It took Walter Carter two years to tell somebody he felt called to preach.
“In our black church tradition, when you get called to that, you get the opportunity almost immediately,” he said. Carter was no different. Young and charismatic, he was quickly hired as a youth leader. Before long, he picked up opportunities to preach to adults as well.
“I wasn’t inaccurate,” said Carter, who hadn’t been to seminary. “I understood the Word of God. I knew how to teach. But what I was doing was more thematic, almost like a Sunday school lesson. I had three points, a nice introduction, clever illustrations, and a passionate summary.”
About 15 years in, he took over as lead pastor of Union Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. Interested in shifting the congregation from board-led to elder-led, Carter began reading a book called Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.
“I thought I was teaching this book to my congregation in order to show them what they needed to do,” Carter said. “But the first mark—expository preaching—was something I needed to be doing.”
To learn more, he headed to a preaching conference at H. B. Charles’s church. He wanted to learn from an array of teachers but made the mistake of sitting in Dave Helm’s class first.
“I was mesmerized,” Carter said. “I sat in his class all day for three days. I never went to any other class. I was completely impressed.”
Carter was having the same eye-opening experience that Helm had 25 years earlier when British pastor Dick Lucas first demonstrated expositional preaching to him.
“It felt like a light bulb going on,” Helm remembers. “It felt like you were closer to having command of what God was actually trying to say.”
Helm couldn’t get enough, and in 2001, he and some others started the Charles Simeon Trust (CST) to teach Lucas’s principles to others. Light bulbs have been going on ever since.
“When I started back in 2007, we had fewer than 10 workshops,” said Colleen McFadden, now the director of CST’s women’s workshops. “Now we have more than 150, including about 25 for women.”
In the past year, more than 6,300 people around the world attended those workshops in person, according to director of workshops Kevin Walker. Another 6,300 participated in online courses. “I never thought I’d see something like that,” said Chris Kiagiri, a Reformed Kenyan, after a gathering in Nairobi a few months ago.
“I think we’re on the cusp of a period of great awakening,” Carter said. “The pandemic forced us to discern the need for the Word of God in a world that wasn’t paying attention. . . . The gospel is moving.”
The story of CST began with a group of pastors—particularly Helm and College Church pastor Kent Hughes—who didn’t even know they needed help with their preaching. These days, the CST team calls that “unconsciously incompetent,” the first in the four stages of teaching.
If you’d met Hughes or Helm back then, you wouldn’t have called them that. Hughes was a “Bible-saturated man who believed in the power of God’s Word,” said Helm, who spent time on Hughes’s staff at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois.
Both Hughes and Helm knew God’s revelation in the Bible had to be explained and applied—that’s been true since the days when Moses expounded on the Ten Commandments, Christ revealed himself, and Paul taught listeners what God was doing through Jesus.
And both knew that preaching had been done with varying degrees of competence over the centuries.
“Most of the time, [the sermon’s use of the Bible] was some form of topical-doctrinal preaching,” said Bryan Chapell, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America and author of Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. That’s when a preacher chooses a topic—say, forgiveness or providence or marriage—and develops a doctrinal sermon through a survey of relevant Scripture verses and philosophy.
“I can’t say topical messages are always wrong,” Chapell said. “Often, they are full of deep and beautiful truths.”
But he sees the same potential danger in them that Don Carson, cofounder of The Gospel Coalition, does.
“In topical preaching your agenda is shaped in large part by the topic at hand, which may be firing your imagination because of current needs or perceptions of needs,” Carson said. “I wonder how many sermons on identity have been preached over the last few years. It was difficult to find anyone preaching on that topic 20 years ago. It is, of course, a salutary thing to stay attuned to what is being debated at the time. But it’s also a rather sad admission that our priorities in our choice of topics are being shaped rather more by the culture than by what Scripture actually says. Good expository preaching will cover enough biblical material that you’ll be addressing topics nobody is asking questions about in the congregation—but should be. Sermon series shaped by popular topics almost always ignore some themes the Bible treats as hugely important. If we slide into such traps, we end up starving the people of God.”
Over the past century, many churches began designating Sunday morning services for evangelism and Sunday evening services for deeper Bible study with mature believers, Carson said.
But this model can miss the fact that the basic gospel message—a conviction of sin and assurance of pardon—is needed regularly by even the most seasoned believer. “The gospel is not the ABC of the Christian faith but the A to Z of the Christian faith,” said Carson, quoting his friend Tim Keller. “In some ways it embraces everything, and that’s why it’s for both Christians and non-Christians.”
Another problem is that this model, embraced by the “seeker-sensitive” churches in recent decades, tends to rely on topical preaching as an easier way to bridge the gap with unbelievers.
And if people don’t go to a church that explains what the Bible says, Carson said, “someone can sit in a pew for 40 or 50 years and listen to thousands of sermons but never learn what Isaiah says, or John, or Romans. The best preaching teaches people how to read their Bibles!”
From Topical to Expository
Eager to improve, Hughes and Helm were game to meet Dick Lucas when he was invited over by a Chicago area pastor in 1991. By then, Lucas had already been preaching expositionally at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate in London for 30 years. His church was thriving, as were his Bible lectures for businessmen. Five years prior, he’d started the Proclamation Trust to teach other pastors how to preach that way too.
“Dick just walked through some things in 1 Corinthians 13 and convinced Kent and Dave and most of the guys in the room that, in fact, expositional preaching was more than they realized it was,” said Robert Kinney, director of ministries at CST. That chapter isn’t a sentimental ode to love, Lucas told them. If you look at 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, you’ll see it’s a rebuke against the Corinthian church.
“Dick helped us with the powers of observation,” Helm said. “He showed us what a particular portion of God’s Word was really saying and how it contributed to the biblical argument as a whole, in ways we hadn’t seen in our own ministries before that. . . . We were preaching texts at times just as independent units.”
Watching what Lucas could do with Scripture was thrilling and life-giving, Helm said. He couldn’t get enough. He hopped in a car with Lucas to accompany him on his five-hour drive to St. Louis, just to hear more.
Expository preaching is both hard and easy to define. Basically, it’s preaching from a Scripture passage instead of searching for Scripture to support or explain a topic. Helm would end up describing it like this: “It’s when the shape and emphasis of the text informs the shape and emphasis of the sermon.”
Expository preaching is when the shape and emphasis of the text informs the shape and emphasis of the sermon.
You can do that by figuring out what the passage was saying to its original audience in its original context and then applying that message to your audience, Helm said. Above all, you must see how the passage—whether its laws in Leviticus or horsemen in Revelation—points to the Bible’s main point.
To do that, you have to know the main point of the Bible. Here’s an easy way to tell if you’re on track, pastor Colin Smith says: Would your sermon get you thrown out of a mosque or a synagogue?
“I began to review . . . some of my previous sermons, and I came to the conclusion that some of them were sub-Christian,” he told a Simeon Trust gathering a few years ago. “Particularly some of my preaching from the Old Testament that said many good things about God and about life and about Scripture and about godliness and so forth and so on—but didn’t get us clearly to Jesus Christ.”
Good expository preaching, then, should always get to the main point—Jesus.
“In an afternoon, Dave Helm and Kent Hughes go from thinking they’re good Bible guys to thinking, ‘Man, we need to get better at this,’” Kinney said. “They were fanatically committed to getting better.”
As they did, they discovered a host of benefits, including the ability to preach passages they wouldn’t have touched before, never worrying about what to preach next, growing in their understanding of Scripture, installing a guard against preaching their own will instead of God’s, and gaining confidence they were conveying the right message.
Over the next five years, Hughes and Helm spent as much time as they could with Lucas—Helm even spent his six-month sabbatical in London. They loved what he was doing. But there was a problem.
“Some people felt what Dick did as a teacher was not reproducible,” Helm said. “He was a little idiosyncratic. He had his own style—it almost emerged from him organically. There weren’t necessarily principles, an explanation of ‘This is what I do and why and how I do it.’”
Oddly enough, Helm could supply that explanation.
“I could see not only what he was doing but how he was doing it,” Helm said. He began reverse engineering Lucas’s work. He explained it to his interns, then to other pastors in an annual Wheaton Workshop. He made up small assignments that reinforced the lessons.
“By 2000, there were about 100 guys coming to the Wheaton Workshop,” Kinney said. Their only complaint was that it was too far for some to travel.
So Helm started noodling over the potential—regional workshops, internships, pastoral residencies, and written resources. In 2001, Helm, his copastor Jon Dennis, Hughes, and a few others created an organization to hold it all—the Charles Simeon Trust, named after a 19th-century pastor who believed preaching could be taught (and who’d instructed up to a third of England’s Anglican rectors by the time he died).
For the next three years, barely anything happened. Helm was running CST “off the back of a napkin,” Kinney said, and he was too busy to give it much attention. He and Dennis had planted Holy Trinity Church in Chicago in 1998, then launched a second campus in 2002.
Finally, realizing he didn’t have enough time, Helm hired Kinney to help. The hand-off was brief.
“Here’s the phone number of the guy who hosts a workshop in Calgary, and here’s the number of the one who hosts in Spokane,” Kinney says, paraphrasing Helm’s introduction to the job. “You’ll have to look up the number of the guy who hosts in Richmond. Oh, and Phil Ryken at 10th Presbyterian in Philadelphia wants to start one. Good luck.”
At first, Kinney tried to pattern CST after Lucas’s Proclamation Trust, which is centered around in-person classes taken once or twice a week. But he quickly saw two problems with that.
“First, in England, everywhere is pretty much two hours from everywhere else by train,” he said. “America doesn’t work that way. Second, the American church places an emphasis on credentials in a way the English church does not.”
Many American churches expect pastors to have degrees from accredited seminaries, he said. CST couldn’t offer that. They also didn’t have the time or staff to push out the resources—books, podcasts, articles—they’d originally envisioned.
So Kinney and Helm sharpened the focus.
“Our metaphor for this is spring training,” Kinney said. “In Major League Baseball, whether you’re an all-star or a rookie, every February you report to Arizona or Florida to relearn the fundamentals. That’s what we’re trying to do—get pastors back to fundamental convictions and skills to preach God’s Word.”
To make the classes accessible for full-time pastors, they focused on regional three-day workshops and online prerecorded classes. And to make them effective, they used the Socratic method.
“For many moons, I was running the preaching classes at a theological college, and a lot of that was me speaking,” said Mervyn Eloff, who teaches Simeon Trust workshops in South Africa. “That meant students had to catch stuff from me. Now the joy for me is that through questions we can help them see principles for themselves.”
The clarity and intentionality of the CST tools “really helps the students to preach accurately and relevantly,” he said.
“It’s amazing,” Carter said. “The Bible is no longer just strung-together familiar stories to me. This training gives me the confidence to handle passages and books of the Bible I’d never touch before.”
One is Revelation, notorious for its tricky imagery. “I just led a CST workshop in Charleston, South Carolina, on the book of Revelation,” he said. “Tears almost come to my eyes when I say that it is nothing but the grace of God that I was able to do that.”
That’s not the only change he sees.
“It’s amazing how literate my church has become of what preaching is and the proper way to do it,” Carter said. Over the past several years, his congregants have grown more interested in the Bible, more enthusiastic about his preaching through books of the Bible—and more open to having elders.
As preachers began to talk, the CST workshops began to grow.
By 2008, the board began asking if the workshops should be adapted for women, and women were asking the same thing. So McFadden piloted a women’s workshop on how to understand and teach the Bible.
The content was the same, but instead of preaching a sermon, women are encouraged to do exposition in their women’s Bible studies, their curriculum, even in their children’s curriculum, McFadden said.
“The big difference between men’s and women’s workshops is that women’s ones are led by women Bible teachers,” she said. “We want peers teaching peers. Just like the men’s workshops are led by preaching pastors—and not by, say, a seminary prof—the women’s workshops are led by women who are regularly teaching expositionally in their churches. That’s how our complementarianism comes out. Since we believe women should teach women, we have women training women at workshops.”
The first workshop sold out, McFadden said. “We couldn’t believe it. We were like, ‘Maybe we should do that again.’ So we expanded to two. Every so often we’d expand, and now we’re up to 25 women’s workshops that will be offered next year.”
Not all of CST’s workshops are in the United States. By 2013, pastors from Cuba, India, and Kenya were asking for their own. International workshops don’t pay for themselves, so Kinney asked the board what they should do.
“Throw this thing open to the whole world,” the board told him.
“We went from 2 to 31 countries in the last 10 years,” Kinney said. They’re all in person, except in difficult-to-operate places such as China or Russia—and even there, CST in-person workshops should be opening soon.
Around the same time, Helm published Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today. “That demonstrated a mature model ready to be scaled,” Kinney said. Between the book and the international reach, “every segment of [their] work increased rapidly.”
By 2019, CST was on a roll and ready to take another look at residential learning. They opened the Chicago Course in the fall—and ran smack into COVID.
“Obviously, running in-person events became impossible,” Kinney said. CST staff switched to online workshops, but that didn’t staunch the bleeding.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than starting a program and COVID hitting six months later,” said Jeremy Meeks, who had moved to Chicago to direct the program. “That’s the worst. The last four years have been the hardest of my life—no question.”
Was it possible to bounce back? Or had CST been just a flash in the pan?
Meeks kept plugging away.
“While recruitment and all that I have to do for the course is incredibly challenging, every single day class is the most fun thing in the world,” he said. “I kick myself four times a day because I cannot believe I get to see light bulbs go on all day long. It’s the best.”
Slowly, enrollment started to pick back up.
“COVID changed the world in a lot of ways,” Meeks said. One consequence was that many people reevaluated their churches. Another was that every pastor began streaming his sermons.
“In the Chicago Course, I have three guys coming this year solely because they listened to a sermon that a graduate preached and thought, Where did you learn to do that?” Meeks said.
In 2022, CST workshop registrations hit a record high. Pastors from Nairobi to Ras al-Khaimah gathered again in person to work on their preaching.
“I could give you thousands of quotes from people about how profound the training was,” Kinney said. “I go to 15 to 20 workshops a year. I don’t like to fly, but it’s worth getting on a plane every time to see somebody who has been in ministry see God’s Word with fresh eyes.”
He gets to see pastors near burnout find fresh motivation, pastors who are lonely find camaraderie, pastors who are struggling find a way forward.
CST is also watching a larger trend develop around them.
“There has been a significant resurgence of expository preaching,” Chapell said. He says of his book, published in 2005, “It was trying to take exposition from the notion of just being a dry commentary regurgitation to looking at the biblical text in a way that’s true to the text and applicable to people’s lives. I think we are discovering more and more ways of doing that.”
From his seat on The Gospel Coalition Council, he’s watched a “remarkable recovery of both aspects of it—the explaining of the text but also determining how the gospel motivates and enables its application, without which you just have pharisaism.”
In Chicago, Carter’s church has sent another seven people to CST workshops.
“I don’t have the right words to say about what all of this has meant,” he said. “As I look back on it—every time I consider all that has changed in my life as result of this—words just leave me.”
“To me, the umbrella over anything with the CST is the Lord’s kindness,” Helm said. “The Lord is doing it. If we have any disproportionate influence, it’s the Lord’s hand. We are a small part of things he’s using, and he should be receiving all the praise.”