Reader’s Response: Topical Sermons

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Whenever I encourage people to stick to one passage when they preach, I inevitably get this one particular question: what about a topical sermon?¹ The short answer is this: I have no problem with topical sermons. They’re actually quite useful for teaching if done properly. For those of you who don’t know, a topical sermon is exactly that—a sermon based on a particular topic (i.e. “temptation” or “Holy Spirit”). A topical sermon gathers together various passages and verses to support the chosen topic. Although I’m not against sermons of this type (some people are squarely against it), there are certain disadvantages that I’d like to point out:

(1) The Bible wasn’t meant to be read that way.

The Bible was written in whole units (a book, an epistle, a story, a poem, etc.) and was meant to be read as such. The Bible wasn’t meant to be cut up into various passages and verses and then pasted together to form another unit (i.e. a sermon). I do agree that there’s value in gathering together various passages and verses to support a specific topic. However, simply take note that the Bible was naturally meant to be read in entire units at a time.

(2) It’s actually much harder.

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s actually much harder to do a topical sermon well. First of all, you have to gather the pertinent information. If you’re not well-versed with the Bible, it’s going to take you a while to gather all the passages and verses that matter to your topic. On the other hand, preaching from a single passage generally sticks to the verses assigned. Additionally, when you do gather the verses for a topical sermon, you have to ensure that each one is used in its proper context. Again, that entails extra work on your part.

(3) Topical sermons are prone to audience confusion.

Since you’ll be jumping from passage to passage, the likelihood of confusing your audience is much higher. At the end of your topical sermon, your audience will have several passages fighting for retention in their minds. Contrast that with preaching from a single text where your audience will be left with one cohesive passage to remember.

I’d like to repeat that I’m not against topical sermons. I’m simply pointing out the fact that it takes more time and effort to prepare and present a topical sermon properly.

¹The question was in response to this article: Content Crisis: The Source of Content

Join the discussion: What are your thoughts on topical sermons?

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Reader’s Response: What’s the point?

I was having a discussion with some friends yesterday when a good question came up. I’ll briefly answer it in this post and I’ll write a more detailed article on this topic later on.

Here’s the question: “If people can only remember a few items from a sermon, what then should those items be?”¹

It’s obvious that people can only recall a limited number of items from a sermon. Therefore, preachers need to leverage whatever those items happen to be. I believe every sermon should seek to make its key points memorable. You might have one key point. You might have two. Since I’m a baptist, I have three (why do we always have three points?!).

What needs to occur every Sunday is this: people need to walk out of your church service with a clear idea of what you were saying and what they’ll be doing. They shouldn’t be scratching their heads wondering what in the world you were attempting to get across. Make the key points the most memorable part of your sermon. Remember, if your points aren’t memorable, how can you expect people to apply them in real life?

A future article will discuss what makes up an excellent key point which includes being accurately based on the Scriptures.

¹The question was in response to this article: Preaching Myth #3: “They won’t remember what I say anyway.”

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Reader’s Response: Communicate, not manipulate

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A friend of mine approached me with an excellent comment regarding the last article¹. In First Corinthians, we come across an interesting statement made by the apostle Paul with regards to preaching:

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4-5, NIV84, emphasis added).

How do we reconcile what Paul said here with the use of good speaking methods? Is he squarely against the use of methods within the realm of preaching? Just looking at First Corinthians alone, it’s obvious that Paul wasn’t against the use of literary methods to convey messages in clear and memorable ways. The letter to the Corinthians is riddled with examples of literary features that Paul intentionally made use of:

(1) His message was written in the form of a letter (an epistle) and used a structure that was common during his time.

(2) He used plenty of metaphors to exemplify his points (i.e. 1 Cor. 9:7-12).

(3) He quoted from the Old Testament to add credibility to what he was saying (i.e. 1 Cor. 15:32).

(4) He asked plenty of questions to spark interest and produce a knowledge gap. Then he answered those questions to satisfy their curiosity.

What we need to understand is that Paul made use of those literary methods to make his message clear and memorable. I believe Paul was against the use of “wise and persuasive words” to manipulate people into believing—rather than relying on the Spirit to bring about true repentance and faith. Once again, there’s a work that only the Spirit can accomplish and that’s to change the hearts of people. No amount of clever or flowery words can replace what only the Spirit has the power to do. Therefore, let’s rely on the Spirit to produce the change in people but let’s not forgo the use of speaking methods to make the message clear to human listeners. In short, use good speaking methods to communicate—not to manipulate.

¹The comment was in response to this article: Preaching Myth #1: “All I need is the Holy Spirit.”

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