Preaching Models - Pros and Cons?

The subject of preaching is more vast than one might initially think.  You may not immediately think so, but just start thinking about how you would write an article on the topic of preaching, while also keeping it brief.  I even had a difficult time coming up with a title.  LOL!  So, in an effort to maintain brevity in this article, I’d like to hone in on a specific range of the discussion of preaching and try to address a particular aspect of it that comes up every now and then in conversation (whether that’s in casual mention of the differences in preaching styles, delivery, etc, or a more broad discussion of a church’s philosophy of the primary model/mode of preaching), and for good reason.  Not because preaching is merely one of the important pieces of the perpetual ministry of a church, but, as Dr. Steven Lawson put it, “Biblical preaching is the vibrant heartbeat that pumps spiritual life into the body of Christ.”  It’s vitally life-giving!

God uses all kinds of means of grace in the life of individual believers, but God has ordained specific means of grace for the collective body of believers that make up the local expression of the universal Church of Jesus Christ, and at the center of it is the preaching of God’s Word by an appointed, qualified pastor of that flock.  This is a gracious, merciful, loving gift of God when correctly and appropriately applied to the church because it is God’s primary, chosen means to get His revealed Word, in its truth and application, down to the minds and hearts of the believers present, to change and transform them on the inside, and as a result change the world around them.  That is in no way to disparage the importance of the individual Christian’s role and duty to study, ingest, and apply the Scriptures on their own as well, but the functional health of the whole church is maintained when the sanctification of the church is never seen as being solely privatized, but communal and covenantal.  Individual Christians can and should learn and grow on their own, but never by themselves.  Remember all the “one another” passages in the New Testament?  

Now, there are all kinds of ways in which what I just said can be done poorly, but that’s not the focus of this article.  This issue has just come up a few times recently and I just wanted to write something that would be beneficial for our church.  

What I’d like to specifically address is the idea of the model, or mode of preaching.  The concept of “preaching” can be difficult to define, as it is very similar to the idea of “teaching,” but when I say “mode,” I mean to address the two main subdivisions of preaching modes most commonly expressed:  expositional/expository and topical.  I’d like to address the uses of each, generally, and then I’d also like to express where (and why) we land on this subject as your pastors.

You can find yourself discussing all kinds of related issues about this topic, namely because I think most Christians would readily acknowledge (at least verbally) the importance of Biblical preaching, but more often than not, you may find yourself in conversations with people who want to talk about the pros and cons of these two modes of preaching, or who at least want to try to pit the two against each other, to the esteem or approval of one and to the dishonor or condemnation of the other.  I think that’s unfortunate and unhelpful, and does not get the conversation moving in the right direction.  It in the very least may expose misunderstandings people may have about what preaching is.

So, to pose the question rightly, I don’t think we start with questions like, “Which is best, expositional or topical preaching?”, or even “What are the pros and cons of the two preaching modes?".  I think we start with something way more fundamental than that.  I think we start with God Himself.  God and His nature and character are certainly presuppositions that can be unstated in a conversation with someone, but I think they can never be assumed, because as we know, our premises (propositions, starting-points) have bearing on our conclusions.  This section could be built out to unpack a lot, but I’d just like to remind us of the foundational premises for this conversation, which is that God is the sovereign Creator and Ruler of all things, that He has decided to communicate to us in His divine revelation we call the Bible, and that because He is God, He communicates clearly.  That doesn’t mean all He’s revealed in the Scriptures are easy to understand, but there is no doubt a tacit arrogance when we think that God has somehow been inarticulate.  We believe in the perspicuity of Scripture.  It is clear.  Jesus believed it, and so should we.

Now, with that said, what then is a better question to ask rather than one that pits these two preaching modes against one another?  I think the better question is one posed like this:  How can both expositional and topical preaching be done rightly?

In seeking to answer that question in this article, you very well may still have lingering thoughts or questions (that’s totally fine - we’re more than glad to discuss).  Again, this was meant to be brief, not exhaustive, and it also should go to show that this isn’t necessarily a simple conversation.  There are lots of things to consider.  My hope is just that this serves to be a helpful foundation for you, both in how you think about the subject, and in-turn how it would be an aid for you in conversations with others who may have different hurdles or sticking-points in understanding what preaching is and how preaching should be conducted.

Let’s start with definitions, since errors are made if we don’t have a mutual place to start, and this may reveal some definitional assumptions on both sides which will inherently lead to misunderstandings and misrepresentations in dialogue if devoid of care and caution.  

What is expositional/expository preaching?  Well, simply put, the word exposition means “expounding, setting forth, or explaining.”  So then, when we’re discussing the realm of biblical exposition, it would more accurately designate the expounding, setting forth, or explaining of the original, historical, grammatical meaning of whatever particular biblical text a pastor may happen to be preaching on in a given sermon.  It’s systematically working through an entire book or portion/discourse of the Bible.  For example, what Paul lays out in the epistle to the Galatians is best understood by understanding the whole epistle.  However, preaching expositionally doesn’t necessarily denote length of time spent in a book or portion of Scripture.  One preacher could do an expositional sermon on a singular book in one given sermon, yet another could do as Martyn Lloyd-Jones did, for example, who spent fourteen years preaching through Romans with his church.  LOL!  Love it…

What is topical preaching?  Simply put, it is preaching that is focused on selecting a particular theme or topic, and then exegeting pertinent texts to define and prove the thesis of the sermon.  This could be done because of what we usually refer to as a “felt-need” in the church, which could mean a number of things in peoples’ minds, but may normally mean things like perhaps a certain family in the church is going through a season of struggle, so the pastor decides to preach on suffering.  Or, a particular doctrinal issue keeps coming up in conversations with different people within the church, so the pastor addresses that doctrine sermonically.  It could be a series of sermons on the attributes of God (which we did a study on a few weeks ago on Wednesday nights).  But the decision to make a certain topic the focus of a sermon could also be because of various things that are happening in the culture at the time, and so a pastor may have some conviction to immediately address that thing in order to help his people think biblically about that issue, all the while hopefully still commending God to the people and making Christ, the Gospel, and the glory of God central.  And in all honesty, some pastors predominantly preach topically because they don’t know how to do exposition, which is a problem.

Now, here are some secondary questions we should have in our mind when thinking about how these things can be done well and faithfully (meaning, staying faithful to God’s Word as being our ultimate standard and infallible directive):

Does it mean that expositional preaching does’t touch on topics or felt needs?  No.  It certainly can, and does - and I’d argue if done well, it does every time.  And over time, I’d argue more topics are addressed than if we tried to choose the topics ourselves. 

Does it mean that a topical sermon can’t be done expositionally?  No, not at all - and I’d argue that a topical sermon done well will necessarily include exposition because the pastor should want to know (and demonstrate) that the verses he chooses that morning cohere with the point(s) he’s making, and that they mainly cohere with what God intended them to mean in their original context.

Does it mean that there is more or less study required on the part of the pastor in either mode?  No, not necessarily.  Any pastor seeking to rightly divide or handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15) will make sure his grammatical explanation of a particular verb tense in a primarily expositional sermon is done accurately, and his application of God’s truth to the cultural milieu in a primarily topical sermon is undergirded with the pillars of God’s unchanging character and the rebar of His transcendent Word.  And if done well, it takes an inordinate amount of time to do either.

So, then…….if the main question addresses how either of these modes of preaching can be done rightly, then it raises the question that these modes of preaching can also be done wrongly.  

Are there dangers or pitfalls to doing expositional preaching?  Sure there are, because preachers are fallible men, and they often let their biases and traditions get in the way of what the Word is saying.  All pastors should be aware of how they may be tempted to import extra-biblical baggage or read their external presuppositions into a particular text.  Doing so in the very least convolutes what God is saying plainly, but in worst case twists the meaning (and hence application) of the text altogether.  But this is not just an issue with expositional preaching (if topical preaching is done poorly).

Are there dangers or pitfalls to doing topical preaching?  Absolutely.  Mainly because, as history proves, man is sinful, and man does’t like that God has spoken, and so it is very easy to make the Bible say whatever you want.  Now, this is not just an issue with topical preaching - the twisting of a verse in a primarily expositional sermon is the same danger.  However, it can be easier to proof-text in a topical sermon and string along a series of verses that can seem to make/support the point of the sermon (the topic) while using all of those verses out of their original contexts (which is what gave them their meaning in the first place).  Proof-texting doesn’t have to be a bad thing - it’s simply grabbing a verse to make/prove a point, which can be done faithfully and contextually accurate.  The pitfall with proof-texting, though, is that a particular verse has been ripped from its immediate context to make another point altogether, or in this case, to support a point about a certain topic that the verse really wasn’t meant to make.  The danger of doing that cannot be overstated.  But this is often the case in topical sermons.  

So, those are just a few things to think about.  More could be said, but like I said at the beginning, these are often over-looked points when I have conversations with people about the modes of preaching.  It’s not about new vs. old, or merely an issue of preferences, and Christians should not let this be cause for ruckus or dissension within their churches, unless this is done poorly (and if that be the case, there still are better solutions than ruckus and dissension).  Pastors should be sensitive to any consistent patterns of over-complicating their sermons - you don’t have to break out the overhead projector and diagram sentences every Sunday.  But pastors should also resist the temptations to communicate hidden personal agendas within exaggerated points made about a topic.

 Some people may want to try to point to other “pros and cons” with either of these preaching models.  For instance, some may think that expositional sermons are inherently long, and topical sermons are short.  That’s not necessarily the case.  I’ve heard long topical sermons and short expositions before.  That’s probably more of a decision based on a church’s philosophy of what Sunday morning should look like, or an inordinate amount of weight given to the average person’s supposed attention span, or lack thereof.  Either way, hopefully you see that, if done poorly, we can perhaps talk about pros and cons, but if preaching is done well, it’s more of an issue of discussing the proper use of exposition and sermon topics, rather than pros and cons.

Where do we land on the issue as pastors?  Well, we believe in the infallibility, inerrancy, sufficiency, authority, and perspicuity of scripture.  You can believe all of those things and do both kinds of preaching.  We believe all of scripture is from God and is “…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  You can believe that and do both kinds of preaching.  We believe in the latin phrases from the Reformation:  Sola Scriptura - that Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church, and Tota Scriptura - that all of Scripture is that sole, infallible rule.  You can believe those things and do both kinds of preaching.  We believe that a whole Bible make a whole Christian, and we desire to join Paul in Acts 20 to not “…shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”  You can join Paul and do both kinds of preaching.  

Why do we land there?  We believe that all of this means that the primary means (or mode) of preaching for you, Forrester Community Church is expositionally preaching through the Bible, and from time to time, hitting certain topics as they arise and we are prayerfully led to do so.  It means the steady diet, the normative means, the regular mode will be preaching expositional sermons.  This serves as a way of us humbling ourselves before God (Who hasn’t given anyone permission to do whatever they’d like with His Word) as pastors and letting the Word say what it says, in the hopes that our people will humbly receive all that God means to say to us, and gives opportunity for things to be put before us that might not otherwise be presented.  It causes us to not ignore or overlook controversial subjects, as is often the case in consistently preaching topical sermons.  Pastors can certainly skip verses in expositional sermons, but since we believe all Scripture is inspired, we don’t believe we have the luxury to do that.  We want to deal with what it says, because that will most benefit the hearers, even if difficult to receive.  And while others may argue it limits the pastor’s ability to be relevant or present relevant topics, we believe just the opposite.  God’s Word was not just inspired in the time(s) it was penned - no, it’s inspired for all peoples for all times.  Our hope is to commend all the truths of God to you so that you are built up in Christ, the Cornerstone, into the men and women God has called you to be.

If you’ve read this and still find yourself thinking that the normative mode of regular preaching on Sunday mornings should be topical, rather than expositional, then please be reminded, as I’ve explained in this article, the two modes are not at war with one another (and that we do both).  Then, I would suggest considering Impact (when offered), Wednesday night Bible Study, a Community Group, or the Men’s or Women’s Bible Study Groups, all of which are more topical in nature (though they also contain Scriptural exposition in the teachings).  But please don’t hesitate to let us know how we can further help you with any of this!  And if you haven't yet, please feel free to grab a copy of "Listen Up! A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons" on the back table.  It's a fantastic little book to help you know how best to listen to any kind of sermon.

Tags: sermon, preaching, expository, preacher, topical, expositional

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