It amazes me how seemingly few churches today teach or preach expositionally. It seems much more common, fashionable, cultural, perhaps even palatable, for churches to teach topically. What is the difference? And what are some of the strengths and weaknesses of each?
A simple description of an expository preacher would be one who sets out to explain the meaning of the Scripture in context. Exposition literally means “a setting forth or explanation.” So, the expositor is one who endevours to clearly explain Scripture to the listeners through a spirit-filled delivery. His main goal in approaching the Word is to discover the original, historic context and meaning of the passage. His goal in the actual delivery is to help people grasp that meaning and find practical application for their own lives. However the application is not his chief concern, as he greatly rests in knowing that The Holy Spirit, through the Inspired Word, will make such application obvious and personal to the listener.
A topical preacher tends to start with his theme, point or “topic” and then looks to support it with various verses or perhaps a story. The story may be from the bible, but also many extra-biblical stories, illustrations or examples will often find more place in the sermon than Biblical text. A common tool to prepare for such a message might be a concordance to find verses on “love” or “patience” or whatever the theme might be. If he wants to teach people to “be faithful to church” he may use an OT story to support that idea. However, he often neglects to frame the true context and seems to “use the scriptures” to support his message or to teach his particular doctrine. Surely the goal must not be to use the Bible, but to teach it!
The danger should be clear. If a pastor tends to use the Bible to say what he wants to say, he could quite easily create certain doctrines that eventually produce a church culture that is not entirely biblical. Certainly a topical preacher, who holds his position or church in too high regard, is more likely to use biblical terms and loose applications to strengthen his own position or agenda. It has been said that “if you take the TEXT out of CONTEXT you are left with CON” and I think that rings true.
Another result of careless topical preaching can be that people who have sat in the pews for years, even decades, have learned plenty of principles or doctrines that are emphasized in that particular church, but have never really got to know the Bible. While they may be aquainted with certain truths like “God’s Unconditional Love” or “The Great Commission”, they may not know the context of certain books, the relevance of the covenants, or the prophecies of Daniel. They may struggle to explain what it really means to endure to the end, fall from grace, take up your cross or blaspheme the Holy Spirit. A church website can quickly help you determine whether a church is Topical or Expositional because the sermon library will usually be a list of “catchy titles” with no Bible verses or passages attached. You probably won’t find an option to search for sermons based on scripture alone, because those sermons are usually preached using “selected scriptures” only.
Now, there may be times where there is need to teach a certain topic, but in those times an expositor would tend to look to a prominent passage on that topic and teach from there accordingly. He may use and quote a few well-chosen verses to strengthen the sermon, but even then, he has the context in mind and does not allow himself to use them carelessly. He will try to avoid shooting a quiver full of scattered verses to bolster his topic or make his point, unless they are clearly in the correct context. So while a topical message has its place, it should be taught with the mind of an expositor, with all due care and diligence to the text. While the diet of any pulpit might be supplemented with certain topical messages, they should not replace exposition, as a dessert should not replace the main course.
An obvious strength of the Expositional approach is that it usually follows the long-term pattern of journeying through books of the Bible. This in turn ensures that the whole counsel of God is being preached, whereas the topical approach will undoudtedly leave much of the Bible untouched and untaught. The expositional preacher will ultimately face the most challenging passages and difficult subjects rather than favouring his preferred themes as a topical preacher may do. The expositor seeks to eventually teach the whole book, chapter by chapter, whatever that may mean. In this way, The Bible ultimately determines the long-term menu of the pulpit more than the preacher. For those in the pews of a grace-based, expositional church, The Bible often begins to open up like never before. They will begin to see more connections between the OT and the NT and grow in understanding of the overall plan and purposes of God and find a renewed, personal love and hunger for the Word.
Now, please understand, this is not to say that people cannot be blessed and fruitful in topical leaning churches, of course they can. However, keen discernment is needed to determine that what the preacher is saying is actually what The Bible is saying. A careless preacher and a careless listener is set for error. It seems clear that with an expositional approach to teaching and preaching there is more safety for the preacher, the listener and the church as a whole.