I have been giving thought to the cultural increase in topical preaching. I have in mind the popular themed topical sermon series and the practice of preaching from a different place every Sunday.
This post has been a long time coming because I had to be sure there was a need to be concerned and that I wasn’t simply becoming a contrarian, which is a real possibility. It must also be noted that my concern is not for topical preaching itself, but the effects of a steady diet.
Reason to be Concerned?
The reasons to choose topical preaching are apparent. The benefits may be justified by its widespread use alone. And it seems obvious it works for much of what we desire to accomplish. It’s also an easy answer for the constant question of relevance. Any preacher with his ear to the ground can hear the rumblings of a approaching topic.
The pitfalls, however, are not so apparent. Though less obvious, these pitfalls are just as real and must be given due consideration.
I have taught adults in a bible college and bible academy and I find this disturbing reality; many committed church attenders have no notion of the cohesive nature of biblical passages. They are unaware of the existence of a unified flow of thought that produces the author’s intended meaning. And if they are aware of it, they are unaccustomed to working the ground out of which this unity of thought grows. In short, they often unable to arrive at the author’s intended meaning.
Many find it difficult to make the switch from reading the Bible in pieces to reading the whole. They are constantly distracted from the author’s flow of thought by situational similarities in their personal lives, that they honestly believe is the rabbit the Spirit is leading them to chase. And if the author says something in verse 12 that does not fit their situation, they simply stop at verse 11. They are unwittingly led to believe that the situational relevance is the Lord’s voice.
We have come to believe the scripture is to be mined for its treasure. So we move much dirt in search of a gem; a situational diamond in the rough. And the value of the whole is exchanged for the versatility and usefulness of the parts.
Live Better or Be Better?
Not only are we unaware of the author’s intended meaning, but more importantly, we don’t get to hear his intended meaning. While we may gain insight and life skills from topical preaching, the transforming power of God, which resides in the author’s intended meaning, is missed. In order to hear the intended meaning, we must follow the author’s flow of thought. The picture he is painting over the breadth of his writing must come into focus. We must doggedly pursue his subject and what he is saying about his subject, lest we abort the work of the Word in our hearts.
A Deeper Faith
Lastly, topical preaching slows the development of an understanding of the historical faith. The picking of passages from the author’s flow of thought, without continuing that flow the following Sunday, robs the listener of the picture being developed. It is the continuity of thought coming into focus that deepens our faith. In fact, topical preaching has helped redefined faith to mean trusting God for what we desire from Him. But faith is more than that. There is a common faith that we must all share. It’s the faith Jude felt compelled to write about.
…the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
This faith is the root of our trust in God , without which, our faith is simply wishful thinking.
I do not intend to suggest that topical preaching be discarded all together. I believe it is a valuable and necessary approach, particularly in our culture. But I am suggesting we limit its use in favor of more systematic expositional preaching through biblical books. This I believe will help us see the rabbits, live better and be better, and deepen our faith.
I agree. The Bible is a record of God’s revelation, and it is best understood in its entirety not in bits and pieces.