My Word Against His: Topical vs. Expositional Preaching (Ryan Oberhellman)

Our world today is almost completely customizable. We love options and features and unique additions that enable us to be unique, stand out from the crowd, and satisfy our desires to have it our way. We customize our meals – “would you like fries, potato wedges, cole-slaw, or onion rings with your combo deal?” We customize our vehicles – “This particular model has 3 different engines to choose from, 10 different paint colors, 2 transmission packages, 3 different interior options, 7 choices of cast aluminum wheel designs, and additional options for upgraded stereo system, navigation, or an integrated 10,000-volt electro-shock security system for any would-be thieves.” We customize our homes, our furniture, our computers, our cell phones, our bank accounts, our insurance policies, investment packages, and so much more. Just about everything in life is customized and tailored to fit our individual needs and desires. We live in the “Burger-King” era where we apply the slogan “have it your way” to everything in life. I’m sure it’s no shock that the American church culture has certainly followed suit. We have more denominations and varieties of Christianity than ever before, most of which are actually Christian-themed religious experiences that more closely resemble a cruise ship or social club than the church of the Bible. Today’s church culture has customized everything from sanctuary designs, pew styles, music styles, dress standards, and if you don’t like something in the mix, chances are fairly good that there is a church somewhere near you that suits your tastes. Pastor Paul Mooney once said “people don’t backslide anymore… they simply change churches.” And why not? When there’s so much to choose from and our culture trains us that it’s all about us and we deserve to have it our way, it’s no wonder that people’s criteria for a “good church” begins with their own personal desires. We are plagued by a self-centered mentality where our first priority is to assess whether or not something suits our personal needs and tastes. But this principle doesn’t only apply to the casual church-goer sitting in our congregations – it applies to preachers as well. Has the self-centered mentality of the culture crept into the approach our preachers use toward developing and delivering their sermons? I want to talk about the difference between topical and expositional preaching, and the effect each has on the spiritual nourishment (or malnourishment) of the saints in our churches.

First I want to clearly define both topical preaching and expositional preaching. Expositional preaching is preaching that simply exposes the Biblical text as it is. The starting point of an expositional sermon is the Biblical text its self – the main point of the text is the main point of the sermon, and all the points or illustrations within the sermon are focused on exposing the meaning of the text. Topical preaching is preaching that focuses on a particular topic. The starting point of a topical sermon is the preacher’s desired topic – the main point of the preacher and his topic is the main point of the sermon, and the Biblical text is used to illustrate or support the selected topic. One begins with the text, and the other begins with the preacher. One attempts to communicate the text and uses outside illustrations and examples when necessary, while the other attempts to communicate the preacher’s topic and uses the Bible to illustrate the topic. One is more God-centered and the other is more man-centered. Could the self-centeredness of today’s church culture be such a rampant pandemic because it is being encouraged and exemplified in the pulpits by preachers who have a greater desire to preach their own word using the Bible as their illustration, rather than preaching the Bible and using their words as the illustrations?

I believe if the church is to be faithful to the Biblical model, one of the most important changes that must be made is a shift in focus and understanding of the importance of how today’s preachers should prepare and deliver their sermons, which is why I want to talk about the importance of expositional preaching. It is the Bible itself that is powerful, not the preacher’s interpretation or opinion of it. The preacher’s words are not divinely-inspired simply because he is the one speaking behind a pulpit and happens to mention a few verses (usually out of context) to illustrate his point. It is the Word of God itself that is divinely-inspired (II Tim 3:16), and it is the Word of God itself that creates faith in the hearts of those who hear it (Rom 10:17). The writings of the Bible were divinely-inspired of God, and were written within specific timeframes, specific cultures, utilizing specific language, all within specific contexts, and have specific objective meaning. It is not, nor has it ever been, a book of free-for-all interpretive input. It is not subject to man’s opinions and interpretations, but rather man’s opinions and interpretations should be subject to its content within its contextual framework. When a preacher preaches an expositional message, it is the Word of God that speaks, for it is placed in the center spotlight of the sermon – the preacher merely illuminates the main message the text is communicating. He may use examples, and illustrations, or stories, but they are all pointing to the text its self. By doing this, God’s word is exalted, God is honored and glorified, and God’s people are transformed and filled with faith by the power of God’s Word. When a preacher preaches a topical message, it is he that speaks, for it is his own idea of what he desires to communicate that is placed at the center spotlight of the sermon – the preacher uses verses from the Bible to illuminate his own message. The preacher’s message may be very Biblical in nature and very inspiring, motivating, convicting, or challenging, but it is still the preacher’s message that is the main point rather than the text its self. A classic example of a topical sermon is described by Os Guinness as he writes, “The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that, and bring his finished product into a marketplace in which others are trying to do the same. The public, turning to our church culture to find out about the world, discovers there is nothing but its own reflection.” The danger in an overabundance of topical preaching, reciprocated by an almost total absence of expositional preaching, is that God’s voice is not heard as God intended His voice to be heard, but rather is heard through the filter of a preacher’s personality…

Read the full article at my personal blog: “God, Gospel, and Believer