Topical vs. Expository vs. The Underlying Issue

Some of the details are fuzzy for me but I will probably never forget one Sunday morning being at church when during the sermon it was said that the church was finishing its series through the book of Matthew. My friend and I turned and looked at each other with the same thought, "I did not know the sermon series was working through Matthew the past few weeks." We were completely confused. 

I'm not one to space out during entire sermon series and neither was my friend, as far as I knew. How were we listening to sermons working through Matthew without knowing Matthew was driving the whole series? The fact that this was possible might shed some light on the long-standing debate between whether a church should preach topical or expository sermon series. 

By "topical" typically what is meant is that a preacher picks a topic for a sermon series, like "The Cross of Jesus Christ," and uses biblical texts to preach on that topic. One could preach stand-alone topical sermons as well. By "expository" typically what is meant is that a preacher picks a book of the Bible, like Matthew, to preach through. He lets the book select the content of each sermon as he moves through it, beginning to end.

Often, expository sermon series are argued to be more rooted in the Bible than topical sermon series. The reasoning is that expository sermon series start with the Bible and the goal is to let the Bible speak. The preacher may want to preach on a given topic but if the book of the Bible does not address it, he will not preach it. He is not in charge, the Bible is. Topical sermon series, on the other hand, start with the preacher and what he wants to preach on. Then the preacher goes to the Bible to find verses to support his topics.

But what happens when a preacher chooses to preach through Matthew yet no one can tell his sermons are from Matthew? Preaching through Matthew, according to the popular argument, should have deeper roots in the Bible; the sermons should be more driven and shaped by the Bible. But speaking from experience, it is possible to preach through Matthew, or any book of the Bible, and deliver sermons that do not seem to be driven by Matthew at all.

What does this mean for the expository vs. topical debate?

It means that choosing a topic or a book of the Bible does not guarantee more or less biblically-driven sermons, which is always the goal. The preacher preaching through Matthew could say, "I am more committed to preaching the Bible because I am preaching through Matthew, rather than a topical series, like the church down the road." Yet, his sermons may not be driven by the texts in Matthew at all. Meanwhile, that church down the road could be preaching a series on "The Gospel" and expound on texts in Matthew in far more detail.

Even if I believe preaching through books of the Bible is generally a better method than preaching topical series, I would rather hear a topical series where Matthew is expounded and emphasized than a preaching-through-Matthew series that barely expounds on Matthew's gospel at all.

For the debate, this means the issue at hand may not first be expository preaching vs. topical preaching. Sometimes the most pressing issue for a preacher is preaching sermons that are driven and shaped by biblical texts, regardless of the kind of series. Whether you're preaching through a book of the Bible or a chosen topic, will biblical texts drive and shape your sermons or will your ideas and thoughts shape your sermons? Will you preach your thoughts while salt-and-peppering them with biblical references? Will your listeners come away having handled the Bible or merely remember that you did reference biblical texts but they probably can't remember which texts?

Preachers are called to preach the Bible and talking about the best way that can be done (topical vs. expository) has enormous value. But before you get to that conversation, let the Bible drive and shape your sermons now. Let the lion that is God's Word drive, define, and dominate your sermon notes. Then when you stand up to preach, unleash the beast. Let the lion of Good News go after your hearers.

Then and only then, when the Bible drives and shapes a preacher's sermons, can we begin to engage the debate of whether one should preach an expository series or a topical series. Until then, let the Bible dominate your series through Matthew, or Romans, or Habakkuk. Until then, let the Bible dominate your topical series on grace, suffering, or relationships. Above all, preach Christ and Him crucified, the message of the Bible.

Next week: preaching Bible-driven sermons.