When I was a young preacher the big question was expositional versus thematic preaching? Should we preach expounding the Scriptures passage by passage, focusing deeply on one passage, drawing out its meaning? Should we preach thematically, drawing from all of Scripture or key portions thereof to discuss a theme? In more recent times, narrative preaching has become more popular, with people preaching out of story or as story. Which way to go?
In my view we need a rich balance of all of the above. Each approach teaches a different skill, important for all Christians to develop. Exposition teaches the skill of exegesis – reading a single passage and connecting it to its context Scripture and applying it to today’s world. This is the bread and butter detailed stuff we all need. Preaching progressively through a book of Scripture helps the hearer learn the skill of reading in historical, social, immediate context and the books developing message. My wife Emma recently preached an expositional series on Ruth. It was sensational to hear people talk about the ‘aha moments’ they got from the book and redemption history.
Thematic preaching is equally important. Christians need to learn the skill of interpreting a theme across redemption history. We can show how something is found in the OT, fulfilled and interpreted by Christ, and understood and applied in the early church. Take the Temple for example. We can show them the development of ideas from creation as temple, the impact of the Fall, the Tabernacle, the temple in Zion, Christ as the temple, believers individual and the church corporate as the temple, the context of pagan temples of the Greco-Roman world, and the new creation in which the cosmos will be the temple of God in its fullness. Such preaching teaches people how to read the Scriptures as a whole, as an unfolding narrative, with Christ at the centre, and the new heaven and earth as climax.
Narrative preaching feeds the imagination and soul. Good expositional and thematic preaching is always in a sense narratival. It draws on narrative and is infused with narrative bringing alive the text to our context. Yet, narratival preaching differs in that it is as a whole story-based. We go from our exegesis or thematic analysis to developing the message as ‘story.’ While in Dunedin training for Presbyterian Ministry I went to Knox Presbyterian for six weeks in which I sat under David Grant who each week took a passage of Scripture and turned it to narrative. Each week I was spell bound and found my imagination awakened, my heart stirred, and my desire for God quickened. I discovered the power of narrative.
Of course, good preaching blends the three approaches, with a gifted communicator moving from exposition to thematic development to narrative freely.
In my view, Jesus did all three. We find him preaching expositionally in places like Matt 22:41–46 where Jesus brings out the messianic meaning of Ps 110:1. We find him preaching thematically in the sermons in John as he ponders things like “the bread of life” (John 8). We find him preaching narratively on many occasions (parables), expounding passages like “the second great commandment” with glorious stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37).
The people we preach to require different connection points and skills. By switching things up in the pulpit we will keep alive their desire and we can surprise so that they leave the church motivated and equipped to meet life’s many challenges.