Person studying the bible

The Idol of Expository Preaching

When I was at seminary, one of my preaching professors became quite zealous while lecturing our class one day. Waving his Bible in the air he yelled out, “Expository preaching is the only true preaching that shows a preacher loves God and reveres His holy word! None of that topical, mamby pamby, self-help, feel good nonsense! Topical preaching is for preacherettes who share sermonettes to make Christianettes!” He was met with dozens of “amens” by my classmates but I was unsettled.

It would not be the last time I’ve heard “the lecture” about expository preaching being the only real preaching. This mantra continues to be repeated over and over among evangelicals. It’s almost humorous to hear the inflection of their voice change when they even mention topical preaching. It’s almost as though they want to spit after saying it. “Topical?”…puttah!

Young preachers, eager to be greatly used by God, catch the message. If you want God to use you, you better preach the right way!

The problem I ran into was that as I read the Bible, the sermons I found recorded in scripture were mostly topical. To be clear, topical preaching must still be rooted deeply in scripture but doesn’t necessarily focus on just one passage. Whereas expository preaching is verse by verse, topical preaching is verse with verse.

Examples of topical preaching would be Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, Philip in Samaria, Paul’s sermon in Antioch of Pisidia and Athens, and of course, the most famous sermon of all time preached by the greatest preacher ever – the sermon on the mount by Jesus.

The interesting twist to the story is that I was also taught in seminary that preaching is “divine truth shared through human personality.” If that’s true, then one would expect an incredible diversity in preaching styles and methods.

When God called me to preach in 1985, He was crystal clear about the message but not so clear about the method. Over the last 34 years I have heard A LOT of preachers – some bad, some good and some great. What I have noticed is that there are as many ways to preach a great message as there are great preachers.

I’ve found that the penchant for expository preaching, though noble in intent, can easily slip into the category of preaching snobbery. Just mention in a preacher’s gathering that you primarily preach topically and watch the eyes roll and the smirks fly. There’s a misguided arrogance that believes that expository preaching is the only deep preaching for mature Christians.

Billy Sunday, Presbyterian evangelist, posed as if preaching, c. 1915

The truth is that there is no one right and holy way to preach/teach God’s word. Expository preaching is not THE biblical method, it’s A method.

Whether expository or topical there are certain objectives all preaching must do:

  • All preaching should be sharing God’s truth from God’s word.
  • All preaching should help people better understand God’s character and purposes.
  • All preaching should be crystal clear on what one must do in response to what they have just heard.
  • (I might add that it also should not induce narcolepsy)

Whether you do this with one text, 5 texts, or 50 texts is irrelevant. Personally, I think the best method depends on the objective. I use both expository and topical.

I decided years ago that I was less interested in being part of the Preacher’s Cool Club and more interested in seeing hearts healed, families restored, addicts set free, and lives changed. Frankly, I don’t personally care what method of preaching one uses so long as it is biblical and gets the job done. But I do tire of the endless exaltation of expository preaching as the one.true.method.

Just my $.02 worth on a Saturday morning.

  • James Wong
    Posted at 08:56h, 30 October Reply

    I prefer expository over topical.With expository the mesage is scriptural based that you can refer to afterwrds especially when the bible study afterwards is sermon based.
    Very few preachers can give a topical sermon that is focused with focused references.Preachers often veer to their favorite topic no matter what the title of their sermon.Eg Joel Osteen and Hour of Power.
    The egs given from your introduction is not evidence for topical preference.After all they had only OT references.Jesus did refer to his inablility to perform miracles to the OT.So did Peter in his pentecostal sermon.Pauls topical focus was necessary as a connecting point with the Athenians.
    Vangelists including BG de, idvered topically for this same reason

  • J
    Posted at 19:23h, 26 March Reply

    Great post. All too often I have seen people so enamored with ‘expository’ preaching that they allow error to creep in. It is as if many preachers think that expository preaching makes error impossible.

    Not to mention, many expository preachers end up inserting their own message into the text anyways.

    So I agree fully. No matter the method, it is the substance that matters. Let’s focus less on the method (man made religion) and focus more on the substance (truth).

  • Andrew Blye
    Posted at 23:46h, 26 July Reply

    I appreciate this post. I am working on a Masters at TEDS and my thesis will be on this topic, particularly within the Pentecostal tradition. Topical sermons are almost the standard. Of course, the downside I have observed is that the church suffers for knowledge of the Word of God. Something I have practiced in expository preaching is to always tie the passage in with other parts of Scripture, themes, the Biblical theologies present and ultimately the Gospel. I agree that some expository preaching can become so laser-focused on a particular text and dry. We can preach verse by verse and still address the big topics, without resorting to purely topical sermons.

    • Brian Moss
      Posted at 15:32h, 27 July Reply

      Thanks for the feedback Andrew! sounds like you’re going to go way deeper on this subject than I could cover. Sounds fun! I wish you all the best!

  • jj
    Posted at 03:13h, 04 August Reply

    Ridiculous. All sermons were based on the words of Christ. The word of God. Peter’s sermon was not topical. The topic was based on God’s word which is an expository sermon. There is no topic without a scripture as its foundation. If you’re preaching a topic apart from scripture you arent preaching a sermon. To preach a topic apart from scripture is idolatry.

    • Brian
      Posted at 14:06h, 05 August Reply

      LOL. Please, tell me how you really feel.

      I feel you may have missed my point. Topical is a style not a substance. It’s simply a methodology for communicating the Bible.

      My post stated “To be clear, topical preaching must still be rooted deeply in scripture…”

  • Mark Ford
    Posted at 15:57h, 24 January Reply

    I agree with you 100% Pastor Brian Moss it should be what ever method you get across to peole todeliver God’s holy scriptures. If a pastor stays true to true to the holy scriptures then the Holy Spirit will guide you. Not everyone is going to be reach by an expository sermon and not everyone will be reach by topical sermon! We are the vessels for God’s uses and the Holy Sprirt will convict and draw in people in God’s right timing not ours!

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