Topical Preaching: Why Not?

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.

5 thoughts on “Topical Preaching: Why Not?

  1. Another good critique. Again, I would add a thought: Topical preaching (if it is the main or only form) will lead to a very selective reading of Scripture. Those texts that fit the preacher’s themes will get looked at, those that don’t, or are hard and need time to understand and explain, will tend to get glossed over or lost altogether. This can be a problem with any form of preaching, of course, even with a verse-by-verse approach some books might be overlooked, but I think it is especially problematic for thematic preaching.

    • You’re right. On the other hand, it’s not altogether evident that the number of verses the Bible dedicates to a theme is in proportion to that theme’s theological weight. Were it so, we’d have to conclude that purification of a leper is more important than baptism.

      • Oh no! That would mean we have to think! 😉

        Actually, I wasn’t trying to elevate or promote verse-by-verse preaching (I’m with Peter, thought-by-thought, or logical unit preaching is probably safest), it was more to stop anyone thinking that that method, being in a sense the opposite of thematic, was safe from the problem.

  2. Thanks! I like the way you think. Another excellent justification for topical expository preaching is that it seems to have been the preferred method of the apostles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.