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.
Pastor Mark Driscoll and Dr. Gerry Breshears’ new book Vintage Church has a really helpful bit in their Q&A section following chapter 6 on ‘Church Unity’ (pages 158-159). In it they identify what they call four levels of certainty.
At the top are the truths you would die for. These are essential gospel truths that if one were to abandon, you’d be outside of the historic Christian faith, evangelicalism and perhaps even salvation. Things in this category would include the virgin birth, the full-divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection etc. I guess these would be your absolute ‘closed-hand’ issues.
Next are the truths you’d divide for. You don’t consider those who differ as outside of the faith, but you wouldn’t say, partner with them, invite them to speak at your church or fly under the same banner as them. In this category might be issues such as women in ministry (complementarian or egalitarian), Arminianism or Calvinism etc. These are also ‘closed-hand’ issues for your church, but there’s a caveat in that you shouldn’t allow arguments with them to
drain significant energy from our worship of God and hinder building godliness and proclaiming the gospel. (p. 158)
Instead of blogging about them, talking trash, or sending hate mail condemning them to hell, we should love them and emphasize our unity in the essentials. (p. 158)
(I think perhaps we in Sydney have a bit to learn from the above caveat.)
Next are the truths you’d debate for. These are issues you might engage in healthy debate over (perhaps even emotional debate over), but in the end you’d do it while
… maintaining regular fellowship, joining together in worship and proclamation.
In other words, you’d still count them as partners, you’d still fly under the same banner as them, you’d still consider them your allies in the work of ministry, even if you disagree on some things and have healthy debate over them. I guess these would be ‘open-hand’ issues such as worship style, politics and (perhaps controversially) whether one is cessationist, continuationist or somewhere in between.
And last are truths we’d simply decide for. These are ‘open-handed’ issues that really don’t matter in the end and aren’t even worth spending time debating about – e.g. whether you can have alcohol, whether you raise hands during singing, whether you sponsor a child or not.
Their conclusion is worth quoting:
Divisive people are ones who elevate lower-level issues to divide fors. False teachers treat die for issues as questions open for humble discussion. As we utilize these levels as a community of believers, we can avoid the trap of being unnecessarily divisive on one hand and compromising the faith on the other.
I think these observations are quite timely in the current climate of theological discussion and what’s making rounds in the blogosphere. In my mind, there are a lot of issues I would like to think are in the debate for basket that hopefully means people can differ while still being courteous and loving, keeping in mind that we are partners together in the work of the gospel in our city. But I fear that there are people who want to regard all of the issues being debated for as issues to divide for (or worse yet) to die for. Or perhaps unwittingly, by the tone with which we blog, comment or debate, we give the impression that these truths being debated over are in fact truths we ought to divide over.
I’d be interested to hear what you and your churches would consider as issues to divide for versus debate for?