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Topical or Expositional?

In some circles, there are two types of sermons or messages – topical or expositional – and only one of them is acceptable.

Let me explain.

Topical messages deal with, well, topics. Think marriage, family, parenting, finances, the End Times, racism… the list is endless. Expositional messages take passages of Scripture and “exposit” them. The word itself means to set forward the facts, the ideas. It puts forward a detailed explanation. So how should you “preach” if you want to be an expository preacher? Take a book like Ephesians and teach it, verse by verse, and exposit it.

There is a school of thought that only expositional messages are weighty, meaty, faithful and true, whereas topical messages are superficial, frothy, “lite” and trendy… almost heretical. There are some who gauge orthodoxy by whether the preaching is topical or expositional. Specifically, expositional preaching is the only “true” preaching, or “best” preaching, or truly “biblical” preaching.

I love expositional preaching. And I do my fair share of it, having taken books like James, Philippians, Romans, Jonah and, yes, Ephesians, to do just that. Over nearly 40 years of giving messages, I’ve walked through – expositionally, verse-by-verse – almost every book of the Bible.

But I also do topical preaching. A lot. But let’s be clear what that means: you take a topic, explore everything the Bible has to say about it, and proclaim it. In other words, you present a biblical theology. The best topical preaching is nothing more than expositional preaching focused on a topic. You bring everything the Bible has to offer to bear on a singular need, question or concern.

This is why I studied systematic theology throughout my graduate school years. The discipline of systematic theology requires looking at everything there is to look at – Scripture, history, philosophy – and bringing it all together in a singular way to speak coherently and exhaustively about matters of doctrine. That is what I love about topical preaching through the lens of expositional study; you let Scripture interpret Scripture, giving the whole counsel of God on any given matter.

So should you preach topically or expositionally? The answer, of course, is “yes.” And as mentioned, the best topical preaching is expositional in nature and, I might add, the best expositional preaching is packaged topically. But in saying that, let’s also clear away the arrogance about one approach over another. For example, here are a few names who, to my knowledge, never preached an expositional message in their entire ministry: C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham and… yes, Jesus.

So let’s get off our spiritual high horse about what “type” of proclamation is the most spiritual. If you proclaim the Bible, if you make clear the gospel, if you hold fast to orthodoxy,

… it’s a good, solid message.

With that in mind, here are four concluding thoughts about biblical preaching, particularly in light of the current pressure to make all things expositional:

1. As mentioned, Jesus never preached expositionally. Not the way it is suggested to be done today (I’m not sure there are many examples of anyone doing it in the Bible.). If I had to categorize His style, I would call it topical preaching – proof-texting various passages, sometimes offering careful exegesis of a single verb – but more often laced with story after story, illustration after illustration.  

The irony is that if I used that description of a contemporary individual, there would be howls of protest of compromise and biblical shallowness. Oh wait… Jesus was criticized that way, too, in His own day.

Some might counter: “We can’t make Jesus’ style uniform. He was unique and could teach that way with authority, independent of much Scripture.” I would agree that He was unique in every way, not the least of which in regard to His authority, but I would disagree that we can’t emulate His style in terms of use of story. He came to model both life and ministry.  

2. Topical preaching is often criticized as if it is not biblically based. For example, topical preaching might involve a series on parenting, or a series on marriage, or a series on finances. But why isn’t this considered biblical? Again, as mentioned, topical preaching at its best is the best of biblical theology. And isn’t that what we’re after?

Biblical theology is looking at the Bible in its entirety for its comprehensive teaching on any given subject. This is the goal of all preaching, even expositional preaching. If I am teaching through Philippians, I will need to teach it with an eye toward all of Paul’s writings—not to mention the canon itself. Again, the best model of interpretation is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. So the best expositional teaching is going to be based on a wider biblical theology. And that is all topical preaching is: biblical theology, based on solid exegesis. So let’s quit making it a derogatory classification. It’s one of the most important tools in our belt.

3. There can be a menu of styles and approaches, allowing a wide range of topics to be addressed optimally. In fact, if you want to be an effective communicator of Scripture, this is what should be pursued. 

When I prepare a teaching schedule, I consider several dynamics: 

  • the life of the church I lead and its unique needs; 
  • the questions and concerns being posed by the wider culture and, specifically, the unchurched community; 
  • areas of leadership that need to be addressed through the language of leadership; 
  • “hot” topics of interest that present spiritual questions being met by spiritual confusion; 
  • areas of discipleship that have been exposed as collectively weak;
  • and so much more.

Each series tends to lend itself to a particular biblical source material. Perhaps a book of the Bible speaks uniquely to the need, and thus an expository series is at hand. Other times holistic biblical theology needs to be pursued through a topical series that draws together the relevant biblical teaching on a particular subject. Other times a specific sub-section of a book of the Bible is called for, such as the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.

Each topic can also lend itself to a particular style. Some are more narrative in nature, others more didactic. Some are laced with stories, others are much more bullet point by design. The bottom line is that there should be – even must be – variety in teaching and presentation in light of the subject at hand.

But all with one foundation (my fourth point):

4. All sermons should be biblically based (specific Scriptures) and biblically informed (in light of the full canon of Scripture), with the aim of applying biblical truth (the pointed use of Scripture).

And this is the real point that all should drive home. Not whether one style is better than another, but the importance of every style being biblical. When you examine messages contained in the New Testament, you do not find any uniformity in terms of style or approach, personality or structure. Whether Jesus or Stephen, Peter or Paul, there was extraordinary variety. Even within the teaching of one individual, such as Paul, there was variety. The one commonality was that they were biblically based, biblically informed, and biblically applied.

And that’s what true biblical preaching is all about.

James Emery White

 

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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