Parents ask this question on a daily basis. "Should I microwave some TV dinners or make a salad? Or maybe I'll boil some spaghetti and open a can of sauce. Oh forget all that...the traffic is terrible, I think I will just get some Taco Bell take out." The decision about what to serve for dinner every night is significant. Your menu choices affect the long-term development of every member of your family. Healthy choices help families thrive. Menu plans littered with take-out burgers, Kraft dinners and Pizza Hut will result in long-term problems.
Pastors make similar decisions for their church families on a weekly basis. Every week, every pastor wonders, "What's for dinner?" What spiritual food will I serve up to my congregation this week? The decision about what to preach is not incidental. Your choice impacts the spiritual health and development of the people you lead. How do you decide what to preach? What criteria guide your decisions? Even if you are committed to preaching Scripture, the question remains: What portion of the Bible will you preach this week, month and year? What parts will you not preach? Why? Many preachers regularly decide to preach topically—to bring Scripture to bear on a subject that a biblical author never specifically addressed. Topical sermons on ‘how to date' or ‘how to handle stress' can be helpful and biblical. And topical sermons are not necessarily second-rate sermons.
In my 25 years as a pastor, however, I have chosen not to feed my congregations a steady diet of topical preaching. My practice has been to preach through the books of the Bible—to preach the ideas that the biblical writers have placed within the natural units of the Scripture they were inspired to write. Why?
I'm not that smart
Some preachers seem to overflow with penetrating and insightful series ideas that perfectly fit with the felt needs of their audience. Not me. I try to know my people well, and a couple of times a year I will preach topical sermons that I believe are both relevant and necessary, given a particular cultural or congregational situation; such sermons seem highly effective. But every week? It seems presumptuous for a preacher to always know what God wants their congregation to hear. I struggle to understand what my own heart needs, and I suspect that many of my colleagues do as well. How else do you explain that so many topical preachers are all saying the same thing? Many admit to borrowing (or buying) ideas from other topical preachers. But this practice would seem to defeat the purpose of preaching a topical sermon in the first place.
I'm not that holy
Sin is the best-proved doctrine of the Christian faith. I see it in my culture. I see it in myself. I am convinced that every part of my being has been warped by sin; including my ability to select sermon topics for my people. I am convinced that left on my own I would do nothing but ride around on my favorite hobbyhorses. I can think of no more effective way to transform God's people into my image rather than His. Preaching books of the Bible helps keep me make sure that God's agenda is accomplished in the lives of my people—not mine.
Is it possible to preach an expository topical sermon? Of course. But it does take a lot of work. If you have three points in your topical sermon you have to do at least three times the exegesis required to preach a single biblical passage. It gets worse. Topical preachers typically decide what they want to say and then go looking for passages that say what they want to say. But this process may force you to exegete a number of passages before you find one in which the original author intended to say what you want to say. As many of my students can tell you, finding biblical passages in which the authorial intent meshes with the preacher's intent is not easy. And when time is short it is very tempting to preach in God's name what God did not say. When I preach through books of the Bible, I only have to exegete one passage at a time. As I work my way through a book of the Bible, it is far easier to understand a text in its context. The exegesis I do for one week's sermon always contributes to next week's message.
Preaching consistently through a book of the Bible is an effective use of my time. But I choose to preach through books of the Bible not just because exegetical topical preaching is so hard. It also makes good pastoral and theological sense to me. I have found that preaching through the scriptures produces:
God often presents His truths in tension. Prayer vs. God's sovereignty. Election vs. free will. Suffering vs. blessing. One of the benefits of preaching through the Bible is that it makes it harder for me to "shave off " unpalatable passages. I cannot skip sections that do not fit my personality or doctrinal system. God's canon becomes my canon. Preaching through books of the Bible helps me preserve the doctrinal tensions that God intentionally placed in His Word.
Cooking the same kind of food every day will bore the people who sit around your dinner table. Preaching the same kind of sermons every week will have a similar effect. A commitment to preach the various books of the Bible, however, will force you to wrestle with ideas wrapped in a smorgasbord of genres.You cannot preach a psalm the same as you would preach the book of Jude 1. Or Prov. 1 like Romans 5. The different forms of literature in the Bible demand different forms of sermons. The very nature of God's inspired word forces preachers out of their topical comfort zones and demands inspired creativity in the pulpit.
How do you know if your preaching is providing your congregants with the spiritual nutrients they need for healthy growth? If "all Scripture is God-breathed and...useful...so the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (1 Tim. 3:16-17), then my congregation needs all of Scripture in order to be thoroughly equipped. If they don't get all of Scripture, they will not be getting what they need to grow. Since the books of the Bible are enriched with all the nutrients necessary for spiritual maturity, I have decided to stick with God's menu plan—to say what God said. Paul said to the church he pastored in Ephesus that he was "innocent of the blood of all men (because he had) not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God" (Acts 20:26-27).Whatever form of preaching we may prefer, let's make sure we can say the same thing.