The virtues of topical preaching?

I had a talk with a retired preacher the other day. He told me he did not like the way everyone preaches today. He said it feels like sitting through Bible studies rather than hearing a sermon.

I asked him what he meant by the distinction he was making there.

He said that in his preaching career, when he was working up a sermon, he started with the human concerns. In his seminary, his professor had given him a list of 34 areas of life that all people are concerned about. He’d been taught to consult that list every now and then to make sure he was not neglecting any of them.

When it came time to preach, he’d start with one of these areas of human concern — how do I deal with disappointment, for instance — and build a sermon that answers that question by drawing on one or more texts of the Bible.

The retired preacher told me what frustrates him about the practice of lectionary preaching — which he notes was just becoming popular in the seminaries when he was coming up — is that is so rarely speaks to him about things he’s really worried about.

What does any of that have to do with me? This was his question, not as a disinterested lay person with only passing interest in his faith but as a member of the preaching fraternity now retired.

He said he listens to sermons that are often wonderfully crafted and powerfully delivered and he wonders whether anything that was said really connects to anything pressing or of deep concern to his life.

My entire ministry has been spent in a time in which the kind of preaching this retired minister practiced during his whole ministry was discouraged as non-biblical. Talking with him, though, did get me wondering if his point was not one that I should take closer to heart.

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5 thoughts on “The virtues of topical preaching?

  1. I hope respondents will allow for reflection on “the virtues of topical preaching” rather than subvert it into a rally for the lectionary. Let’s grant the lectionary it’s due but allow for other strategies. One might preach “the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ.” (Both Kevin J. Vanhoozer and N. T. Wright (et al.) offer paradigms that preach the gospel as a five-act “theodrama” of the coming reign of God.) But even this scheme may be too abstract for your ordinary lost and suffering. Improvisation is called for, while always being faithful to the context (the back story, or unifying story).

      1. Thanks for the followup, John. I have seen this done effectively in periodic, short thematic series. Some might call this “convocation preaching” (where the congregation is assembled for timely community instruction over a series of weeks). It works powerfully when linked with small groups that are freshly constituted, guided and purposeful (not static fellowship claques). This is not hobby preaching.

  2. Actually, I find that I can preach through the lectionary, preach expositorily, and still cover a variety of topics quite well. Using the lectionary helps me cover more of the whole counsel of God and not keep preaching on the same things over and over, as well as saving some time trying to figure out what passages to preach on. However I do often expand the passage given in the modern lectionary because I find it tends to leave out some important verses and tends toward political correctness.

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