Eric Redmond on Preaching Styles & Cultivating Celebration in the Church

Eric Redmond is Professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL. He also serves as Associate Pastor of Preaching, Teaching, and Care at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL. He is the General Editor of Say It!: Celebrating Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition and spoke with us about preaching styles and discerning the voice of God.

What are some core values that are embodied in Black churches and preaching?

Historically, the Black Church has received the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God. For African American believers, what comes from the pulpit is, “Thus saith the Lord,” in whatever delivery form it comes. African Americans eagerly look forward to hearing God’s voice explained and heralded with relevance to African American life. In one sense, this is no different than the expectations of any other culture and/or tradition holding to inerrancy. However, as so much of African American history bears marks of injustice, disenfranchisement, terrorism, torture, and unrighteous social and economic hardships, much of the relevance of weekly preaching has geared itself toward justice, hope, the dignity of peoples of color, and celebration of the present and eschatological promises of God.

Those who face contemporary systemic housing discrimination and income disparities need the same weekly, uplifting word as much as did those who labored to buy their freedom from slavery and those who faced firehoses suppressing righteous protests. Valuing the full worth of the person has meant preaching in a way that encourages and exhorts the listener to know that it is the will of God for each person to feel one’s own worth as someone created in the image of God.

What are the foundations of expositional preaching?

There are three foundations for expositional preaching. First, and more than anything, expositional preaching rests on the foundation that the sixty-six books of the OT and NT are God’s words, spoken in truth, relevant to all of life, and binding on every person. As God has spoken, the role of the preacher is to explain what God is saying through the human writers, and to call and equip the hearer to do what God has said in obedience to him. Such obedience will manifest itself in loving God with one’s whole being and loving all persons as one loves oneself. These should be the effective outcomes of the exposition of every passage of Scripture. As Augustine wrote, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.40). The expositor believes that the word revealed in the Bible must impress the Lord’s will upon the listeners with clarity, urgency, boldness, and humility.

Second, expositional preaching stands on the priority of the gospel — not simply a doctrinal position on justification by faith, but of the transformative power of the life, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, present session, and conquering return of Christ for people living in the present age. Expositional preaching understands that redemption is made known by telling the history of God’s work to reconcile the world to himself through Christ. Christ is at the center of expositional preaching, with great variation from both the biblical writers and modern preachers as to how each passage relates to Christ. Exposition explains Christ and his work of salvation as truth that relates to us intellectually, emotionally, bodily, soulishly, volitionally, ecclesially, and evangelistically. Expositional preaching has gospel-oriented, gracious, loving life-change as its goal.

A third basis of all expositional preaching is acceptance of the biblical text in its received form. Exposition reads biblical books as whole books and chapters as whole chapters (or as units of thought where an idea breaks within a chapter or crosses a chapter’s boundaries). In reading chapters and books in this manner, the expositor is committed to preaching through books of Scripture in their entirety, expounding each sermon in light of God’s main idea in a book as expressed in a chapter or thought unit. Whether the book is as short as Philemon or as long as Isaiah, expositional preaching commits itself to draw out the meaning of the full book, knowing that the Lord has given whole books to communicate an idea. As evangelicals, the commitment to preach through books flows from the belief that the Scriptures are our authoritative rule for life because they speak God’s truth. Expositors wish to communicate all of the truth as given by preaching all that the Lord says from verse 1:1 in a book to the last verse. Expositional preaching does not truncate God’s truth by giving a primary diet of something other than preaching through books of Scripture.

How do you avoid thinking of the Bible as a self-help manual?

The Bible has fallen into use as a therapeutic, financial success, and nationalism manual partly because the heralds of God’s words have not practiced exposition as prescribed above. In exposition, we are seeking Moses’ meaning through the words, tone, structure, theology, and argument of Numbers (aka God’s meaning in Numbers). This means that of every week that one preaches through Numbers, one is explaining what God means in Numbers 1, 2, 3, 11, 26, 33, etc. Numbers will then speak to 36 different ideas in its 36 chapters. These are 36 life-transforming ideas that the Lord intends–ideas that should not be controlled by our needs and desires.

Of the 36 ideas, Numbers 21 will speak to magnifying our memorials, for that passage focuses on memorial names and events like “Hormah” (Num. 21:3) and the memorial songs. We might not think of exalting particular memorial events as part of the Christian life. However, the Lord places Numbers 21 there for this very purpose. By preaching through Numbers we land on this as God has willed in his giving of the book of Numbers to us.

By doing exposition, one crosses this truth and all of the truths in the other chapters of Numbers. Otherwise, one must construct what to preach in place of weekly exposition, whether topical exposition, a theological series like preaching through the 52 weeks of Heidelberg Catechism, or a so-called “relevant” topic determined by the preacher. When one chooses the “relevant” route, one is seeking to speak to our felt needs. Such needs often are for addressing inward emotional struggles, a desire for a better financial situation, and/or more power and control over others. By addressing our concerns in this manner of preaching, we might ignore the concerns inherent in the text. The goal of exposition is to allow the text to speak to the needs that the Creator recognizes within fallen people. Eventually, we will run through felt needs because the biblical texts cover all things. True exposition always is relevant.

The danger of going the felt-need route is that the needs the Lord has identified will be missed and the sinful aspects of felt needs might not be addressed. I often remark to my students that I suspect few of them have heard an exposition through Judges. While we want to hear pulpit series on marriage and family, Judges 21 wants to speak to the sin of marriage tribalism. We might get messages on marital forgiveness and communication through topical preaching. During an exposition of Judges, we will hear of the need to repent from being hesitant to allow our children and grandchildren to wed believers from other ethnicities. An exposition from the book will address the issue of thinking that people do marriage best when they marry people within their own racial and ethnic groups. To avoid self-help preaching, we need to model the exposition of Scripture, showing members of our assemblies how to discern God’s voice and God’s will in the pages of Scripture.

What are some ways that the church can cultivate celebration?

One of the ways the church can cultivate celebration is to retire the idea that expression of emotions in worship is unnecessary, uncouth, uncultured, and/or ungodly. Celebration is a natural response to receiving blessings as an expression of joy, thanksgiving, and awe. When a student takes their very last final exam to complete a degree, the student celebrates, maybe even screaming or shedding tears of joy. Those students who share this experience understand, as do those looking forward to it, and they join in the elation of the student with hugs and words of affirmation. It seems odd that we would need to cultivate what is natural to do, especially when the expression of celebration is for the mercies of God in salvation through Jesus! Being found in Christ is reason enough to burst with celebration even before a worship leader invites a corporate body to celebrate.

Once we rid ourselves of the notion that expressive celebration is unnatural and that only quietness or reservation of expression honors God, we are free to celebrate verbally, with loving movements that reveal elation over our Savior. Even where preaching rebukes, celebration should follow as we bask in the grace of God toward us as sinners.

Once we rid ourselves of the notion that expressive celebration is unnatural and that only quietness or reservation of expression honors God, we are free to celebrate verbally, with loving movements that reveal elation over our Savior.

How do you discern the voice of God in different preaching styles?

Whatever style a preacher employs in a message, the central idea of the passage of Scripture should be evident via the style. Style is like the type of casing one uses to protect a mobile phone. It can be hard or soft, plain or commercialized, name brand or knock off. The case is not the mobile phone even though you hand a person your phone within the case if the person asks to see your phone. You do not remove the protective cover unless someone asks you to do so. Yet you are aware that what you have handed over as your “phone” is a mobile device, including a casing. The central idea of a passage of Scripture is like the mobile phone. The communication style is like the phone’s casing.

The discerning listener hears a sermon with much prayer, focusing on the words pointing to the main idea. Sometimes the title of the sermon points toward the central idea of the sermon. In some sermons, a preacher crafts outline points that point toward the sermon and the passage’s main idea. Where possible, I would suggest that believers spend the week before the sermon reading the upcoming sermon‘s passage daily and prayerfully, seeking for the Spirit to reveal the main idea of the passage. This will make it easier to hear the voice of God regardless of the preacher’s style of delivery. This also assumes that we will be responsible as preachers to give our congregations the sermon passages a week or more ahead of our sermons. This is easy to do if one makes preaching through books of Scripture the main diet of a congregation’s preaching.

I also encourage believers to review the sermon within twenty-four hours of hearing it so that they might seek to understand how the author’s argument in the passage led to the development of the sermon. Possible tools of review are personal notes taken during the sermon and/or study questions provided by the church for individual or small group use.

Learn more about Eric’s latest release, Say It!: Celebrating Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition.