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Preacher, Show your Working Out … But Do it Well (Please)

A recent article by Adam Ch’ng laid down the challenge for preachers to “show their working out”. That is, like a good maths student shows how they worked toward their answer, a preacher should show how what they’re saying arises from the text of Scripture. In general, I really agree with Adam here. But I’ve sat through a number of sermons that where the preacher’s workings stopped things working-out. So what are the pitfalls of exegetical, expository preaching and how does one avoid them? Here are four that I’ve thought of:

First pitfall: showing the wrong working

Make sure that what you say about, for example, the meaning of a word or the function of a verb’s tense-form is correct. Being truthful and factual is important for all preaching, but is perhaps especially important when our congregation members are relying on our expertise. Of course, every preacher will make mistakes, but we need to do our best to minimise these. As a word of particular word of warning: be very careful if you are going to critique the translation your members are reading. You’re starting an argument with panel of Greek and Hebrew nerds who put a lot of time and effort in their phrasing and there may not be anyone listening who is in a position to disagree. Avoidance strategy: make sure you’ve done your research.

Be very careful if you are going to critique the translation your members are reading. You’re starting an argument with panel of Greek and Hebrew nerds. Make sure you’ve done your research.

Second pitfall: showing the working to show how good you are at the working

I’ll admit that I’m a nerd, and my congregation knows that I’m a nerd. I want to bring all my nerdish prowess to ensure that I avoid the first pitfall of showing the wrong working. But I don’t want to use my working to show how excellent my understanding of Greek verbal aspect is, how vast my understanding of archaic Hebrew forms is, or how otherwise clever I am. This is in part a matter of self-awareness, both in what you desire to communicate and what is actually being heard. Avoidance strategy: show your working to serve your congregation, not yourself.

Third pitfall: showing all the working

When you read a commentary it may canvass half a dozen views of how a particular phrase might be understood and show the positives and negatives of each view. That’s really great, for a commentary. When you preach you’ll have to make a decision about which view is right and present that one clearly. If you’re not totally confident, then you can say that and say why, but don’t spend five minutes giving air-time to ideas you don’t think are right. Maths teachers ask you to show the working that leads to your answer, you don’t show them four ways of working out, two which actually don’t work and two which lead to the same answer. Avoidance strategy: show the working that works.

Fourth pitfall: showing only the working

This is, what I call, the “student minister mistake.” The preacher has done all the work that would be required by an exegetical examiner and then reads that out the congregation. It’s critical, vital work, but leaves the teasing out of implications to the listener. It’s akin to presenting all the calculations but never writing the answer, you’ll only ever get half marks. Avoidance strategy: don’t forget to show where your working leads, or at least where it might lead.

To conclude, let’s change metaphors from the maths class to the dining table. When we preach on Sundays we want to feed the sheep, and equip them to feed themselves the rest of the time. It would be possible to serve up perfectly balanced, healthy meals in smoothies all the time, and they’re really easy to swallow. However, doing that all the time doesn’t help those I’m feeding work out their own eating habits. What I therefore think is better is (most of the time) to present a well-balanced meal where people can see what they’re eating. People should be able to look at their plate and distinguish the meat, the vegetables, the carbs. That will help them learn to feed themselves. That doesn’t mean I have any excuse for leaving scraps of eggshell, carrot tips and uncooked flour on the plate. Nor should I try to pass off some pie that fell on the floor as a ‘deconstruction’.

Preaching is hard work, and I’m by no means an expert, but by doing the hard work of showing our working well we will actually take the pressure off ourselves and keep it where it belongs on the spiritual food of the word of God.