Should we preach through books of the Bible or by topic?
I’ve recently had numerous conversations about the proper way to approach preaching–through books of the Bible or topically. In other words, should we take three years to wade through Haggai or do six weeks on “How to Order Coffee Like Jesus”? While neither of these are likely to happen, proponents of each approach seem to view the other in these terms. So here are a few thoughts that I believe should inform our decision-making as well as a couple ways to maximize both approaches at the end.
#1: Some parts of Scripture are more important than others. (Read this before you sound the heretic alert.)
Might as well get the controversial point out there first! I am NOT saying parts of Scripture are unimportant or uninspired. I agree that “ALL Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” No Scripture should be ignored or crossed out in our Bibles. But I do see the validity of what the tradition I’m a part of calls a weighted canon.
This means that all Scripture is not EQUALLY effective for making disciples of Jesus. Yes, all Scripture points to Jesus. Yes, all Scripture has value for growing our faith (as I quoted from 2 Timothy above). But if we want to make disciples of Jesus, the clearest picture of what this looks like is Jesus. If we want to know the way of Jesus the clearest way to hear it is by listening to Jesus’ teaching. Much of the teaching in Scripture would be obscure if it were not for the fulfillment of it found in Jesus. Through him we see all of Scripture more clearly, and I’m grateful for that! It is Jesus alone who is the perfect image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).
Sometimes we balk at topical preaching in particular because we want to “preach the whole council of God.” The reality is that we will never teach the entire Bible without taking a lifetime to do it. Even if we go through the whole Bible we will have to pick and choose the parts we preach. We must find ways not to ignore any of the Bible, but we should also be sure that in our preaching people are consistently seeing the Triune God who is most clearly imaged in Jesus.
#2: We gravitate toward our personal passions.
This is a significant problem for those who teach topically, but it can easily be a problem for those who teach through books of the Bible as well. It is a natural human quality to talk about our passions. People who love sports don’t strike up conversations about quilting. Political activists will turn every conversation to the policy of the day. For those who are preaching, a passion for Bible study, mentoring, contemplative prayer, faith and work, family, etc (all good things) can easily lead every sermon down the same general road.
This is why all preachers must be careful to listen well to the text(s) they are preaching from and be as true to them as humanly (and Spirit-aided) possible. Those who preach topically should have a team that helps to select topics so their own passions don’t overwhelm what is preached.
This is also a good reason why we must cultivate a love for God, his people, and his mission as our greatest passion. We will always have topics we gravitate to, but for those who are preaching, there must be no greater passion than the Triune God.
#3: Preaching is an act of pastoral care.
No matter the style of preaching, it should be approached as an act of pastoral care. In a large church this will be more general as it’s hard to keep a pulse on 5000 people. In a small church or smaller teaching venues (and especially in smaller groups of whatever type) the person teaching should take time to seriously consider where the people are at who will be hearing the message. The same message may find a different expression or application depending on what is happening in the individual lives of people and the collective life of the church.
This perspective includes being aware of what is going on in culture. On the weekend after the horrific theater shooting here in Colorado I scrapped the sermon I had prepared and spent a couple nights preparing a sermon that would deal with what had happened. This was the topic on everyone’s mind and they needed to hear how Scripture spoke into it.
#4: Keep the goal in mind.
Biblical knowledge alone is an insufficient goal of preaching. Talking about the things people are dealing with in life is also an insufficient goal of preaching. The overarching goal must be for us to help people live as disciples of Jesus–growing in relationship with God and others and participating in God’s mission in the world.
- “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Mt. 28:19-20
- Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Mt. 22:37-40
- “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.” Col. 1:28
These types of things should guide us in preaching–whatever approach we take. When our purpose in preaching shifts from this to creating a buzz, getting butts in the seats, or having the congregation most knowledgable in Greek in town we have a problem.
#5: Context people!
No matter your approach to preaching you should take the context of Scripture very seriously. This includes the context of the material around the Scripture you’re using, the entire book, the entire Bible, and the historical-cultural context.
In topical preaching it is easy to cherry pick verses with complete disregard for the context. Shoot, I’ve heard people use two words from a verse to make a point that in the context has NOTHING to do with what is being said. There are even entire books written with this method. In preaching through a book of the Bible it is easy to get so focused on a few verses that the greater context of the book and entire Bible are lost.
In both cases preaching is simpler, and potentially misleading, when historical-cultural context is ignored. The stories of the Bible occurred in specific times and cultures. We must understand something of these cultures to preach Scripture faithfully.
Maximizing preaching through books of the Bible.
One of the great advantages of preaching through books of the Bible is that you cannot avoid the topics that make you uncomfortable (or ones that seem boring at first glance). One of its disadvantages can be when a preacher deflects the need to engage culture and people’s lives by saying “I just preach the Bible.” When preaching through books of the Bible it is essential that those preaching take a significant amount of time to consider how that passage relates to the issues their people are facing and how those two connect.
It is a bit ironic that going through a book of the Bible can present pitfalls in regard to the use of Scripture that are just as big as preaching topically. It is easy to get so focused on the specifics of a few verses that the larger context is lost. It is even easier to set your sights on the specific book you’re preaching and to ignore what the rest of Scripture has to say on a topic. We can develop great (or minor) heresies well right from the Bible when we lose context.
So when we preach through a book of the Bible here are a few things to keep in mind:
- How does your current passage fit into the rest of the book?
- What does the rest of the Bible say about your current passage?
- How does this impact people’s lives?
- Where does this intersect with our culture?
- Is there an overarching theme you can use to tie a number of weeks together? (In other words, is there a “topical” series that comes from looking at the whole book or a larger section of the book?)
Maximizing topical preaching.
One of the advantages of topical preaching is that you can tailor what is preached to what a congregation needs to hear or what is happening in culture. One of the disadvantages is that you can easily avoid important biblical topics or the parts of Scripture that make people uncomfortable. The most important thing for people who preach topically to remember (whether it’s all the time or some of the time) is that we need to preach what the Bible says about a given topic. This is not an opportunity to share whatever random thoughts come to mind–it is a chance to teach people what the Bible says about _____________.
As someone who leans toward topical preaching, I understand the concern many people have that this leads to preaching “fluff”. There are many topical preachers who are no more biblical, prophetic, or discerning than a motivational speaker. We have no biblical precedent to tell people what they want to hear or to water things down to make teaching palatable. Topical preaching is a vehicle for delving into Scripture around a given topic, not a chance to appeal to the masses.
So when we preach topically here are a few things to keep in mind:
- People should leave knowing more about what the Bible says on a given topic.
- We must engage the passages that make us uncomfortable, not just cherry pick the ones that make us feel good.
- Topics should be chosen by seeking the Holy Spirit’s direction and considering what the people need to hear at a given time.
- Take a look at the Scripture you’ve used over the course of the series, the year, and a few years. What is being left out? Do a series on that.