Preaching topical sermons

Peter Adam

What are topical sermons?

A topical sermon begins, and is shaped by an issue, questions, or subject, rather than by the exegesis and application of a verse or passage of the Bible. An exegetical sermon may in its presentation begin with a topical issue, but the whole sermon is shaped or formed by the exegesis of the passage or verses, including the application and illustrations and conclusion of the sermon. A topical sermon should and must allow the Bible to direct its thinking, but its overall content is shaped by its particular topic.

Bad topical sermons do not interact with the Bible in any significant way, [even if they make use of Bible words, phrases, stories, or ideas]. The way they think about and describe the topic is not significantly Biblical, and their advice on what to think or do about the topic is not significantly Biblical either.

Good topical sermons begin with a topic, either a topic from within Christian tradition or practice, or else a topic of everyday life. However the way the topic is approached and defined and understood is significantly Biblical, the Bible shapes how the topic is treated and developed, and the Bible shapes how we should think about and respond to the topic.

It is better to plan to preach a topical sermon than to use a Bible text as a pretext. For if we do misuse a Bible text as a pretext for our topic, we will not make use of the Bible verse, explain its meaning, or let it shape the whole sermon. Doing this is a bad habit for the preacher, and it either frustrates a congregation who are used to expositional preaching, or else it teaches them bad habits: sometimes it does both!

As a matter of interest, many of the 17th Century Puritans in practice preached topical sermons, even though they would begin with a Bible verse. They used the following outline and method:

Exegesis: They would expound, dissect and explain one verse.

Doctrine: Then they would preach the doctrine taught by the verse, the doctrine assumed by the verse, and the doctrinal implications of the verse, often making use of the rest of the Bible. These would be explained in a numbered series of named ‘Doctrines’. This covered all the topics related to the verse.

Use: Then they would tease out the multiple applications [‘Uses’] of the Doctrines they had described in the Doctrine section: that is, they would apply not just the exegesis of the verse, but also all the Doctrines they had described. These would be explained in a numbered series of named ‘Uses’. So they applied the topics, not just the verse.

This sometimes meant that the original verse or text was lost in the multiplicity and complexity of ‘Doctrines’ and ‘Uses’. [This also led to the idea that a ‘text’ for a sermon is one verse, rather than the book from which that one verse is taken. Christians must be the only people in the world who think that a ‘text’ is one verse of a book! This also led sometimes to glacially slow exegesis, in which doctrine and application was taught by means of the exposition of each word of each verse of a book of the Bible.]

It is often good to preach a topical sermon by stating the topic, and then moving to the most significant Bible passage on that topic and expounding that passage, and then also referring briefly to other Bible passages in order to fill out the bigger picture of what the Bible as a whole teaches. Then the application will include a strong focus on the exposition of the most significant Bible passage, but also include other Bible passages. So a sermon on ‘What should Christians think about marriage?’ could be based on Genesis 2 or Ephesians 5, but could also include a brief reference to some of Jesus’ teaching on marriage, 1 Peter 3, Malachi 2, and Revelation 21. I think that this style is the easiest from of topical preaching, and I advise young preachers to use this method. [It is good to explain what you are doing: ‘Our main passage today is Genesis 2, but we are also going to look more briefly at a few other Bible passages…’].

Why should we preach topical sermons?

This is how people live their lives.

No one lives their days following the shape or content of a book of the Bible. The agenda or syllabus for most people’s lives is a series of topics, the issues they meet each day in their own lives. These may be their own personal daily issues, or they may be the issues of those whom they live with or meet each day. The topics may be recognised and articulated, or they may be implied by what we do or say, or don’t do or say. These topics in any one day might include the following: ‘How much time and energy is it worth putting into intercessory prayer?’ ‘Is this idea a sin?’ ‘How patient should I be with this behaviour in myself or someone else?’ ‘What does it mean to love your neighbour in this situation?’ ‘What does the Bible teach about anger management?’ ‘What is a good day’s work?’ ‘What should be the Christian’s attitude to divorce?’ ‘Do animals have any existence after they die?’ ‘Should be Christians be green [that is, care for the environment], and if so, how green should they be?’ ‘What is a Christian view about war?’ ‘What should Christians believe about the role of the state?’ ‘Why is this person suffering so much, and what does this suffering mean?’

This how people teach and encourage one another.

Similarly, our conversations with other Christians may occasionally be exegetical: ‘Who are the spirits in prison in 1 Peter 3?’ However mostly they are topical, and include all the questions listed above, and many more.

This is how people do preliminary evangelism.

Sometimes people who are not Christians may have read a Bible and ask us a question about how a particular passage should be understood. But mostly they ask the questions listed above, and, in addition, questions like these: ‘How can a modern person believe in a god?’ ‘If God exists, why does he allow suffering?’ ‘If there is only one God, why are there so many different religions in the world?’ ‘If we don’t play God, who will?’ ‘How can you assert that God speaks through that ancient and obsolete Bible?’ ‘Isn’t it demeaning to hold that we should do something, or not do something, because of God’s opinion?’ ‘Isn’t it unhealthy to deny our basic instincts and needs?’ ‘Hasn’t science disproved God, or at least made him redundant?’ Apologetics is the explanation and defence of the Christian faith to people who do not have a Christian worldview or life. And lots of discussion about Christianity begins with these kinds of topics, rather than with the explanation of the Bible itself.

Actually one of my aims with unbelievers is to get them begin to read the Bible themselves, either on their own, or preferably with me or in a study group with other enquirers. However we may need to begin with their questions, and we will have to deal with those questions anyway, because they will rightly come up in a study of the Bible.

We should preach topical sermons to teach and train people to deal with topics in their own lives, and in their ministry to others. This is true of topics of Christian thought, as well as topics of daily life. If we do not teach and train people to do this well, they will do it badly. And our teaching and training should be in our sermons, as well as in specific interactive training sessions. We should model good exegesis in our sermons, for the benefit of the daily Bible reading and group Bible studies of our people, and we should model good Biblical treatment of topics as well.

How should we prepare to preach topical sermons?

There are two kinds of topical sermons, as we have seen. There are topics that are raised by the Bible itself, by Christian thinking, by the internal structure and content of the Christian worldview. We can all these ‘theological topical sermons’. The other kind of topical sermons arise from our daily lives as believers, and also from the non-Christian world, from those who are ignorant of Christianity, those who are suspicious of it, and those who are opposed to it.

The main substance of our preaching over a year should be exegetical, perhaps including one Old Testament book, one gospel, and one book from the rest of the New Testament, [and it is good to include one difficult book a year: if we don’t preach difficult books, they won’t read them!]. However we should do at least one topical series a year.

You should begin by making your own list of the topics you want them to be thinking about. For Biblical and theological topics, ask these questions: ‘What topics are basic to Christianity?’ ‘On what topics do they need to have great clarity and conviction?’ ‘On what topics do they show some need to learn with greater understanding?’ For topics of daily life, ask these questions: ‘What are the issues of daily life that Christians most often ask me about?’ ‘What issues of daily should they be asking me about?’ ‘What are the questions of topics that come up when I am talking with non-Christians?’ ‘What are the topics featured in the media?’ ‘What issues of daily life will be increasingly important over the next ten years in contemporary society and so for our church?’

And why not ask the congregation to give you a list of the topics they would like you to preach on? Ask your people, ‘What are the key theological topics/ideas about Christianity/ big Bible ideas that you find hard to understand?’ ‘What are the big objections to Christianity which you think about or people ask you questions about?’ ‘What are the issues of the Christian faith and life on which you would like some teaching?’ ‘What are the big issues of contemporary society on which you need to know what to believe, how to live, and what to say?’ [It might be good to do this process anonymously: this might help you to get more honest questions!]

For we are foolish not to know the questions they are dealing with, in their own lives, and in their conversations with others, both Christians and non-Christians. If we ignore their questions, we will reduce the quality of their own Christian lives, and also their usefulness in ministry to others. A friend of mine did this recently in his congregation, and one popular question was this: ‘Are human beings tri-partite [body, soul and spirit], or bi-partite [body and soul]?’ This is not a question he expected! But if it was a current issue among the congregation, how sensible to preach on it!

It is worth pointing out that topical preaching must be Biblical. A topical sermon begins with a topic of current relevance, goes to the Bible to find out a godly way of responding, and then encourages that practical response.

But of course, behind the scenes, the way in which the preacher thinks about a topic, and raises it in the sermon, will also be informed by the Bible. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of a topic you think is important, have the Bible passage read, and then ignore its deep teaching while you say what you want to say on the topic in your sermon!

So if the preacher is thinking biblically, the sermon will be exegetical, both because his statement for the topic is from a biblical perspective, and because having raised the topic in the sermon, he then goes to the Bible to find out how we should respond. This kind of preaching requires a very good understanding of the Bible, careful choice of key passages, a clear understanding of how the Bible interacts with the topic in question, and great skill in choosing and applying the appropriate texts in context. So topical or issue preaching should also be exegetical. The advantage of moving from current issue to Scripture is that it encourages our people to think Christianly and biblically about their lives and issues that they meet each day. For lay people and indeed for most Christian workers we do not walk around living through an exegesis of Ephesians; rather we meet issues in daily life and wonder what the Bible says about them. So if for no other reason topical or issue preaching provides a helpful model for Christian living. Yet it must be said that this is very difficult for the preacher. It is difficult to avoid being superficial about both the topic and the Bible and in my experience it takes twice as much work in preparation as an expository sermon.

The danger of exegetical sermons is that they fly well in exegeting the text but then fail to land in the daily lives of the hearers: the danger of topical sermons is they are well grounded in daily life, but fail to get off the ground and tackle what the Bible teaches.

One of the strengths of ‘Liberal theology’ is that it often expresses the questions and ideas of the current world of today outside the church. Its weakness is that it fails to evaluate those questions or ideas by a significant use of the Bible, and fails to take seriously and definitively what the Bible teaches on the topic. Its strength is contemporary relevance: its weakness is that it fails the test of Biblical content. So it follows the Liberal agenda by answering the questions and issues of everyday life without using the Bible. It can also use various methods to give the false impression of Biblical content. These include the use of key Bible words but with un-Biblical meanings; retelling Bible stories and then preaching from the material made up by the preacher; or assuming a common understanding of the Christian life untested by the Bible. It may even include beginning with a Biblical ‘text’, and then moving swiftly to a non-Biblical ‘text’ or idea that then dominates and shapes the rest of the sermon.

Exegetical or expository sermons should work hard to get people to learn what the Bible text says, and then work hard to bring that message home to their daily lives. Topical sermons focus on an issue of daily life, journey to the text of the Bible to find out what it says, and then brings that message home and applies it to that issue or topic in our daily lives.