It can be difficult at times to distinguish between the three most common methods of preaching: expository, textual, and topical.
You may have heard these terms dropped from the lips of preachers. Some are more popular than others, depending on denominations and movements. Some are more noticed in the Bible. Some are more useful at times. Some are more vulnerable to personal influence. Some are more clear and direct. But all are certainly acceptable. You just have to know what they are and when to use them.
The following is by no means a thorough explanation of the three methods. Rather, it is a survey and brief explanation of each. To read more about preaching, I recommend a book from The John MacArthur Pastor’s Library entitled, Preaching: How to Preach Biblically.
Before I dive into these explanations, let me say that these may not accurately reflect all interpretations of these methods. They do, however, provide a general idea and, I think, a good framework. Also, it is also assumed the preacher (using any method below) is teaching the Scriptures and not his own ideas. The preacher’s duty is to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). That is, proclaim the truth that is in the Bible accurately (see 2 Timothy 4 in context) because God is judging. With that in mind, let’s look at these three methods.
This method is generally used by those who hold the Bible in high regard. Exposition of the Bible is essentially explaining the Bible. This preaching method is generally verse by verse and, over a period of time, covers entire books of the Bible. Expository preaching will familiarize you with the meaning of the passage, its context, its language, and more. Here are some practical reasons that make it popular:
- Because all of Scripture is God-breathed and for our benefit, there is not a page of Scripture that is not helpful to our faith, so we should examine it all.
- From church history we know that influential preachers such as Justin Martyr preached expository sermons that went through books of the Bible line by line.
- It allows non-Christians and new Christians to follow along more easily than if the preacher jumps around the Bible.
- It doesn’t allow the preacher to avoid difficult texts and issues.
- It helps teach the congregation to study the Bible for themselves.
- It helps people to read and study along with the sermons each week.
- It makes it easier for people to refer back to what they have learned in Scripture.
- It forces the authority to reside in the text and not the teacher.
- It trains people how to interpret Scripture.
The textual method is preaching through a section of the Bible (or section of a book of the Bible). It is similar to the expositional method, except entire books are generally not covered. In other words, a preacher may do a month-long series covering a section of one particular book of the Bible. This section will have a main theme or thought flowing through it. For example, a preacher may preach through the first two chapters of Luke in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Here are some reasons that make this method popular:
- It shows the consistency of Scripture by linking sections together as a thematic series.
- It allows the preacher with a revolving church where people move in and out a lot (e.g., college town, military town, major city) to hit central truths every year so that new people are given a basic theological framework through key sections of Scripture.
- It allows the preacher to work in smaller chunks of four to eight weeks, providing flexibility to deal with issues as they arise. This is especially helpful if a church is adding new services and campuses and needs to remain nimble to synchronize new preaching series with changes in the church.
- It allows the preacher to work around the Christian calendar with mini-series on the incarnation around Christmas, crucifixion in the dark winter months, and resurrection around Easter.
This is probably the most common method in evangelical churches today. Instead of sticking to a certain book or section in a book of the Bible, it remains true to a topic or subject within the Bible. In other words, the preaching is done with several texts throughout the Bible. This method requires the people to jump around quite a bit throughout the preaching in order to keep up. Generally, for the sake of time, preachers tend not to provide contexts for the passages, which can be tempting to a preacher to add his own ideas in the passage – or “eisegete” the text. It has been said that when preaching topically, it is helpful to have the passages in a handout or on a large presentation screen. Here are some reasons why this method is favorable:
- The ability to trace a theme through multiple books of the Bible, showing the consistency of Scripture.
- The ability to preach with multiple perspectives and avoid the common error of reductionism, which is looking only at what one section of Scripture says on an issue rather than at all that the Bible says on an issue.
- The ability to address most thoroughly questions and controversies that arise.
- The ability to select the most appropriate verses from Scripture on a given topic.
These three methods can all be used effectively in the pulpit and general preaching platforms. I have ordered them by their effectiveness in empowering the hearers, based on my understanding of the power of God’s Word—namely, the further you get from the Scripture (and how the Scripture was given), the lesser the power. (See my post entitled, The Mysterious Power of God’s Word.)
Hopefully this clears up some of the confusion and also helps some of us understand when certain methods are better to use at different times.
(Bullet points were copied from a Resurgence resource now unavailable online.)