Topical preaching tends to be popular and practical. But is it biblical? The answer is an emphatic yes!
A topical sermon is one in which the subject is chosen and the Bible as a whole is researched on that topic. The content and form owe more to the topic than to any one passage of Scripture. Topical preachers usually begin their sermon by choosing a topic and then developing it in depth with the aid of a topical Bible or a concordance.
Strengths and weaknesses
Topical preaching enjoys significant strengths. Certain emphases of the Christian year lend themselves naturally to topical preaching: Mother's Day, Christian Education Day, Missions Promotion Day—even Communion.
Topical preaching also lends itself easily to doctrinal preaching. Evangelistic preaching is usually topical. For some reason, preaching in those parts of the world where the church is growing fastest tends toward the topical.
The weakness in topical sermons is twofold: a temptation to rely too heavily on non-biblical sources, and a tendency to misuse the Scriptures, if the Bible is used.
Effective topical preaching
Some suggestions for effective topical preaching:
1. Begin with the Bible.
Properly prepared, a topical sermon may be more biblical than its expository counterpart. To understand what Scripture says on a subject, turning to one passage or book is not enough; it requires the perusal of the whole Bible—the topical approach. Hence we are safe in following Isaiah's "here a little, there a little" counsel (Isa. 28:10) and searching all the Scriptures. For example, to obtain the right balance between faith and works from the book of James alone is pretty difficult. But put James with Paul, as a topical sermon ought to do, and we have balanced truth.
Speaking of Bible authors, Ellen White explained: "One writer is more strongly impressed with one phase of the subject; he grasps those points that harmonize with his experience or with his power of perception and appreciation; another seizes upon a different phase; and each, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, presents what is most forcibly impressed upon his own mind—a different aspect of the truth in each, but a perfect harmony through all. And the truths thus revealed unite to form a perfect whole, adapted to meet the wants of men in all the circumstances and experiences of life'' (Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p.vi).
We should be creative but cautious in our biblical exegesis. We mustn't get so anxious to be original that we preach mere plausibility as certain truth—discovered, of course, by us. When we find something in Scripture no one else has used, we shouldn't completely dismiss the nagging notion that it may be because that person knew better.
2. Keep texts in context.
The story is apocryphal. A certain preacher got very upset about the new hairdo among ladies in his congregation. They were wearing their hair in a bun on top of the head. He disapproved of the style, and sought a text to use in preaching against it. The best he could find was Matthew 24:17: "Let him which is on the housetop not come down." Actually, he used only a part of the verse, taking as his text, "Top knot come down!"
That's only an exaggerated example of the topical preacher's temptation to use texts out of context. I maintain that topical preaching is not necessarily less biblical, but it is necessarily more difficult, because each text must be studied in its context lest the preacher should say something the text wasn't meant to say.
3. Emphasize theme above topic.
A topic is merely what you're going to talk about. A theme is what you're going to say about it. It's a point of view, a spiritual lesson to be learned from that topic. You want people to remember not just what you talked about, but what you said about it.
For example: Topic—Trials. Theme—"God's promise is not protection from trial, but presence in trial."
If you traditionally preach expository or some other type of sermon, should you try topical preaching? By all means. Topical preaching increases the evangelistic fervor and spirit of your church. Besides, your congregation will appreciate the change of pace. But keep it biblical.
At times it is possible that a sermon is all three: part expository, part topical, and part narrative. There is significance, however, in whether we begin our sermon preparation by investigating a pas sage, a topic, or a narrative. Our purpose in preaching is to teach a biblical Christ and motivate our listeners to fol low Him. We never do it well enough. Maybe a little experimentation with different sermon types will help us do it better.