Topical preaching is preaching that is centered on a specific topic. It is often contrasted with expositional preaching. Topical preaching looks at what the Bible says about a certain subject whereas expositional preaching looks at what a certain passage in the Bible means and how it applies to our lives today. Most pastors will preach at least some topical sermons, while some focus almost exclusively on them. Whether this model is good or bad probably has more to do with how it is used than anything else. Topical preaching can be quite effective, but there are inherent limitations that must be understood if it is to be used properly.
Sermons can be generally grouped in four types: textual, topical, textual-topical, and expository. Some have observed that the labels do not necessarily fit well, especially as there is overlap between the types. Generally speaking, a textual sermon follows the structure of the text of Scripture, allowing the word flow to provide the sermon points. A topical sermon is organized around a thought, with the sermon points developed by the speaker and supported by proof texts. A topical-textual sermon merges the two, allowing the sermon points to flow either from the text or the thoughts of the speaker. An expository sermon follows the text of Scripture, and then seeks to draw out the full meaning of it. The goal of each type of sermon is to apply the Word of God to the lives of the hearers.
In topical preaching, the speaker has the freedom to address issues being faced by his hearers. If the need is a better understanding of sin, a series can be presented to address various aspects and results of sin. When done well, this type of preaching will give a broad-spectrum view of what the Bible says on a given topic. By focusing on issues in this way, people can develop a biblical understanding of any subject matter. Another benefit of topical preaching is unity of thought. People are able to follow the logical progression of thought, which often helps them remember what they have heard. This method lends itself well to the natural talents of a speaker, because the thoughts come from his own heart.
While topical preaching allows the speaker to develop quality sermons, it also has a number of dangers. If it is the only method used, the speaker can easily get trapped in the rut of only preaching on those topics that are of interest to him or those which are easily developed in a message. Likewise, the audience can become acclimated to “comfortable” or “exciting” messages, turning away from teaching that doesn’t fit that model. A strict adherence to topical preaching will result in a stunted understanding of the whole counsel of God, even though certain subjects will be well understood. In some cases, a speaker may be tempted to think more of his own ideas than “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
For these reasons, many pastors alternate between topical and textual or expository messages. The topical messages allow them to address current issues in society or the life of the church, while the textual and expository messages build on the “big picture” of whole books in the Bible. Both are essential in encouraging balanced growth in the Christian life. How a sermon is organized isn’t nearly as important as ensuring it is biblical and applicable. A topical message can be just as scriptural as an expository one, and an expository message can be just as interesting as a topical one. Warren Wiersbe, in his book Preaching and Teaching with Imagination, relates the exasperation of a pastor who said, “My preaching sounds like a commentary! I’m dull! I have all the biblical facts but there’s no life! What should I do?” This pastor, who had the biblical information right, needed help learning how to communicate it to people. According to Wiersbe, “People think in pictures and respond with their hearts as well as their heads.”
Regardless of the type of message, if it is firmly grounded in Scripture and applied to life with vivid word pictures, it will accomplish the goal and draw people to follow Christ more closely.