Topical or exhibition? – Dr. James Emery White’s Christian Blog

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

Let me explain.

News posts are about, well, topics. Think about marriage, family, parenthood, finances, end times, racism… the list is endless. Explanatory messages take passages of Scripture and “explain” them. The word itself means to state facts, ideas. It offers 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 lay it out.

There is a school of thought that only exposition posts are heavy, meaty, faithful and true, whereas topical posts are superficial, frothy, “light” and fashionable… almost heretical. There are those who rate orthodoxy on whether the preaching is topical or explanatory. More precisely, explanatory preaching is the only “true” preaching, or the “best” preaching, or the true “biblical” preaching.

I like explanatory preaching. And I do my fair share of it, having taken books like James, Philippians, Romans, Jonah and, yes, Ephesians, to do just that. In nearly 40 years of messaging, I have gone through – in detail, verse by verse – almost every book of the Bible.

But I also do thematic preaching. Many. But let’s be clear about what that means: you take a subject, explore everything the Bible has to say about it, and proclaim it. In other words, you present a biblical theology. The best thematic sermon is nothing more than an explanatory sermon centered on a subject. You bring whatever the Bible has to offer to address a singular need, question, or concern.

This is why I studied systematic theology throughout my graduate years. The discipline of systematic theology requires looking at all there is to look at—Scripture, history, philosophy—and bringing it all together in a singular way to speak coherently and comprehensively about doctrinal issues. . This is what I love about preaching thematically through the prism of explanatory study; you let scripture interpret scripture, giving all of God’s counsel on any given matter.

So should you preach by subject or by exposition? The answer is, of course, yes.” And as mentioned, the best topical preaching is explanatory in nature and, I might add, the best expository preaching is presented topically. But in saying that, let’s also eliminate the arrogance of one approach over another.For example, here are a few names that I know of have never preached an explanatory message in their entire ministry: CS Lewis, Billy Graham and…yes, Jesus.

So let’s get off our spiritual high horse to find out which “type” of proclamation is the most spiritual. If you proclaim the Bible, if you clarify the Gospel, if you hold to orthodoxy,

…that’s a good, solid message.

With that in mind, here are four final thoughts on biblical preaching, especially in light of the current pressure to make all things explanatory:

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

The irony is that if I were to use this description of a contemporary individual, there would be howls of protest against biblical compromise and superficiality. Oh wait… Jesus was criticized that way too, in his day.

Some might reply, “We can’t make the uniform Jesus’ way. He was unique and could teach in this way with authority, independent of many scriptures. I would agree that he was unique in every way, especially his authority, but I would disagree that we can’t emulate his style in terms of using the story . He came to shape both life and ministry.

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

Biblical theology looks to the Bible in its entirety for its complete teaching on a given subject. This is the goal of all preaching, even explanatory preaching. If I teach through Philippians, I will have to teach it keeping an eye on all of Paul’s writings, not to mention the canon itself. Again, the best pattern for interpretation is to let scripture interpret scripture. Thus, the best explanatory teaching will be based on a larger biblical theology. And that’s all topical preaching is: biblical theology, grounded in sound exegesis. So let’s stop making a derogatory classification of it. It is 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 best tackled. In fact, if you want to be an effective communicator of scripture, that’s what to look for.

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

  • the life of the church I lead and its unique needs;
  • questions and concerns posed by the wider culture and, in particular, the non-church community;
  • the areas of leadership that need to be addressed through the language of leadership;
  • “hot” topics of interest that present spiritual issues encountered by spiritual confusion;
  • areas of discipleship that have been exposed as collectively weak;
  • and more.

Each series tends to lend itself to a particular biblical source. Perhaps a book of the Bible speaks only of need, and thus a series of lectures is at hand. Other times, holistic biblical theology should be pursued through a thematic series that brings together relevant biblical teaching on a particular topic. Other times a specific subsection of a Bible book is requested, such as the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.

Each subject can also lend itself to a particular style. Some are more narrative, others more didactic. Some are intertwined with stories, others are much edgier by design. The bottom line is that there should be – indeed must be – variety in teaching and presentation in light of the subject matter.

But all with one foundation (my fourth point):

4. All sermons should be Bible-based (specific scripture) and Bible-informed (in light of the full canon of scripture), with the goal of applying biblical truth (the targeted use of Writing).

And that’s the real point that everyone should take home. Not whether one style is better than another, but the importance of each style being biblical. When you examine the messages contained in the New Testament, you find no uniformity in style or approach, personality or structure. Whether it was Jesus or Stephen, Peter or Paul, there was tremendous variety. Even in the teaching of an individual like Paul there was variety. The only commonality was that they were Bible-based, Bible-informed, and Bible-applied.

And that is what real biblical preaching is.

James Emery White

About the Author

James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of 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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