Effective Expository Preaching in an Unchurched Context
Leaving seminary at Southeastern Seminary to go directly to Worcester, Massachusetts at the age of 27 to plant a church in a city that is less than 5% evangelical was quite a jolting experience. There was certainly a lot of trial and error, leaning on the Holy Spirit, and late night calls to mentors. Through the learning experiences though, God has been faithful and grown both me and the church over the last 5 years. Throughout the journey, one of the biggest learning experiences has been in an area I thought would be the easiest — preaching. Verse-by-verse expository preaching is my greatest passion in ministry, but preaching both expositionally and effectively in an unchurched context was not the easy task I naïvely thought it would be in my fresh out of seminary. Though I have a long way to go, God has taught me much through the years in seeking to be faithful to the text and most helpful to the hearer in an unchurched context. Below are a few things I have found both immensely practical and helpful.
1. Know your audience and preach accordingly.
I love diving deep into minutiae of the historical context of a passage, quoting the Reformers and Puritans and talking about the verb tenses in the original languages. Because of that, I loved speaking to my fellow seminarians in preaching class and loved to get the opportunities to preach in a church near my seminary. But in New England, my audience on a Sunday morning is the polar opposite of that former audience. Many in the audience might be hearing the true gospel for the first time, might be hearing the Bible preached verse-by-verse for the first time, and many might be able to capture the gist of John 3:16, but could not quote another passage of Scripture from memory. Over the course of more than five years of preaching each week in an unchurched context, I’ve learned that to preach effectively, one must learn to preach to those who are there, not to those whom you wish were there. Over the course of more than five years of preaching each week in an unchurched context, I’ve learned that to preach effectively, one must learn to preach to those who are there, not to those whom you wish were there. Click To Tweet Folks in an “unchurched” context need to hear far more about basic Bible interpretation and things like “repent, believe, and obey Jesus,” then they do about John Gill’s view of the atonement. Honestly, they need to hear more about those things in a “churched” context as well.
2. Be mindful of both believer and unbeliever and speak to each directly.
Some texts lend themselves more to the believer while others lend themselves more to the unbeliever. Knowing that we have both believer and unbeliever in the audience, the preacher must be careful to balance the sermon with application for both audiences. If a message is heavy in spiritual growth for the Christian, I will speak directly to the unbeliever near the end about how they cannot grow in Christ without a relationship with Him, then I share the gospel. If the message is heavy on the gospel and a call to repent and believe, then I’ll be sure to speak directly to believers near the end about how the gospel not only transforms our hearts but transforms our living. Speaking directly to both believer and non-believer in the message shows both audiences that you are preaching with them in mind. It can be a very fruitful tool for the preacher.
3. Keep the gospel central in every message.
If Jesus and the gospel are central to the Scriptures, then they should be central to every message we preach. The “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “From every text in Scripture, there is a road to Christ.” We must not springboard to the gospel without faithfully expounding the text, but we must show the hearers how the message of the text relates to the redemptive work of Jesus. He is the hero of Scripture and should be the hero in our preaching. If we seek spiritual transformation on the part of the hearer, then we must keep the transformative message of the gospel central in our preaching.
4. Preach expositionally, but be wise in deciphering what would be informative for the audience to hear, from what they need to hear.
Like other expositors, I believe that both Christian and non-christian are best served from the pulpit through preaching expositionally consistently. Preaching through the Bible as God has unfolded it to us, best models how to study the Bible for both audiences, how key doctrines are developed from the very words of Scripture and ensures a balanced spiritual diet for all. With that being said, the preacher must be mindful of his time in the pulpit and use it most effectively to expound the big idea and the timeless truths of the text, and not get bogged down in the weeds. In other words, give the meat, not the bones. Some rocks need to be unturned, some don’t. An effective expositor in an unchurched context will faithfully preach the text while also using wisdom in determining what is particularly essential to highlight for the hearer to know, believe, and obey and what does not require the same level of emphasis.
5. Don’t shy away from preaching theology, but be sure to define all terms.
We should want our people to know what great theological terms like incarnation, justification, penal substitution, and sanctification mean. However, we must be careful not to assume an understanding of such terms while preaching, especially in an unchurched context. Every time we use a theological term we should define it using language and metaphors (when appropriate) that are easily understood.
6. Seek to make your points application oriented.
My former preaching professor and seminary president, Danny Akin says, “Fuzzy thinking is deadly to any aspect of a sermon. This is especially true when it comes to application. Using the imagery of the Bible we must remember that we are preaching to sheep (Psalm 23; John 10). Sheep need very specific and particular guidance.” It is best not to assume that the average person in the pew will make the connection between knowing something and doing something. At the end of the day, we rest on the power of the Holy Spirit to ultimately do the work here – but we should not use the Holy Spirit as an excuse for incomplete application-less preaching that does not fully instruct and edify the hearer.
 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Christ Precious to Believers,” sermon at Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens, London, March 13, 1859.
 Daniel L. Akin, David L. Allen, and Ned L. Mathews, eds. Text-Driven Preaching (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 283.