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A Rookie’s Guide To Teaching Topically

Usually when I post rookie’s guides, I’m writing to help rookies as someone who is a little less rookie myself. This is not the case with topical teaching or preaching. I’m far more comfortable with preaching expository sermons or writing Bible studies that work through books of the Bible.

So when it comes to topical teaching and preaching, I’m a rookie too. I’ve had quite a lot of opportunities to do it, particularly in my preaching, but I don’t consider myself to have even come close to getting the hang of it.

Therefore as one rookie to another, here are some tips that I’ve found helpful.

1. Work out your approach

Topical teaching requires a decision regarding how you’re going to use Scripture. Since your teaching surrounds a topic, not a text, you have to work out which texts and how to use them.

There are probably four ways you can approach a topical. I’ll list them below in order of least to greatest difficulty.

a. Anchor in one passage

Instead of trying to do everything from every part of Scripture, just choose one and stick close to that one. This is my recommendation for new preachers and those least experienced with topical teaching. Find a passage and basically do an exposition of that.

For example, if your topic is repentance, you might just want to keep yourself to the classic repentance passage of 2 Corinthians 7:10 and surrounding verses. You can draw on other supporting passages, but your anchor is in this one text.

Clearly there are disadvantages to this approach. You don’t get to cover the breadth of a topic. You can actually end up ignoring the key issues raised by a topic and end up skimming the surface of a topic. But you know what? I reckon it’s better to do a good exposition of a passage that’s relevant to a topic, than to do a bad job of the other approaches below.

b. Biblical theological

Some topicals lend themselves really well to tracing that theme through the progressive revelation of the Bible’s storyline. This can be really refreshing and helpful, especially if you’re teaching those who don’t have a good grasp of Biblical Theology. It also has the added advantage of imparting a method of reading the Bible and approaching a topic to those whom you’re teaching.

An example is the topic of ‘worship’. Tracing this idea through creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is one obvious way of teaching it.

c. Systematic theological

Other topicals can fit so well with classical Systematic Theology categories that it’s most helpful just to teach that aspect of Christian doctrine. Keep your Grudem (or your ST of choice) handy and use that as a basis for your preparation.

d. DIY synthesis

Now I know that both (b) Biblical theology and (c) Systematic theology are themselves methods that require synthesis. After all, any kind of theological approach requires synthesis. However, in (b) and (c) you get the advantage of utilising synthetic approaches that have been done for you, whether it’s applying Goldsworthy’s biblical theological schema to your topic, or canvassing Grudem or Horton for what they say about the topic.

Some topicals, however, require you to do that task of theology yourself. This is hard work, and requires a level of theological reasoning that most won’t be able to pull off (myself included), but it’s worth keeping it as an option in your arsenal. If your topic is something that leans towards theological ethics (e.g. abortion, politics, same sex marriage etc.) or current affairs (e.g. radical Islam and terrorism), this is probably the approach you want to take.

However there’s a reason why this is last on the list. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t recommend any fresh preachers/leaders to try this method.

2. Interrogate your topic

If you’ve been given a topic to teach, you really need to explore that topic well. This is where those trained in expository teaching tend to fall short.

In an expository sermon, I’m not supposed to just ‘springboard’ off the text. I’m supposed to spend my time exposing the text and let it speak for itself. And so my introduction, illustrations, and conclusions are there in a supportive role to my exposition. Read my post here for what I mean by this.

In good topical teaching, and especially if you use method 1(a) above, you more or less have to do the opposite. In topical teaching, you basically need to exegete the topic and use the text in support. More often than not, you have to springboard off the Biblical texts rather than delve deeply into them. Your introduction needs to really open up the topic, raise questions, anticipate objections and questions, and then lead from the topic into the body of your sermon/Bible study. Therefore your introductions may need to be much longer. Again, it’s not something you would ordinarily do in an expository sermon.

Now of course I’m not saying that we’re at liberty to teach passages out of context, or be indulgent with our introductions and illustrations. The point is simply that in order to do a good job teaching about the topic, you need to exegete the topic in a way that does justice to the topic.

3. Be very explicit in your logic

Following someone’s train of thought in an expository sermon is important, but in some ways, the way you present that logic depends greatly on the genre you’re preaching. Teaching a psalm or narrative in a rigid three point sort of way can sometimes strip the text of its beauty.

In topical teaching, however, I would argue that a clear and logical step-by-step organisation of your sermon/Bible study is vital. Even if you baulk at the idea of an 8-point John-Piper-esque sermon for your expository teaching, you’d probably want to head in that direction for your topical. In some ways, your topical sermon is structurally more like an essay or a persuasive piece of writing. In order to persuade me, you need to ensure that I follow your train of thought and argument well. And if you’re not in the habit of doing so, give your hearers detailed paper outlines if you can.

4. Don’t try to do everything

A 30 minute sermon, an hour-long Bible study – it’s impossible to adequately canvass most topics with those time limitations. Therefore we need to be realistic with what we can achieve in one session.

If you have any control over the teaching program, consider breaking the topic up into a teaching series that stretch out over a number of sessions. If, however, you don’t have that luxury, then don’t be afraid to just teach what you can teach in that one session, and give your hearers some resources they can follow up with.

I generally don’t do Q&As after normal sermons, but with topicals (and in particular thorny issues), it’s worth doing some. This can liberate you from having to cover everything in your sermon / Bible study. You can read widely, teach on one aspect, and allow people to raise issues that are pertinent to them.

What are some of your tips and suggestions? I’d love to read them. Comment below.

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