The following is a sort of mixture, both a book review and a personal commentary on some particular applications of the book’s substance.
In his book, Word-Centered Church, Jonathan Leeman argues for a church theology and practice inundated by Scripture… in other words, a Word-centeredor Scripture-centeredchurch. Leeman writes, “[A Word-centered church] is a church where the words and teachings of Scripture reverberate back and forth, from mouth to mouth and heart to heart” (93).
So, he is not merely calling pastors to preach the Bible, he is calling all the members of a local church to participate holistically in the reverberating word-centeredness of their particular body. In this book, Leeman contends for what he calls a “faith proposition.” He says, “trusting God’s Word to build our churches is an act of faith” (29).
And yet, as any contender should, Leeman notes that many church leaders and members today are not seeking to build Word-centered churches. Numerous evangelical leaders and parishioners (Maybe the vast majority?) are seeking to build their churches by catering to a particular demographic.
In my own Baptist association in East Texas there are several “cowboy churches” and even a “biker church”! I have often wondered why some pastors haven’t stopped hiding the fact that they are seeking to build “affluent churches” or “white-urban-professional churches” or “hipster churches.” If we are targeting these demographics, why pretend we are doing something innovative or clever?
I have personally (to my shame) been a part of a collaborative effort in local church ministry to target a certain demographic on many occasions. As a matter of fact, the evangelistic parachurch ministry I once helped lead was largely built on the supposition that non-Christians needed to be drawn to church services by something other than the Scriptures and the gospel.
In addition to this parachurch experience, I was also one of four pastors on staff at a Southern Baptist church in North Texas who openly employed the Rick Warren model of targeting Saddleback Sam. This is a way of building local church practices, buildings, ambiance, and programs that would suit the tastes of a majority demographic geographically near the local church building. Leeman admits, “in the short term, this will build churches. Demographic and cultural loyalty is genuinely, empirically, demonstrably powerful” (73). I’ve heard this phrased many times as the argument by church leaders advocating for such practices.
But Leeman is interested in more than just pragmatic strategies, and he effectively brings the reader into the place where the important question can be asked. Leeman sets the scene, inviting the reader to envision himself/herself visiting a church for the first time. He helps picture the imaginary venture, bringing the reader right to a seat in the auditorium, immediately before the start of the service.
Then Leeman asks, “What’s most important to you as you consider whether you will come back to this church?” (84). Every Christian – especially church leaders – must ask this question.
What is the most important thing about a local church?
Borrowing language from the Reformers and the Puritans, the two marks of a true churchare (1) the right preaching of God’s word and (2) the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances. Therefore, the most important thing about a local church – if it seeks to be a true church– is that it faithfully preaches God’s word. God’s word must be preached, taught, explained, believed, and treasured. This is not merely referring to the Sunday sermon, but to the whole life and ministry of the entire congregation. Still, the centrality of Scripture among a congregation certainly starts with the preaching.
In what follows, I will focus on the role of expositional preaching in the local church. I will first observe the divine authority of expositional preaching, then the expected response to expositional preaching. In each of these areas, I will point out the distinctiveness of expositional preaching from other forms of preaching I have experienced and the effects I have seen of expositional preaching under my own pastoral efforts.
Expositional preaching happens when the main point of the Scriptural text is the main point of the sermon. An expositional sermon helps the hearer understand the Bible better and apply biblical truth to his/her life. In this way, expositional preaching is driven by God’s word, causing some to understand that the preacher is (in effect) speaking on God’s behalf, even as he speaks with his own words on a Sunday.
Leeman asks an important question when he writes, “How can ‘our words’ be ‘His Word’?” Indeed! How can a preacher – especially a cessationist preacher who believes in the sufficiency of Scripture – think that he is preaching “a word from God” as he preaches with his own words from his own mouth?
I think the answer Leeman gives is helpful. He says, “God speaks through us whenever we plainly and modestly relate whatever He has already said in the Bible” (100). Thus, the preacher engages in something Leeman calls “re-revelation” (Leeman attributed this jargon to D.A. Carson) when he reads and explains God’s singular special revelation (i.e. Scripture). And this is the only grounds for any preacher to claim divine authority when he speaks.
I have noted a bizarre dichotomy of feelings in my own heart as I stand to preach behind a pulpit each Sunday. On the one hand, I am terrified. I am fearful of God’s judgment against my own sin and shortcomings. Who am I to stand before God this day and speak on His behalf?! I am fearful of the people’s judgment against my lack of knowledge and skill. Who am I to speak commandingly to so many people, some far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am?!
On the other hand, I am overwhelmingly confident. I am confident in God’s trustworthiness, His wisdom, His justice, and His grace. I am confident of the people’s need for God’s truth, their need to understand it, to believe it, to submit it, and to be nourished by it. The reason for this dichotomy is that I feel the weight of my own ineptitude and the weight of God’s own majesty. As a preacher, I can speak with divine authority when (and only when) I faithfully read, explain, and apply God’s holy word.
Therefore, expositional preaching plays the role of giving divinely authoritative direction to a particular local church. Who are we? What shall we do? How shall we live? All of these questions are answered on the pages of Scripture, and it is the job of the preacher to expound the Scripture in the context of a particular church family so that they may be hearers and doers of God’s word.
A Right Response
Because expositional preaching is the kind of preaching that best displays divinely authoritative preaching, it is also the best kind of preaching for leading the hearer toward a biblical response. Preaching is not essentially guidelines for living, steps for improving, or suggestions for success. Preaching (when it is faithfully expositional) is a divine word from God that must be believed and heeded. Leeman notes that “the Bible does two things: It announces what God has done, and it confronts its hearers with this news and its implications” (110).
Expositional preaching, then, announces the indicatives and imperatives of God’s word and confronts the hearer in his/her error. The assumption here is that the hearer is in error, and Leeman addresses that in the book as well. But, for the sake of space, I want to focus on the response that expositional preaching expects from the hearer. It expects divine transformation.
Among my congregation in rural East Texas there may be a number of Christians who are struggling to hear expositional preaching. Their palates have been trained to lap up nutrient-sparse messages of moralism and self-improvement. Many churches within a 20-mile radius of our church building continue striving to package a better therapeutic or culturally-traditional model of doing church.
Because this is true, expositional preaching has been somewhat off-putting to some church members and many visitors. They do not like the emphasis upon propositional statements over motivational ones. They sometimes wonder why there isn’t the same stress upon southern and rural American values, and they chafe at some words of admonition against cultural conformity.
Some, however, have begun to see that it is life-transformation we are after. Some exhibit the fruit of the Spirit’s work in their lives through the reverberation of the Scriptures. Some have joyfully embraced the higher goal of transformation, leaving behind the worldly goal of self-affirming spiritual guidance.
I think of Steve, who read between the lines of my gentle admonition, now looking for ways to read Scripture together with his adult daughters who are grown and gone, all three seeming to be nominal Christians. I think of Kathy, who started reading Scripture together with her mother and three sisters one night each week. Kathy heard her mother pray for the first time about a year ago, and we baptized Wanda (Kathy’s 80-yr-old mom) into membership in 2018.
I think of David, who became a deacon about 2 years ago and joined a weekly study of systematic theology in order to understand the Bible better. I think of Donald, who seems like a 70-yr-old “cage-stage” Reformed guy because he has just begun to grasp what it means that God is truly sovereign and that sound doctrine is life-giving.
God’s word alone has the power to transform lives. In the local church, the role of expositional preaching is to unleash the beast of God’s word without any of the trappings we might try to place upon it in our effort to dress it up a bit or make it more desirable for our modern culture. Christ is King! His word of grace saves! And His Spirit works through His word to transform all those who love and trust Him.
May God raise up many more preachers who humbly believe the “faith proposition” Leeman calls for in this book, and may God glorify Himself through the ministry of many Word-centeredchurches.