Many would say the conservative evangelical church has entered a golden age of expository preaching. A genuine commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture has led to a genuine commitment to expositional preaching.
But despite this trend, what if a blind spot—a byproduct of 20th-century evangelicalism—exists in our preaching? Put plainly, an overemphasized Christian individualism may be eroding our churches and our preaching. What I mean is that we have focused on the Christian life as an individual pursuit of God and devalued the role of the local church in the life of the believer.
The Christian life runs on twin engines—both our individual relationship with the Lord and our congregational relationship with other local believers in a covenant community, a local church. Certainly, we must emphasize the individual nature of the Christian life, but that’s often where we stop. The congregational nature of the Christian life appears to be an optional add-on or at least a minor aspect of Christian discipleship. That’s why we hear the common refrains, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” or, “I love Jesus, but I’m just not that into the church.” Because the church is Jesus’ bride, that’s like telling me, “Keith, I really like you, but I can’t stand your wife.” Our relationship won’t be the same.
Our preaching has inherited this imbalanced Christian individualism, resulting in weakened local churches. Today’s preaching largely aims at the individual Christian and neglects a congregationally shaped view of the Christian life.
Ironically, this misses the whole objective of expository preaching. The Bible is a congregationally shaped book. It is written about God’s people, to God’s people, for God’s people. The Old Testament is written to the people of God—Israel. The New Testament is written to the people of God—local churches. Even the New Testament letters written to individuals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) are written to pastors of local churches, instructing them on how to lead God’s people.
Expositional preaching exposes God’s Word to his people and helps them live out the truths found in the Bible. Because the Bible is congregationally shaped, our preaching must be congregationally shaped; it must be ecclesiological. In fact, if your preaching is not ecclesiological, you’re not truly doing exposition.
Again, I’m not advocating a push of the pendulum to the opposite side and neglecting the individual aspect of the Christian life. We must maintain a balance between the two.
So what’s the remedy? Ecclesiological exposition, or what Mark Dever describes as preaching about the church to the church. While modern expositional preaching tends to be sermons to a group of individuals, ecclesiological exposition helps Christians grow in their individual walks with the Lord while also helping them relate to one another and fulfill Christ’s mission in the local church. After all, God’s vehicle for complete Christian maturity is not just quiet times; it’s the local church (Eph. 4:1-16). Congregationally conscious preaching creates a compelling community of believers who disciple one another, exhibit genuine love and care for one another, and display the glory of God to a watching world.
Like bifocals enable someone to view close up as well as far away, ecclesiological exposition keeps both the individual and congregational in focus. When we read the Bible, we will surely find applications for individuals, but we must also view the Scriptures through a corporate lens, asking, “What does this passage mean for our life together as a church?”
On a practical level, such a paradigm shift in preaching affects the explanation, illustration, and application of the text of Scripture, as the sermon explains the corporate implications of the text, illustrates the text by highlighting its expressions in local bodies of believers, and applies the text to the congregation as a whole. As a result, a culture of discipleship and Christlike affection develops as church members see how they relate to one another, and the corporate witness of the church is broadcast to the surrounding community.
Pastor, as you prepare this week’s sermon, continue to examine what the text means for each individual Christian in the room, but don’t forget to also consider how that individual might understand and live out that passage in the context of your church. Consider what ways your congregation is, or should be, obeying the commands of Scripture as a corporate body.