Welcome back on this Monday. Today we have a wonderful ministry question on preaching — right in your wheelhouse, Pastor John. A young pastor writes in to ask you this: “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast. I listen every time a new episode is released, and I’m thankful for the impact that your biblical insights have made on my life. My question for you is about expository preaching and its place in student ministry.
“I am the student pastor at my church, responsible for sixth- through twelfth-grade ministry. Whenever we gather for our youth worship time on Wednesday nights, I typically preach through books of the Bible in an expositional way. I try my best to apply the text to them in ways they can understand. However, I sometimes question whether I should preach expository sermons to the students because I don’t believe it’s common practice in youth ministries. I love God’s word and want my students to come to love God’s word, but should I teach my students in a way that is more application-focused? I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you.”
Well, I have endless thoughts about preaching. I could just go on and on and on. I love preaching. I believe God has appointed preaching to be part of the gathered worship of his church, on the Lord’s Day especially, and I think all of it, all the time, should be based on and saturated with Scripture. That’s what preaching is. It is a God-ordained way of saving sinners and sustaining and growing saints. I think it’s relevant for old people, middle-aged people, young people, children.
So, I’m thrilled that our young pastor-friend is in a church and leading a youth group where he is doing exposition. Originally I had in my head a lot of thoughts, but I boiled it down to three, so here are the three thoughts I can squeeze into our few minutes together.
Deal with the Reality-Factor
First, as you unfold the meaning of particular biblical texts, be sure to stress what I call the “reality-factor.” Now, you don’t need to use that phrase. That’s just my phrase, but here’s what I mean.
Some years ago, it hit me that it is possible to do a great deal of explaining about how the thought of the text actually flows, how the words and clauses relate to each other, without actually dealing with the reality of what the words are trying to communicate. It just clobbered me that we can do this. We can stay at the surface of grammar and not get to reality.
“Preaching is a God-ordained way of saving sinners and sustaining and growing saints.”
For example, in Philippians 2:12–13 it says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Now, suppose in your exposition that you point out to the students how the first clause is an imperative command: “Work out your own salvation.” Then you explain how the second clause is not a command but an indicative, a statement of fact: “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work.”
Finally, you draw attention to the connection between those two clauses with the word for, pointing out that the second clause, the statement “it is God who works,” is the basis or the ground or the motive (which is what for means) for the first clause, the command to “work out your salvation.” Maybe you even go further, and you say, “This is typical in the New Testament, that indicatives ground imperatives.” Then you stop — end of exposition.
Well, the problem with stopping there is that we haven’t even touched the reality behind the clauses and their logical connection until we answer the question, How does this work in life? Why does it work for me to work out my salvation because God is at work in me?
Real Exposition Exposes Reality
There’s a vast difference between words and clauses on the one hand and the realities they reveal on the other hand. Here you can see how artificial is the distinction between exposition and application. This just blows people away when I point it out (at least some people, those who have particular ideas about preaching), so let me say that again. How artificial it is to distinguish between exposition and application! Because we’re not really doing exposition of the reality behind the words until we are dealing with real life and telling how it works.
The question is, at ten o’clock tonight, after these students are at home, having heard this exposition, and now they’re in their bedroom with their computer or with their family in the den — what will it look like for these students to work out their salvation? What is that reality like? What will it feel like for them to experience the reality of God working in them? Do they have any sense at all what that verse is talking about? What’s the reality? How does it feel? How does it work? How will they make the connection between those experiences of God working in them and them working?
We really don’t know what this text means until we can explain not just the words, clauses, logic, and grammar, but the realities as they arise later tonight, at ten o’clock in the bedroom, in the kitchen — in other words, how the text works in people’s lives.
No Small Task
That requires huge effort on the part of the preacher because he’s now working at two levels. There’s the level of words, grammar, and logic — we call that the text — and the effort to explain how the parts of the text fit together. On the other level, we ask, What realities is this author, with these words and this grammar and this logic, trying to communicate to my mind and my heart and my hands?
Language and reality, the two levels, are both absolutely crucial. You can’t do a shortcut around the grammar, around the logic, around the words, but if you stop there, you haven’t done the kind of exposition that needs to be done.
It is real head-work, and it is real heart-work, but the payoff for the students will be huge. So, that’s my first suggestion — deal with the reality-factor as well as the text-factor. Your students will love it because it will touch their lives, their reality.
Take Doctrinal Depth-Tours
Second, in your exposition through texts, take doctrinal depth-tours — not doctrinal detours, but doctrinal depth-tours. Now, I just made that up. I have never in the history of the world said that before. This is my new term, which I thought of for this pastor.
Here’s what I mean. Depth-tours are like detours, but they’re depth-tours because you’re not going away from where you should go. That’s what a detour is — you go away, and you wish you didn’t have to go. But a depth-tour? You want to go on this road because it will build doctrinally strong people.
Without depth-tours, I just don’t know how you can build doctrinally strong youth groups, doctrinally strong people. What I mean by that is people, youth groups, who have a clear, deeply rooted understanding of really important biblical doctrines.
Roads to Take
Now, you can’t do everything as a youth pastor. You’re working in tandem with other groups, worship services, sermons, lessons, and classes in your church, maybe even in the home or in the school.
What I mean is to take depth-tours on doctrines like God’s sovereignty, God’s holiness, God’s grace, God’s justice, the deity and humanity of Christ, the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit, the nature of sin both as action and disease of the heart, the nature of redemption and propitiation and regeneration, calling, faith, justification, sanctification, walking by the Spirit, perseverance of the saints, the nature of the church. What happens when you die? The second coming, eternal life, the new heavens and the new earth.
If a young person studies texts of Scripture without ever taking doctrinal depth-tours, he’s like a person who lines up all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but never puts them together to see the beauty of the picture that they make. In fact, you can be pretty proud of putting those pieces in line. You can say, “Look, my pieces are all lined up!”
For example, someone might recite the entire first chapter of Ephesians by heart and never have paused to study the doctrine of election. It’s the totality of the big picture that holds a person, isn’t it? It’s the picture that takes hold of a sixteen-year-old and keeps him for sixty years, holding him for a lifetime — who God is, what he’s doing. How did Christ save sinners? How does the Christian life work? Where’s it all heading?
Now, there are different ways to do this. You can do an expository series of messages through texts, and then you can do a doctrinal series separately. You could say, “We’re going to do five weeks, kids, on election and predestination, and we’re going to do five weeks on sin and what it is, on what kind of disease you have in your heart” — and so on.
I’m not at all opposed to topical messages like that because they’re all expository — meaning, if I’m going to explain anything, it’s going to be exposition of the Scripture. That’s where my explanations come from.
Or you can take these doctrinal depth-tours that I’m suggesting within the time of exposition. Fifteen minutes, say, of your thirty-minute message might be devoted to painting the big doctrinal reality behind one word in your text, like justification. It’s not either-or. You can mix it up in various ways.
I think students love to see how reality actually fits together, really fits together, and they love to see how texts actually work. Some combination of exposition of texts, where they get their noses in the grammar, and efforts to build their doctoral knowledge — both of these are crucial.
Ask Provocative Thought-Questions
The last thing I would say is this. If your students hear good preaching on Sunday morning, I probably wouldn’t turn the Wednesday-evening teaching time into another sermon. I would create a more interactive Socratic method of teaching, probably.
Now, you know your situation better than I do, but this is what I would do if I were the youth minister and I had a good pastor who was doing real preaching on Sunday. I probably wouldn’t try to do the same thing on Wednesday, but would train these students on how to look at the text, how to look at the Book, and how to ask really good thought-questions, because questions are the key to understanding.
“Train students on how to look at the text, how to look at the Book, and how to ask really good thought-questions.”
Lots of times, people hear me say “participatory” or “interactive,” and they think, “Oh, I’ve been in those kinds of groups. Everybody shares their ignorance.” That’s not at all what I mean. I teach like this generally. I stay in control. I’m asking the questions, right? If students ask stupid questions, then you delicately and wisely guide them toward good questions. You don’t let everybody just share their ignorance. You know where you want to take them, and you take them there by training them to get there themselves.
You’re modeling how to pose really good questions about what you see in the text and getting them to look and think and speak — and then correcting them so that they get better and better at reading their Bibles. It is possible to do very serious exposition and doctrinal teaching this way. You can do this Socratically.
The key is really good questions, provocative questions. I’ve been in so many groups where the leader says, “Who said this?” The students are looking at each other and saying, “That’s the most stupid question. It says that Peter said this. Why is he asking me that? That is such a stupid question. ‘Who said this?’” Those are not the kinds of questions that get anybody excited about anything. They have to be thought-questions, hard-thinking questions, questions that really have to pay off in textual understanding and real-life experience.
So, those are my three suggestions for handling the word with your youth group. Deal with the reality-factor, take doctrinal depth-tours, and ask provocative thought-questions. Then of course — and this would be a whole different episode — soak it all in earnest prayer, because if God doesn’t show up, then everything is in vain.