Should you preach topical sermons?
Ultimatums usually aren’t helpful. Especially if you’re engaged in work that draws heavily on one’s personality. When you attempt to take up a mantra or a method which doesn’t fit you, you should follow David’s example, and give Saul his armor back. Better to fight with what you know, than to die while looking like a pro. We need this reminder to resist rigidity of method every time the subject comes up, because whether we believe or not, we tend to prefer the rigidity.
We want a rubric form, because it’s a lot easier to tweak, revise, and adopt a form than it is to go to the drawing board, and to mine the substance. For a preacher, the substance comes from feeding on God’s Word, and walking with Jesus. But that “method” doesn’t sell well. Finding that sort of substance comes from time communing with God, not reading blogs and listening to lectures.
Granting those caveats, that we should never insist on a form to straitjacket a person, we can think about the general principles and results which accompany topical preaching. This style has become the norm in mainstream American evangelicalism. The chief alternative is what historically has been known as “lectio continua,” or going through full books or large portions of the Bible consecutively, week by week.
Arguments for topical sermons
Our country has never been more ignorant of the Bible than we are now. People are better versed in quotes from the Office than the words of Jesus. So let’s start with quotes from the Office, and move from there to Jesus. Maybe not literally. But the point is, let’s meet people where they are, and not lose them by drilling into the grammar of a book most people have never picked up.
People used to be born, get married, and die within the same twelve mile radius. Even sixty to seventy years ago, the distance and pace at which people moved was nothing like today. If many people will only be in your congregation for eighteen months, do you want them to spend that whole time in the book of Ezekiel? Preachers are charged to proclaim the whole counsel of God, so sermon series should be brief and strategically directed, to handle the big questions of the day.
Irrelevance is what underlies Biblical illiteracy. People do not believe the Bible has much of anything to say today. They think it’s an old book, with outdated ideas of gender and sexuality, and an angry God. When we begin with a topic, however, we grab attention and bypass some skepticism at the outset. We show that the Bible does care about justice, mercy, forgiveness, restoration, sexual and relational healing, things that press on us every day. Topical preaching can quickly persuade people to see the practical value of founding their whole lives on Jesus.
Arguments against topical sermons
One of the biggest drawbacks of topical preaching is that is exacerbates rather than addresses the issue of Biblical illiteracy. If our sermons are cherry-picked gems that we’ve strung and glued together to address a pertinent issue, isn’t that how congregations will view the Bible? That it has a few good gems of truth and personal consolation, but I need an educated, trained preacher to pluck these out and combine them for me in such a way that I can reach those “a-ha” moments.
Steady, text-derived, expository preaching actually teaches by example the lost skill of how to read and understand the Bibles, or any text for that matter, longer than a tweet or an article skimmed on your phone. Furthermore, within topical preaching, it’s exceedingly difficult for a preacher to truly preach his text, instead of squeezing the text to fit the mold of the subject he’s chosen. This contributes to Biblical illiteracy by confining a congregation’s grasp of the Bible to the preacher’s favorite topics.
I don’t find the argument of transience a persuasive one to favor topical preaching. If every church adopted that philosophy, then the same family moving around the country would find the same repertoire of sermon series staples, on relationships, marriage and family, anxiety and fear, finances, work, and evangelism. Those topics would circulate around the same texts, with the same predictable pragmatic takeaways.
The internet age has rendered the issue of transience much less weighty as an argument for topical preaching. I know plenty of Christians, eager to grow in faith, who have listened to sermon series which span multiple years on the books of Romans, Genesis, Exodus, and John delivered at churches they’ve never once visited.
What does it mean to be relevant? Does it mean we give our hot takes the latest news cycle with Bible verses peppered in? Does it mean the church serves as a base camp to mobilize people for politics? Does it mean lots of people are attending? If relevant means relevant to what God has to say to us, then committed preaching through long chunks of Scripture will have a higher probability of revealing the fullness of what He has to say.
There’s a reason why the Bible is more than the gospels, or that it covers more topics than justice, sex, politics, and racial harmony. These things have their place, but God gave us the whole Bible, and when we lean into the hard work of trekking through whole books, we’re more likely to exude the relevance God wants to bring, which is more than a reaction to the hot button issues of the day. God likes to solve human problems by drawing human beings upward, closer to Him, to experience the grace of the cross, not so much by offering action plans and policies.
In light of these factors, there are certainly times topical preaching can be useful, but preaching progressively through books offers a safer, more reliable way to accomplish the purpose of preaching. Preaching is proclaiming God’s Word to display the glory and grace of God in the lives of His people.
Justin Poythress (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of All Saints Church in, ID.