Titles are intended to provoke interest. This one is not intended to condemn all topical approaches to preaching. I suppose I should probably call it “A brief discussion into why a topical approach to preaching should not be our default.” But that would hardly make you want to read it.
I preached a topical message last Sunday. I will do so again. However, I don’t do this as a default approach. I think the reason that people do is probably tied to the issue of interest or relevance. Surely a topical approach allows the preaching to be relevant to the listeners? Not necessarily.
1. The relevance of a message is not determined by sermon shape, but by preacher’s strategy. That is, you can preach topically and be both dull and irrelevant. You can preach a single text exposition and be both engaging and highly relevant. The real issue is the heart of the preacher being in tune with God’s heart for His people, and in tune with the people to whom he preaches – both to know them, and to care for them. If you care, it will show.
2. Relevance is not something we add, it is something we bring out. It is something we emphasize. All Scripture is God-breathed and it is useful, profitable. Our task is not to add relevance, either by making up disconnected applications, or by piling up application-overt texts. Our task is to show how whatever we preach makes a difference in the lives of the listeners. Whether we choose to use multiple texts or not is a different matter, but it is not the key to relevance in our preaching.
3. Topical preaching, if it is to be truly expository, is a lot of work. This is something I always tell beginning preachers. It might seem like the only way to “fill time,” or a helpful short-cut, or even a means to relevant preaching. In reality, good topical preaching is a lot of extra work. Let’s say you choose four texts to be your four points, with an overarching biblical main idea to guide the message. That’s four passages that you should study properly and handle properly. Topical preaching multiplies work for the preacher (and sometimes it multiples work for the listener, just trying to keep it all together, find the passages, etc.).
4. Topical preaching, if it isn’t expository, can lead to dangerous imposition. That is to say, if you aren’t diligently and carefully understanding passages according to their context, then you could well be imposing meaning that isn’t really there. And let’s say you somehow manage to handle every text accurately, chances are that listeners will copy your approach to Scripture. They will parachute in, grab a phrase, apply it according to their own agenda and they will get it wrong (even if you got it right).
I think we should preach topically. But let’s do so judiciously. It shouldn’t be our default. And when we do it, let’s be sure to really let the texts be in charge of the message.