Thinking Out Loud

February 12, 2013

Bridging the Expository-Preaching Topical-Preaching Divide

preacherExpository preaching consists of working through a passage on a verse-by-verse basis. For many of you, it’s the sermon style you grew up with; for a few it might be the only Bible teaching form you know.

Topical preaching seeks to look at selected scriptures and build a picture of the Bible’s wider teaching on a particular subject or issue. It grew in popularity when the seeker-sensitive church movement started, and is therefore often associated with that paradigm.

Expository preaching is a necessary skill for pastors. If you can’t exegete a passage, you don’t pass homiletics or hermeneutics in Bible college or seminary.

Topical preaching is sometimes mistakenly thought of as “sermon lite.” It’s been — dare I say it? — demonized because of its association with things traditionalists don’t care for: contemporary music, casual dress, modern Bible translations, seeker-targeted services, etc.

A good speaker should be able to do both approaches, and should know when to do both.

But every once in awhile I run across an article that is waving the flag for the expository style, and therefore reiterating an implied disdain for the alternative, topical preaching; like this one last week at Arminian Today.

Now before you head for the comment button, let me say that I agree completely with all nine points in the article, because there is an engagement at a different level with the expository style.  But the rhetoric of the article is completely over-the-top; indeed there is almost a venom in the words chosen to state what is, at the end of the day, the author’s preference.

Topical preaching is more like a steady diet of fast food.  It takes great but is not good for you.  McDonald’s will make you happy and it does taste good but a steady flow of McDonald’s is not good for you.  You need healthy substance to survive.  Fast food makes one fat and lazy… A steady diet of fast food Christianity that tastes good but is not producing healthy disciples.  Fast food Christianity produces shallow, self-focused people who want their felt needs met and view God as an end to their own problems.  Lost is the holiness of God, the hatred for sin, the passion for God in prayer, the hunger for the Word of God, a zeal for evangelism, a passion to have a biblical worldview and to be as godly as one can be in a sinful world.

You can’t teach the holiness of God in a topical sermon?  A steady diet of theme-based teaching fails to produce healthy disciples? By what metrics? Where is the research on this?

Then the writer feels the need to add one more paragraph, just in case you missed it:

So why do most churches avoid expository preaching? I would answer that by saying that 1) many churches want to entertain to draw crowds which equals money and success in their view and 2) the preacher is simply spiritually lazy and will not take time to study the Word of God to teach the Word as it should be honored and taught.  In turn, topical preaching doesn’t teach the Word of God but is simply the preacher picking what he wants to say, makes his points, and then proof texts his points.  That is not teaching the Bible.  That is your teaching backed up by proof texts from the Bible.

Did you catch that second last sentence? Topical preaching “is not teaching the Bible.” Wow! That’s a rather heavy accusation to level.  Caught up in the genuine emotion and passion about this subject, the writer kept keyboarding too long.

Still, in the spirit of conciliation and peace-making, I decided to wade into this blog post’s swamp and try to post something redemptive; borrowing an idea from the music wars that have plagued many a church:

I wrote:

This may not be popular here, but I want to offer a third way.

Many years ago, as churches agonized over the “hymns versus choruses” debate, the late Robert Weber introduced the term “blended worship;” a mixture of classic and modern compositions.

I believe there is some merit in bringing that mindset to this topic. I don’t necessarily lean to either the topical or expository style of preaching, as I believe there is only good preaching and bad preaching. The problem with topical preaching is that sometimes you never get deep enough into the context of the passage to learn anything new; it tends to have a guilty-by-association link with weak or entry-level teaching. The problem with expository preaching is that you miss the beauty and majesty of how the whole of scripture fits together, how the Bible speaks to various themes, and how seemingly contrasting verses hold a particular issue in tension.

So a blended approach would involve the use of related passages, but with a particular key passage more fully exegeted. None of this approach negates any of the nine points above, but it avoids the mindset that I’ve seen exist among some who are steeped in the expository approach and seem to have a phobia about introducing cross-references or parallel passages.

Now, at risk of being guilty of the very thing that I abhor about the approach taken in the article, let me add something else:  It is far too easy for someone to get up, open their Bible to a single passage and basically ‘wing it.’ Drawing on your familiarity with the text, it is extremely easy to simply start reading verse by verse and improvise or amplify what is on the page without providing any added value.

In other words, while it’s possible for either type of preacher to get up unprepared, the topical sermon must have involved some gathering of related or parallel texts through commentaries or word studies.

So I’ll take my sermon topically, please, with a slice of exposition; and hold the personal opinions — oh wait, you already do.

The most powerful thing a pastor can say in his sermon is, “Take your Bibles and look with me please to the book of …”  And anywhere Bible pages are being turned or text is appearing onscreen, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.

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2 Comments »

  1. The writer you disagree with is correct sometimes. All of the things mentioned can be and unfortunately are true at times. However, even though all topical preaching is not bad if done properly, it is not recommended as the singular approach to take if the preacher wants to facilitate true learning about God. Even good topical preaching can wander in the desert for 40 years while seeming like progress is being made all the while. If you preach topically or enjoy hearing topical sermons, be careful about context. Verses can be easily strung together that do not actually reinforce each other. Proceed with caution on the topical trail of learning. Thanks for listening.

    Comment by Truthinator — February 12, 2013 @ 8:10 am

  2. “Topical preaching is more like a steady diet of fast food. It takes great but is not good for you.”
    I think you and I came to the same place regarding this statement. My first thought was “What if the topic was sin? Or God’s grace?” Of course no matter where I start a sermon it is going to end up sharing the Gospel in some way.

    Preaching that Changes Lives by Michael Fabarez. It’s an entire hard bound volume on the merits and techniques of expository preaching. I read it, enjoyed it, and shared it with a couple of my favorite preachers. Not because they weren’t doing a good job, but they were preaching expositional sermons already and I thought they would enjoy the book as much as I did. As to your blended approach, I might go about blending a little differently. I have no problem preaching the occasional sermon on heaven or sermon on hell, perhaps once a year just to not loose sight of those things. We preach on the topics of Jesus’ birth and death, burial and resurrection on a regular recurring basis. Is every Easter sermon ever preached not topical? I might feel that after a few weeks of exposition that is rather heavy, a congregation deserves a break. Sermon-lite might be just what is called for, and would still share more scripture than the average church-goer reads in a week on his own. (Ouch, got a little preachy right there didn’t I?)

    Comment by Clark Bunch — February 12, 2013 @ 9:05 am


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