I’ve been itching to write this blog. Even though I hardly ever blog without including a good number of scripture, I’m not sure I’ll be able to this time and remain within context. Disclaimer: I readily acknowledge that there’s plenty of personal opinion here.
I’ve always recognized that biblical preaching and teaching just did something extra-special for me, but I could never quite put my finger on explaining the why behind it, and I’m a why kind of person. I don’t gain much emotionally or spiritually through absorbing knowledge without a vision of how I can apply it in a very practical way to my life or to the benefit of others. In the same way, science has especially always peeked my interest when I know the how and why behind the phenomena. It makes things come to life when I see room for real life application. The bible comes to life when we get glimpses of truth through God’s lens. It rises above mundane surface reflection. If I could wax metaphorically for a second……..I would say it’s like the difference between peering to the bottom of the ocean floor through clear water from the perspective of a boat in an attempt to observe the vast detail of everything below – animal and plant life, as opposed to the experience of scuba diving and seeing everything at the bottom of the ocean floor up close and personal. Seeing coral teaming with plant and animal life up close is nothing like observing above sea-level from a boat! Both have their place and value, but they’re just not the same. I act like I’m some scuba diving extraordinaire, but I’ve only done it once at the maximum depth of 30ft. That makes me an expert right? HaHa!
What’s so special about basic verse-by-verse type teaching versus even hybrid models of topical teaching (half expository/half topical) or straight topical?” To be clear, I don’t think any one model is superior to another on technique alone. Yet, I have encountered (speaking exclusively from personal experience) what I feel are easier-to-come-by pitfalls of more topical style bible study and the delivery by way of teaching and preaching. And that’s what made me excited to put my thoughts down on paper. People have asked….. (paraphrased)…….. “Why do you find expository preaching and teaching better than topical?” Or put another way, “What makes expository preaching superior to other methods?” There are plenty of articles written online etc. that explain from the perspective of a preacher or pastor, but I haven’t found any written by those outside of full-time ministry. In this instance, I’m referring specifically to personal study as well as from the perspective of a regular church-going congregant. This is what I feel like the Lord helped me to see…….
The physiology of scripture-lite teaching
The feeling is often pure bliss. You left church that afternoon prepared to conquer the world on Monday. You had new ammo – that quote from a famous theologian, a homespun quote from your pastor or some other guru. A worthy punch line was shared that blew your socks off, something “quotable” that you could rush to put on social media. One of those inside-out, two-way reversible, black-powder bombshells. You know, one of those clever quotes that typically hinges on some form of Christian doctrine or theology, but combines and juxtaposes them in some way you never pondered before. “If grace doesn’t compel you to see God’s love, then God’s love won’t compel you to accept his grace.” BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! It’s like a nuclear blast of spiritual goodness hit you. I never thought about it like that! You could stand around after service talking about that “one line” and a few other side notes for hours. That one-liner rocked your world, even though you’re still not quite sure you fully comprehended it! You’ll have to marinate on that for a few weeks, but when it sinks in you’ll be on your way to the next level. It’s spiritual hedonism at it’s finest. Problem was, ask me or someone else two weeks later about that very quote that changed you/us, and we struggle to recall it. Try repeating it to your friends at the coffee shop two weeks later, and you can’t quite conjur it up. “Man, you just had to be there!” Shaking your head…….. You promise in vain to send them a follow up text or email containing the exact quote. You just have to go back and listen to the CD again first. Not a problem 😉
Why does that happen? Why do we so soon forget what we’ve learned? Perhaps, the physiology of our spiritual digestive system works just like this – Being bound in flesh and blood we lose sight of eating to live and replace it with living to eat. What do I mean?! Eating with the intention of hedonistic pleasure, rather than for life-yielding nutritional value. We’re all naturally prone to consume for the purpose of enjoyment rather than growth. Everything we filter spiritually must pass through the “mouth” first. We’re flesh afterall, fallen sinners. James (James 5?) tells us we’re prone to get something wrong just by merely opening our mouths. Blogging included, and I’m no stranger to it. Read at your own risk. And please, DON’T quote me. LOL
I hate to generalize, but unfortunately it’s a limitation of trying to prove my broader point. These are the pitfalls I’ve noticed to topical and hybrid topical/expository preaching. No matter how hard one tries, it’s almost inevitable that the flesh gets magnified. The less scripture the more filler. Unfortunately the filler often ends up being just that, filler. It’s the soy in a McDonald’s cheeseburger, the oats(supposed filler) in a Taco Bell taco. The former and latter favorite fast food items both contain traces of real meat, but their chocked full of other much less nutritional supplements and bad-for-you preservatives. Many times the supplemental junk is exactly what our mouths desire – sugar, salt, grease (translation: bombshell quotes, blow your socks off spiritual gems, and life changing one-liners). All things that are pleasurable to the mouth, but provide very little nutritional value beyond. These generalizations don’t necessitate that junk food is altogether bad for us, but my experience has found that it all too often is.
The junk food is delicious and pleasurable at the beginning of it’s journey. As it’s tasted and chewed over in the mouth the default conclusion is that the rest of the body will find it equally as pleasurable. It’s then transported through the esophagus, processed by the stomach, and finally makes it’s way into the intestines. Nutritional transfer takes place in the body via the intestines. The food that we’ve eaten, by a slow and thorough process, has been prepared to pass it’s nutritional value through the intestinal walls, into the bloodstream, and then make it’s way into every hungry and viable cell within our body. The problem/blessing with junk food (often topical teaching) and half-organic-half-inorganic-food (hybrid topical/expository) is that the body is smart enough to know not to distribute it into the body. Instead, it finds clever ways to counter the damaging effects it renders to the body, or it expels it completely. I’ll stop right there with the simple physiology lesson. You can draw your own conclusion from there. Gross humor. The hearer or studier is left with an emptiness. Confused, because their mouth sent signals to the rest of the digestive tract that vital nutrients were on the way, but it failed to deliver anything substantial.
The physiology of sound biblical teaching
Picture your favorite home-cooked meal, smoked turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, cream-corn, and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Wait, no! While you’re still salivating over that meal imagine a plate of lean and healthy broiled (not fried!) fish, spinach, steamed yellow squash, and a tall glass of water. Hey wait, both meals sound pretty good right?! But which one has greater nutritional value? The latter dinner entree, right? It’s low in fat, high in omega-3’s, low in starch, and rich with vitamins and fiber. This is what sound expository teaching looks like. To the eyes, and the mouth, sometimes less appealing! But not necessarily so when you explore the why! Keep that last sentence filed away, I’ll follow back up on it in just a moment…….
To the contrary of fatty, supplement-filled topical teaching, purely expository teaching can appear often dry and less physically desirable – to the tongue and mind only, I mean, and that’s an important point. While a lean piece of meat and vegetables can appear less filling and less desirable on the surface, it’s not always so in God’s economy. In fact the opposite is often true. Our desires, as grand as they are at times, can cause harm to the flesh and soul. Yet, under God’s plan all parts of the person can be satisfied. In the same way, so can a sermon, a bible study, or personal devotional. When the scripture is covered in an expository fashion all parts of the person are fed as God intended.
If there’s one major difference that I’ve found between the congregants exposed to expository teaching as opposed to non-expository it’s the following: People prepare themselves well before being taught. What do I mean by that statement? People read and study in advance before ever showing up to “church”. It’s equivalent of being hungry and ready to receive well before a meal is served. I’m not talking about showing up, waiting to hear from the Lord. If anything, that mentality may be more prevalent in churches where the bible is hardly taught [specifically speaking of explaining and teaching directly from scripture(s)]. People arrive begging to be fed, because they received so very little nourishment the last time. What I’m speaking of is equivalent to getting to the dinner table early with washed hands, salivating at the opportunity to eat, to be hydrated, to grow more. The atmosphere is never seeking for a sudden breakthrough. Tt’s slow and steady wins the race. Therefore, the anticipation is not in hitting a spiritual home run. If anything, the anticipation is prepared for offense, to be broken, that one might grow by means of walking through the fire which purifies. On that note, upon arrival people are ready to receive. No bombshell one-liners, no incredible breakthroughs, just simple lean meat and vegetables, and a tall boring glass of water. On that note, let’s unpack the same digestive process this time, but under sound scriptural exposition……
Once again it all starts with the mouth. The insatiable appetite for something extra special is gone. BOOOORING, some would say? Hardly! The healthier one eats, the more they crave healthy food. As the food is swallowed it’s appreciated for what it was meant to be, food for life not only for consumption alone. The consumer has trained his or her pallete knowing that what the body awaits, real nourishment, which far outweighs the temporal gratification awaiting the tongue. Now, the same process takes place. Vital nutrients are transported through the esophagus, processed by the stomach, and finally makes it’s way into the intestines. Nutritional transfer takes place in the body via the intestines. The food that we’ve eaten, by a slow and thorough process has been prepared to pass it’s nutritional value through the intestinal walls, into the bloodstream, and then make it’s way into every hungry and viable cell within our body. Now the real BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! that once lived in clever words, soundbites, life-coaching advice, and quotations has real purpose. It recharges vital organs of the body, yielding life giving nutrients to the brain, so that it can bring to remembrance the promises of God. It synopates with the rhythm of the heart (Psalm 51: restore in me a clean heart, O’ God). It restores clogged arteries (the fruit of the Spirit), repairs damaged organs (pain, bitterness).
I don’t think a teaching style of the bible can be equated to life or death. However, I do believe it can mean the difference between a long-term healthy lifestyle versus the frequent cycle of health followed by illness often associated with a poor diet.
As a means to counter-balance my own prejudice or the potential of taking this concept too far/oversimplifying I have to confess something. If you’ve been reading my blog you know I’m keen on honesty, especially as it relates to not snowing over my own inconsistencies. Or, at least I hope I am more often than not. As my wife was editing this blog I was busy listening to a young televangelist who pastors one of the fastest growing mega-churches in America. He’s an incredibly gifted speaker and I was thoroughly blessed by his message – a topical series, about finding yourself by losing yourself. The message was 50% about me/you, 20% the story of Jacob and Esau, 20% about Christ and our relationship with him, and I’m not clear on the other 10%. LOL. Amidst many bombshell one-liners, funny stories, inspirational quotes, and topical tidbits, I was still thoroughly blessed. However, I challenged myself that night to try and recall what I had learned a week or so later. Even if I had to return to the passage of scripture to refresh my memory. I honestly can’t recall it now, and I gave an honest try.
My memory at times can be horrible, so this is hardly proof of my point. However, my own personal history has proven to me that there’s just something valuable about being able to return to scripture which was studied and taught line upon line. While I can’t lay claim to remembering every detail about those sermons, my spiritual recall as it relates to a personal walk with the Lord has been thoroughly changed. Life decisions, tests and trials, and so many other of life’s challenges are now filtered through the lens of scripture, and for that I’m eternally thankful.
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” – John 14:26