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...



Monday, January 10, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

Mission Creep, 2010

Are you familiar with the term “mission creep?” A mission creep is not a jerk who works in a humanitarian field; rather, it refers to the phenomenon in which an organization expands its goals far beyond its original purpose. The term was first used to describe military strategies. For example, the Korean War began as an attempt to save South Korea from a Northern invasion. After some initial success, however, it became an attempt to reunite the peninsula, which proved ultimately unattainable. I haven’t studied the Korean War enough to know weather this was a foolish expansion of the mission, but many have pointed to that conflict and others like it as an example of the dangers of Mission Creep.

The same thing can happen in the business world. A restaurant starts with the mission of making the world’s best tacos, and it seems like they are succeeding. Soon they add hamburgers to the menu. Then hot dogs. Then they start a dog-walking service. Before long, a fast-growing business can become so broad that they seem to be about everything. Which means they’re about nothing. This often results in losing sight of the original mission. GM seemed to acknowledge this when they hit hard times and unloaded Hummer. Suburban tanks were not their main mission. Cars and trucks were.

A related term, “feature creep,” describes the common practice of adding more and more features to a product or software package until it becomes ridiculously complex, bloated, and difficult to use. At the end of the day, the basic function of the program or product is obscured by all the bells and whistles. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this.

Recently, many of the ministers and church leaders in my circles have been writing about Mission Creep in the church. Mega-churches add programs, ministries, groups, and classes simply because they can. Smaller churches get caught up in the “felt needs” trap and start trying to tickle ears and entertain wolves as a matter of first importance, rather than feeding the sheep. When the church coffee shop, after-school program, or film festival is on par with the preaching of the Word, we’ve got a problem.

Mission Creep is a real danger for churches, since we were left with a very specific job: teach what Jesus and the apostles taught (repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name), baptize, break bread together, pray, and worship. Of course, we see the church doing some other things in the book of Acts (most notably taking up offerings for the poor, providing food for widows, etc.), but these things were always secondary; they were done in a way that served the actual mission—the basic function of the Church. As with any organization, churches must constantly and intentionally major on the majors and minor on the minors.

In 2010, I believe our church has been almost completely immune to the epidemic of Church Mission Creep. We’ve met together for worship services that have been utterly centered on receiving Christ and his Gospel. The educational ministries at Judson, the outreach projects, the mercy ministries, the music—all of these have, as I perceive them, fit the mission of the Church, which was handed down once for all to the saints from Our Lord and his apostles. I am not saying we’ve been perfect this year, and I will resist the urge to catalogue every little item that you can read about in the annual reports of our boards and ministries, but I do believe that 2010 has been a faithful year of worship and service, furthering the mission of Christ’s holy Church. I am prouder than ever to be Judson’s pastor.

That said, despite having written and taught much on and around this very topic, in reflecting on this past year of ministry (my fifth at Judson), I realized that I have, to some extent, fallen into the trap of pastoral Mission Creep. You see, for all of our faithful service and worship, there have been two areas of concern for me this year. First, while we did add some wonderful new members to our number in 2010, that number is smaller than it has been since my arrival in 2005. In addition, the loss of members though death and relocation has led to a rather significant shortcoming in pledges as compared to our proposed budget for 2011.

Partially motivated by those two areas of concern, I expanded my goals as pastor and allowed Mission Creep to creep into the way I have led Judson Baptist. I have spent a much larger portion of time attempting to attract new members, solve financial problems, motivate giving, re-vamp the website, and other goals which, while laudable, are not the first concern of a pastor. A pastor (literally, “shepherd” in the New Testament Greek) is to be about feeding, guiding, and protecting his or her flock.

In hindsight, I can see that my visitation of home-bound and grieving members has been weaker this year than it was in years past. My follow-up with members who have begun to drift away from the church has been lacking. Even my routine of praying for each of you by name has often been squeezed out by less important pursuits. I’ve been busier than ever before, but perhaps with the wrong things.

Of course, my job description does include a wide and diverse collection of tasks and responsibilities, but, as a minister ordained to Gospel ministry, I need to continually remind myself that some of those tasks are majors and some are minors—and I need to dole out my time, energy, and creativity accordingly.

Mission Creep is never intentional. Whether it affects a restaurant chain, military operation, or pastor, the people in question always tell themselves that they can add more and more to the plate without harming their ability to remain faithful to that original mission. In 2010, I’ve learned anew that this is impossible. Remaining faithful means knowing what is central to the mission, what is of secondary importance, and what is inconsequential.

As we move into a new year of life and ministry together, I will be re-centering myself on a calling to spiritually care for my flock—to preach, teach, pray, serve, and love. And I will continue to lead our church further and further into the center of God’s revealed mission for his People on earth. If we’re all faithful in the task we’re given—if we seek first the Kingdom of Heaven—we can trust our God to provide all the rest of the things we need.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach