Saturday, January 22, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

Topical vs. Expository Preaching

This past week, I had a fun and lively exchange with some friends over the issue of topical preaching. As I read through it, I see that I harden my stance against topical as I go (a natural debate tactic for me, but not helpful). Ultimately, I do not condemn topical preaching and you can even find a handful of my topical messages on my church's website. I do believe, however, that the best way for a Christian minister to preach faithfully is by giving expository messages that rightly divide Law and Gospel. Below you will find the exchange in the comments section on facebook and also a couple of messages that came afterward.

Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comment thread below!



Zach

I'm finally preaching a "topical" sermon this Sunday! The topic is: the context, meaning, and application of Zechariah 4:1-14.
Wednesday at 2:46pm


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Joshua
I'm doing the same thing! Only my topic is: the context, meaning, and application of 1 Peter 3:1-7. It's like we learned preaching from the same school, professor and everything.
Wednesday at 3:10pm

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Zach
What are the ODDS?! :D
(God bless Bill Brew and Jim Carlson for bringing us up right!)
Wednesday at 3:11pm - 1 person likes this

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FrankFusion

I am interested in your writings and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
Wednesday at 3:18pm

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Pastor Frank

Maybe topical sermons aren't so bad after all...love it!
Wednesday at 3:23pm

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Cory

So, I'm a little afraid to ask, but what's wrong with a topical sermon, that's, you know, topical?
Wednesday at 5:23pm

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Josh M

I'm guessing the constant flipping back and forth between a dozen or so different passages can get distracting and less coherent as the sermon goes on.
Wednesday at 5:34pm

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Zach

Topical sermons are not always horrible, they're just almost always horrible. They put the preacher in control of the content of God's Word to God's people. It doesn't take much experience with the Scriptures to realize how easily one can mine the text for quotes and then make it say whatever I want it to say.. Preaching God's Word, a portion at a time and letting the text itself determine the content of the sermon is a safeguard against the preacher usurping the role of God's Holy Word, inspired by God's Holy Spirit...
Wednesday at 5:49pm

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Josh M

Ok, your answer was better.
Wednesday at 5:52pm

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Zach

No, yours was classic. But, in the case of Rick Warren and the seeker/purpose crowd, dont forget that the dozen or so passages are in a dozen or so translations to make them further sound like they're saying what I want them to say.
Wednesday at 5:53pm

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Cory

That's a good point that the text itself can serve as a safeguard against finding what we want the Bible to say. On the other hand, our selection of the text to preach can lead to the same problem.
I see expositional preaching as the homiletical extension of biblical studies and topical preaching as the homiletical extension of systematic theology. Since I think both the "narrow-angle" and "wide-angle" scholarly approaches to Scripture need each other, I use a balance of expositional and topical preaching to achieve this on Sunday mornings over time.
Wednesday at 6:00pm

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FrankFusion

I don't know. I know John MacArthur does topical stuff on Sunday nights. Exposition is for the morning.
Wednesday at 6:07pm

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Zach

FrankFusion: John MacArthur also teaches all sorts of dispensational nonsense, so you're not really helping the case for topical there...

Cory: Selecting your text can't lead to selective preaching if you preach THROUGH whole books of the Bible a passage at a time, not skipping anything, and making sure to alternate Old and New Testament and hit every genre. Since I've been at Judson, I've preached through Luke, the Pastoral Epistles, the Johannine Epistles, Jude, Nehemiah, Joshua, the Sermon on the Mount, James and four of the minor prophets. I've also preached a handful of one-offs and topical sermons, which have essentially served as filler between books of the Bible.
Wednesday at 10:19pm

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Cory
That sounds great, Zach. But how long until you preach straight through a book in the Pentateuch, or Hebrews, or 1 & 2 Kings, or the Psalms? The sheer magnitude of the corpus is overwhelming! And you do agree that there is wisdom from those books that you haven't hit yet that your folks need to hear, right?
Wednesday at 11:56pm

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FrankFusion
I'm not dispensational by any measure btw. My point is, that if you teach with a Systematic theological bent you will get topical as systematic theology is topical. Unless you don't preach/teach that way. At least not Sunday morn.
Thursday at 2:59am

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Zach
Cory, no book is off-limits. Took a year and a half to preach through Luke. Hebrews is definitely on my radar. As are the books of the Penteteuch (particularly thinking of doing Genesis soon) and I Kings.

Frank, I didn't suggest that you are dispensational, just that your "But Johnny Mac does it!" argument does not pull its own weight. teaching with a systematic theological bent is just that: teaching. I do that every Wednesday night. The pulpit is for proclaiming Law and Gospel, rightly divided, and showing God's people Christ in all Scripture. It is clear *to me* that expository preaching is by far the best way to make sure this is what takes place. The professors and mentors who taught me to preach bear this out, as do the lion's share of the great preachers throughout the Church's history.
Thursday at 9:01am

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Zach
BTW, Cory, I also failed to mention that, in addition to preaching straight through books, one can also guard against indiosyncratic selection of texts by following the lectionary.
Thursday at 9:01am

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Cory
Good point about the lectionary, Zach. And I'm honestly not trying to change your approach to preaching as God has directed you to do it—he's our Boss. But I just have two other arguments for the validity of topical preaching. First, the Puritans (some of them anyway) were terrific preachers, but their general approach was to take a single verse as their "text" and then go all over the Bible for support for the thing they wanted to talk about. I'm not saying that I think this is the best method in the world (or one that I use), but they preached some very gospel-centric, Christocentric sermons that way. Second, we tend not to see what we would call expository preaching in the New Testament itself. The sermons in Acts don't follow that pattern, nor does the book of Hebrews, which is considered by many to be a sermon as a "word of exhortation" (13:22), unless we look at it as a bunch of tiny expository sermons strung together (which, to me, a good topical sermon usually is). But I'm glad you're striking the balance between wide-angle and narrow-angle by employing one on Sunday morning and the other on Wednesday night. I hope that your folks are coming to both. Okay, I promise I'm done now. Rock out in the Lord on Zech. 4:1-10 this Sunday!
Thursday at 9:22am

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Zach
Do you seriously think God is "talking to" different preachers and telling some, "You preach topical sermons" and telling others, "You preach expository?" I guess I'm way too Reformational to see things that way. I believe God already just ...told us all: "You preach faithfully" in His Word.

We can't use the Apostolic sermons as our models because they did not have a New Testament to preach out of, which is why they were speaking authoritatively, inspired by the Holy Spirit; same reason the Apostolic miraculous signs are not normative. And I don't buy for a second that Hebrews is a collection of sermons.

I also want to be clear that I don't preach one way Sunday morning and one way Wednesday night. I preach on Sunday morning and teach a class on Wednesday night. Topical studies work better as a class because, as you break out a bunch of decontextified verses, you can make sure everyone is familiar with the original context (literary, cultural, circumstantial, etc.) of that passage before moving on... Without that element, topical preaching itself seems to reinforce the very unhealthy view of the Bible as a treasure chest full of gems waiting to be pulled out and "used."

Also, I'm not sure whether you're calling topical or expository "wide angle," but in a good expository sermon, it always begins with the wide-angle (establishing context) and then zooms in, so you wind up covering both.
Thursday at 12:18pm

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Cory
Maybe I need to back up. Do you believe that expository preaching is the only way to "preach faithfully" and is incumbent on all preachers at all times?
Thursday at 4:18pm

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Zach
I believe it is the BEST way to preach faithfully and the only way I know of to present Scripture in a way that communicates Scripture to people in context and in a way that also helps teach them how to STUDY the Bible.

I fear that people who sit under buckshot topical preaching week after week will assume that the way to approach the Bible is to look topics up in topical Bibles or keywords in concordances and mash everything together into a Bible salad. When pastor so-and-so does it, it seems to work...
Thursday at 6:22pm

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Cory
Thanks for your explanation and distinctions. I agree with you that expository preaching is the only way to preach to communicate Scripture in its context and in a way that also helps teach them how to study the Bible. This is one reason that expository preaching is essential.

I also believe, however, that just as good expository preaching models how to study Scripture in context, good topical preaching models how to synthesize the range of biblical teaching on a topos and get the "whole counsel of God" on that issue. I totally agree that "buckshot" topical preaching is terrible. That is taking unrelated Scriptures out of context and using them as mere prooftexts. But good topical preaching isn't like buckshot; it's like raindrops on a spiderweb, all carefully linked. I think that this kind of preaching is important too. One reason is that sometimes the Spirit of God desires a church to squarely face God's word on a certain issue for a week or for a season. The other is that just as Christians can do the prooftext-from-all-over-the-Bible thing to justify what they want, I've also heard Christians be stubbornly dogmatic about an off-kilter dogma they derive from one passage of Scripture that they have failed to compare with the whole biblical witness on that topic. They have no model of how to make that comparison or even awareness that it is necessary to do so.

Our conversation has led me to examine my preaching file. I've found that I occasionally preach a topical sermon, but I often preach a topical series that is composed of a number of expository sermons, and I attempt to connect the dots over the course of the weeks that I preach it.
Thursday at 8:10pm

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Zach
The latter kind of "topical preaching," which is really preaching an expository sermon on a "topical" text is a thoroughly venial sin, even by my estimation. My few topical sermons have been of this variety...

I should also point out that "be[ing] stubbornly dogmatic about an off-kilter dogma they derive from one passage of Scripture" is not a danger of expository preaching, because expository preaching does not involve dwelling on a single passage for more than a week. In fact, I've only ever seen that happen in topical preaching, which frees the preacher to bring up the same text--as one supposedly relevant to the topic--week after week after week...
Thursday at 8:27pm

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Terry H
I am no Bible college or seminary-trained Christian; however, I have learned more scriptural relevance over the past five years under Zach's expository style than I did for approximately twenty-three years under the topical style of a former preacher. I speak as a layman who has seen the misuse of scripture presented via the topical approach of this former pastor who warped scripture to support or perpetuate racial prejudice (to name one misuse).
Saturday at 10:41am

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Message from Adam to Zach
January 22 at 12:55pm

Zach,
Read a few of your blog posts recently. The one about priorities was exceptionally written and illustrated. Nice Job. I've been lazily reading internet stuff recently as I scan and digitize more than 1000 slides...

Anyway, after reading that blog post coupled with a recent fb post you made about topical preaching (and seeming disdain for it), I would think that a message around the issue of priorities, as you wrote about it, would make an absolutely fantastic message using those illustrations around the issue of "no time" for prayer, "no money" for giving, etc. There is scripture galore about prioritizing things in your life towards greater kingdom impact/involvement. Would you ever consider doing something like this? I think topical messages have their place, don't you?

Anyway, just a thought.

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Message from Zach to Adam
January 22 at 1:21pm

Hey, man
Thanks for joining the DOZENS (heh) of people who read my blog... As to your question, "I think topical messages have their place, don't you?" I answer, nope.

Case in point, that stuff about time management is Law (law-lite, but law all the same), not Gospel. It falls under the heading of self-help. Now, only a real smarmy chore of a preacher sends people links to his own blog, but since the subject of your message was "blog," check out this post... I'd be interested to hear your response in the comments section.

Anyway, that do-it-yourself, good-attitude, debt-free, time-management, have-a-great-sex-life, self-improvement stuff has a place as a newsletter article, maybe a Sunday school class, a blog post, or a "thought-for-the-day" at a retreat, but I'd rather be shot in the chest by a high-powered diahrrea cannon than proclaim that as if it were Gospel preaching from the pulpit with my Bible open. That's just me. But it's also the Reformers. (And St. Paul who "determined to know nothing among you but Christ and him crucified.")

I mean, sure, a preacher can open his Bible and try to show me what good time management looks like, and I will see how I continually fall short. He can present poor stewardship of time as sin, which it is, and give me hints and tips like the jar of sand thing (from a Mormon's book about priorities and productivity) which are very good and useful tips indeed, but at the end of it all, my question is: WHAT HAVE YOU GOT FOR A SINNER LIKE ME, who wastes time, often spends it in sinful thoughts and endeavors, and continually falls short? In other words, why is he preaching stuff I could hear on Oprah, Dr. Phil, or read on zenhabits.com, instead of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sin in Jesus name and showing me Christ in all of Scripture? (BTW, please don't mis-read my passion about this as judgmentalism directed at guys who preach topical sermons.)

I've been planning to post the entire exchange from facebook as a blog post to stir up some more discussion. With your permission, I could add your follow-up message above as well...



10 reader comments:

David Marvin said...

Wow, how did I miss this on Facebook? Maybe I am looking at this whole thing wrong, but I do not think you need to qualify your statements as not being judgmental. I think that contemporary U.S. Christian culture has goaded us into believing that questioning anything of another's faith is judgmental and should not be done. I find this broad painting with the "judge not lest ye be judged" brush a bit disturbing. I echo Terry's comments from further up the page - your preaching has taught me much in the past few years that I never knew and has helped me develop a more intentional study of the Bible from a Christ-centered point-of-view. Topical preaching would not have done that. But topical preaching fills the pews in so many churches, so it is popular. However, if it is not proclaiming the Gospel, then what good is it? Furthermore, why not cast judgment on it? I am not saying that the Gospel cannot be preached through a topical sermon, nor the Holy Spirit work through the preaching of feel good theology, but without the delving deep into God's word, the hearers are left with nothing but morsels of moralistic fluff that they can get from popular culture.

Scott Eiler said...

Jesus himself had topical sermons, like that time a tower fell. Still, you give good reasons to stick to exposition.

ZSB said...

Scott, I'd call the fallen tower exchange a topic of conversation, not a topical sermon. However, even if I were to grant that, Jesus taught as one with authority, not as the teachers of the Law. We are to teach what Scripture says by its authority, not teach by our own authority. Therefore, we can't look to Jesus' teaching as a model for our own any more than we can look at the apostolic preaching as a model for our own.

Adam Metzger said...

"Jesus himself had topical sermons, like that time a tower fell..."

Then you said:
"Scott, I'd call the fallen tower exchange a topic of convers...ation, not a topical sermon."

This is actually one of the best reasons FOR topical preaching-- tackling and going straight to issues that happen in real time-- ie, 9-11. people FLOCKED to churches the 5 days after 9-11-- perhaps looking for answers? comfort? hope? peace? Why not dive in head first to the "reality of evil" or appropriate topic based on what just happened in our culture? I'm not saying we should chase every cultural happening, but certainly there are situations even in our local churches (church discipline, anger, dis-unity, etc) that have to be dealt with NOW vs. eventually coming to it in the text...sometime.

AND, what about the beatitudes/sermon on the mount? Murder... Divorce...Oaths... a whole slew of topics Jesus tackled.

I also think that expositional preaching often turns itself to topical preaching at times. ie, in preaching through the beatitudes, when you come to "blessed are the peacemakers," you could spend an entire message talking about the topic of peacemaking, with talking points such as "what is a peacemaker? Why did Jesus call them blessed? how might we go about peacemaking? How is peacemaking a kingdom issue?" you could do this with all the beatitudes... poor in spirit...mourners... etc.

I would say much of my expositional preaching makes it's way through very little text at a time because I have to pause at words so crucial to the text--and a "topic" unfolds naturally in a sense.

*forgive all spelling.

Pete Scribner said...

Zach,

I'm probably in the anti-topical camp with you. But what would your thoughts be on expository preaching that is not necessarily sequential? For instance, preaching an expository message from Matthew 18 at a time when your church is dealing with issues of discipline, preaching an expository sermon on a text such as 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 when a prominent and beloved member of your congregation has suddenly and tragically died, or perhaps even preaching an expository sermon on something like (I don't know) Luke 2 at Christmas time?

ZSB said...

I have preached through the Sermon on the Mount. And, in doing so, I obviously dealt with all the topics Our Lord Jesus dealth with. However, to mine the headlines for current events and concerns with which to make my own beatitudes would be overstepping my bounds as a preacher. We're never called to emulate Jesus' STYLE by preaching as one with our own authority. Rather, we're called to "make disciples of all nations...teaching them to obey all that [JESUS] has commanded."

Of couse, good expository preaching will deal with some current events and concerns of the congregation—as sermon illustrations when the text calls for them to bridge the context. But the difference between good expository preaching and most topical preaching is: what is the purpose of these elements? Are they the subject of the message or do they simply serve to help explain and apply God's inspired Word, as God presented it? (Or, perhaps, as the heavy bass thud and obscure movie quote loop under the techno remix of portions of the Bible?)

Brad "The E List "YRR" Superstar" said...

Z-Bar,

Two questions that are related, one that's only semi-related. First, can there be such a thing as a topical sermon that is exegetical (i.e. Lloyd-Jones Series on Spiritual Depression)? If so, what are we to think of them?

Second, what are we to think about the sermon I am doing this weekend? Though it is based of a segment of scripture, would it still be topical (presuming your answer the first part of my first answer is yes)?

Finally, and not as related, is there anything that we can glean from the apostles and Christ about preaching?

Your Bro-tacular Bro,
B-Atch

ZSB said...

1. Yeah, me and Cory talked about that. I have no beef with sermons that are "topical" in that they do exposition of a biblical passage that deals with a particular topic.

2. Your sermon for this weekend is thorougly expository. Again, pretty much any expository sermon is also "topical" in that it deals with the topic treated by the passage at hand.

3. Yeah. We should preach boldly and in keeping with the mandates of Scripture upon preachers. Why try to improve on repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus' name?

At the end of the day, my only real hard-core beef is with crossless preaching. One of my mentors in seminary told us: when you're done with your sermon manuscript, read it over and ask yourself, "Could this sermon be preached and make sense of Christ had not died on a cross and risen again?" If the answer to that question is "yes," then rip it up and throw it away! It's not a Christian sermon. Leave that stuff to the business gurus, life coaches, and self-help experts. We've been commissioned to preach the Gospel.

Αναστασία said...

I don't disagree with topical preaching per se, as long as the Scripture text is treated with the reverence and authority it deserves. Sadly, this has rarely been the case in topical sermons I've heard.

Many topical sermons, if the speaker is not careful, amount to little more than glorified behavior modification, e.g.
I wanted to preach on lust, so I'm gonna read the story of the rape of Tamar, then give three suggestions for How to Control Your Lust.

Having experienced exegetical preaching for several years now, I absolutely love it.
I feel as though I have been both taught and challenged to engage with the text on a personal level.

Michael said...

Zach,

This is an interesting discussion. I'm guessing you would agree that the entire Bible is profitable for doctrine and that any topic addressed in scripture is preachable and teachable. From my perspective, there are four primary goals for studying the Bible (listed in order of importance).

1. To know how to be saved.

2. To learn about who God is and to learn how to develop an intimate relationship with Him through His Son.

3. To learn how to live a Godly life characterized by wisdom and holiness (teachings, principles, wisdom, etc.).

4. To learn the nuts and bolts (ie. details) of what you believe.

At the end of the day, I think if your sermons are moving towards these goals and the right priorities are in place then you're on the right track. When I think of topical sermons, I think of sermons that have a "thesis statement" and a purpose other than "we're just reading this book of the Bible". Each sermon should have a central point--something it's trying to convey (ie. a topic). Without that, then you do get into "scattershot" mode. I think the listener should walk away with something to apply. Otherwise, there's no point to the listening of it.

Based on what you said, it sounds like this is not what you're speaking out against when you say you don't like "topical sermons". I just wanted to clarify, because from my perspective having a specific principle to convey is important. It's about how people learn. When a person receives information, it takes time for the listener to figure out how to apply it to their lives. The more topics you cover in one sitting, the less good is done in my opinion. It all becomes a blur.

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