Avoiding the Data Dump
Expository preaching exhorts the heart by exposing the truth, which requires a studied intensity and an exacting thoroughness. Through expository preaching, the authority of every inspired word is brought to bear on the life of the church, and God’s people are invited to feed on every jot and tittle Scripture. Superficial preaching simply cannot function with potency necessary for sanctification. Forging faith convictions in minds of God’s people requires more weight than tweet-able platitudes and positive generalities can carry. Expository preaching must be doctrinally dense if it is going to steel the faith of Christians.
The density of expository preaching, however, can easily become dullness if the preacher is not careful. The pursuit of a deep messages that are deeply edifying, can unintentionally lead to the dreaded “data dump.” By now, every expositor has been warned of the “data dump” sermon, and most congregants have been on the receiving end of an exegetical unloading. It is a sermon brimming with details about the context of a passage (“we can’t understand these verses without reviewing the previous three chapters, again”), saturated with observations about the verses (“there are three views on what kind of genitive Paul is using here”), and drowning in cross-references related to the text (“this won’t make sense unless we start back in Genesis 3:15”). It is essentially a verbal commentary. The preacher has simply filled his notes with a collection of information he has gleaned throughout the week with little effort to make any connections between the text and God’s people.
In expository circles, the “data dump” has reached nearly the same feared status as the boogeyman and is usually sought to be avoided at all cost. In fact, you will read a number of suggestions on how to avoid boring sermons. The most common advice for preventing the “data dump” include adding more passion to the sermon delivery and adding more illustrations and applications to the sermon content. In reality, however, these suggestion aren’t going to going to transform a dull lecture into a compelling message. If you are a boring preaching and you follow these suggestions your boring message will just be louder and longer. In order to avoid the dreaded “data dump,” we need to rightly diagnose the primary cause of sermons like this.
Ultimately, the primary mistake that leads to the “data dump” is the mistake of preaching a text without interpreting it. In other words, you say a lot of things about the text but you never synthesize all of your information to demonstrate what the text means. God inspired the details of the passage to add clarity to its meaning, not to be publicly catalogued on a Sunday morning. This is helpful because when the goal of the sermon is to present the meaning of the text with clarity, it helps the preacher decide what information needs to be communicate and what information can be cut from the message. Does it add clarity? If not, it is expendable. Furthermore, if the preacher does not interpret the text, then the data he presents will literally be meaningless. This is what makes a sermon unbearably boring. Preacher, if you want your people to find all of those details about the text compelling, interpret the meaning of the passage with clarity so that your people can see why all of those textual details are important.
By definition, expository preaching is the method of preaching that proclaims the substance, the significance and the stipulations of a passage of Scripture. To put it another way, expository preaching takes a Spirit-inspired text of Scripture and declares, “Here is what it says, here is what it means, and here is what it requires.” The “data dump” only declares observations about what a text says and never adds clarity to its meaning and implications. This is why avoiding the “data dump” isn’t about shortening your sermon, filling it with stories, and getting straight to application. The key to avoiding dull expository sermons is to actually exposit the text, with all of its truth from God and implications for life.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.