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Preaching by GPS

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Like most people, I’m spoiled with the GPS app on my phone. All I have to do is plug in my destination, and I get step-by-step instructions on how to get to where I‘m going. While I regret not memorizing addresses and directions much anymore, I have to admit that the GPS feature is so accessible, off-the-charts convenient, and relatively dependable. And it’s an added bonus that in my settings I get to choose my own imaginary guide to help navigate my journey. I’ve chosen Winston because he has a sweet British accent to die for.

I wish more preachers were like Winston when they preached. I’ve listened to more than a few sermons that I would consider solid expositions of Scripture, but with one glaring absence—discernible structure. A lot of exposition today appears to be more verse-by-verse running commentary, accompanied by helpful illustrations and application, but no sermon outline or logical development.

Sermonic Devices Called Into Question

These messages are characteristic of an interesting homiletical trend that discourages preachers from outlining their messages. The reasons for this counsel are mostly noble. We want to avoid imposing wooden, traditional homiletical paradigms on the text of Scripture. And we certainly don’t want to be guilty of misinterpreting the text because of such synthetic developments. We’ve also grown weary of traditional sermonic developments like ‘three points and a poem’ and ‘explain illustrate, apply…explain, illustrate, apply, etc.’

Similar cautions are being posed about other staple expositional practices like the development of a proposition or ‘big idea’ for the sermon. Questions have been raised from homiletical, hermeneutical, and even theological perspectives about whether or not every text of Scripture can and should be reduced to a single big idea. So, whether it’s outlining a sermon or identifying a big idea for it, some of the old sermonic devices that many expositors cut their teeth on are now being called into question.

Believe me, I get it. I’ve read enough ‘how-to’ books on expository preaching to know that often times certain rhetorical devices are legalistically impressed upon sermon development in such a way that threatens to elevate form above substance to the point of even skewing the meaning of the text. To be sure, preaching is a public speaking event intended to persuade listeners and, therefore, naturally involves rhetoric. However, whenever rhetorical principles get airtime in preaching at the expense of the right meaning of the text, then perversion ensues and listeners are distracted from—worse yet, robbed of—hearing the voice of God.

Journeying Through the Text

Like my GPS app, however, preaching is about taking people on a journey to a particular destination. The destination in expository preaching is always to hear the voice of God, to hear whatever He was intending to say in a given text of Scripture. And that means there’s always a destination in every passage because God was saying something in every text He inspired. God was never saying nothing in the Bible. So every text has a big idea, whether it is deduced from within itself or from its relationship to its surrounding context. And it’s the preachers job to serve as a guide in every preaching event to take people to that destination—to hear whatever it was that God was saying when He put that text in the Bible.

That’s where some kind of outlined structure becomes important. The outline contains the step-by-step instructions to take listeners on the journey through the text to get them to the destination, to enable them to hear the voice of God. The outline is like my British guide saying, “In 500 feet, take a left…in two miles, exit to the right…at the fork in the road, stay to the left,” and ultimately, “In 1,000 feet, your destination is on the right!” In a sermon, I might say to my listeners, “The first truth I want you to see in this text is…” or “Now that we’ve seen the ‘Reason’ for Jesus’ command, let me show you the ‘Rationale’ for what He said.” When I do, my greatest value is not a particular homiletical form or pneumonic device, but whether or not I’m giving my listeners clear directions through the text on the way to the destination of hearing God’s voice. That’s my concern.

Honestly, I think many preachers’ aversion to either a big idea, an outline, or both is more about them than it is about their listeners. While they’re certainly to be commended for not wanting to be guilty of misinterpreting and misapplying the text, or even impressing the same old stale form on every sermon, they fail to realize that—in the public communication event of preaching—listeners are helped when preachers give them some structure to follow their journey through the text. I’m glad my GPS guide doesn’t just describe scenery along the various routes of the journey, comment on it’s history and beauty, and even tell me how important it is for my life. Instead, my invisible British friend gives me step-by-step instructions on where to go next and then where to go after that. Those kinds of handles help me get me to my destination. And in a sermon, what’s paramount is getting listeners to the destination of hearing God’s voice and being transformed by His truth.

Age-old Counsel for Expositors

Let me renew some age-old counsel to expositors in view of preaching by GPS…

  • Summarize the meaning of your text in a propositional, main idea statement. Remember, God is saying something in every text He inspired. That’s where supernatural life transformation will take place.

  • Resolve to let that main idea be the destination of your sermon—not because it’s a nifty rhetorical or homiletical feature—but because it’s the place where your listeners are going to encounter God’s voice and subsequently be changed.

  • When you’re preaching, use your outline not as a rhetorical creation for them to take home, but as a guide to help your people navigate your text toward that destination. Whether it be ‘points’ or ‘ categories’ or ‘steps’ or ‘movements’ or some other identifiable label, give them some handles to hold onto as they follow you through the passage to the reality of hearing the Other-worldly Voice.

Don’t risk people missing your good exposition because they got lost on the journey. Big ideas and sermon outlines aren’t “either/or” issues, but “both/and”. We can’t afford to overreact to abuses in the relationship between preaching content and sermon form. We must get the meaning of the text right, and that always has to be our sermon destination. But because hearing the voice of God is at stake, we also need intentional paths to get our listeners to that destination. And that means we need a good structure. The best expository sermons are those in which the right meaning is arrived at under the navigation of good structure.

Let’s be careful not to throw the expositional baby out with the homiletical bath water.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on JimShaddix.com on July 10, 2020.

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Jim Shaddix

Senior Preaching Fellow

Jim Shaddix (BS, Jacksonville State University; M.Div., D.Min., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as Professor of Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, occupying the W. A. Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching. He also serves as a Senior Fellow for the Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership, which exists to resource pastors in local churches. Jim has pastored churches in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Colorado, and also served as Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, LA. He is the author of The Passion Driven Sermon (Broadman & Holman, 2003), Decisional Preaching (Rainer, 2019), and co-author of Power in the Pulpit (Moody, 1999, 2017) and Progress in the Pulpit (Moody, 2017), both with Jerry Vines, 2 Peter and Jude (Broadman & Holman, 2018) with Danny Akin, Psalms 51-100 (Broadman & Holman, 2020) with David Platt and Matt Mason, both in the Christ-Centered Exposition commentary series, and Expositional Leadership (Crossway, 2024 release). Jim and his wife, Debra, focus much of their attention on discipling and mentoring young leaders and spouses. They have three grown children and eleven grandchildren.

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