wife had gone home. And the four elders and I were now sitting in the living room of the elder chairman. My wife and I had prayed that, God willing, the interim pastorate would turn into a full-time pastorate. Apparently, that was not going to happen.
What was wrong with my preaching? That was the obvious question. The four brothers focused their answer almost entirely on one thing: my faithfulness to the biblical text. They put it like this: “Your preaching has been fine from the standpoint of saying true things, and much of what you’re saying comes out of the text you’re preaching. The problem is, your sermons tend to be 20 to 30 degrees off the main point of the text.”
The evaluation surprised me. I had meant to preach faithful biblical messages. That was my goal. I had the same philosophy of ministry as they. In the first few weeks of the interim pastorate, I had preached Psalms 1, 2, and 3. Then, I had turned to preaching my way through the book of Colossians, section by section. But 20 to 30 degrees off the main point of the text? Really?
Creative to a Fault
They pushed a little further. “Jonathan, we’ve known you for a few years,we love you, and we want to serve you, brother. So we’ve been asking ourselves how this could have happened. The main thing we have come up with is that you are very creative, and your creative impulse seems to show up almost every week. Half the time it works, and you say something in an interesting way. But half the time it doesn’t work, and you miss the point of the text.”
Hmmm, that hit home. I knew what they were talking about. In fact, I knew better than they did. Week after week I had labored to devise a fresh approach to the text. I could even remember saying to my wife, “These people have heard it all a hundred times. I need some new way to say it.”
Here’s an example. Our church was on the doorstep of a large state university, and we wanted to do a better job of reaching the university crowd. So I titled the Colossians series, “Philosophies of This World or Things Above,” based on the theme of worldly philosophies in the book (see Col. 2:8). I used the error of a major philosopher to set up the biblical text for each week:
- Week 1 on Colossians 1:1–14 was titled “Can Richard Rorty Know God’s Will?”
- Week 2 on 1:15–23 was called “What Kant (Be) Missed.”
- Week 3 on 1:24–2:5 was “Time, Hope, and Hegel.”
You get the point. Even aside from the slightly pretentious nature of this enterprise, the more significant problem was that it allowed the philosophers to set the agenda. Instead of asking the very simple question, “What’s the burden of this biblical text,” I used the text to answer the challenge posed by the philosopher. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it caused me to redirect the point of the text—I don’t know—maybe 20 to 30 degrees.
Not only that, I knew that something else had been quietly transpiring in my heart over the prior months. I had grown restless with the desire to impress the congregation with my originality and spiritual insight. I wanted them to think I was a great preacher. And I wanted to impress these four men especially. As a result, the process of preparing “creative” sermons became stifling.
Strangely, how many preachers walk down this road? And how those four brothers blessed me by refusing to hire me! With gentle and loving words, they gave me a gift which, I trust, will serve my ministry for as long as the Lord gives me one. The embarrassment of failure and the prospect of unemployment made the lesson burn, but the Lord meant for the burn to sear the lesson onto my mind. Thinking back now, I can almost hear the hiss of a divine cow brand—“Just preach the point of the text!”—and thank God for it. . . .
The cleanest definition of an expositional sermon that I’ve seen is Mark Dever’s: An expositional sermon is a sermon in which the point of a biblical text is the point of the sermon, applied to the life of the congregation. And to speak of “the point” of the text, I would add, we need to consider both the text’s content and its purpose.
Related: Mark Dever interviews Jonathan Leeman about this book (and the above incident).