I Failed As a Topical Preacher Michael White

August 28, 2017

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 2 Timothy 4:2

I was a topical preacher once. I lasted four weeks.

My foray into topical preaching was well intentioned. I was transitioning into the role of lead pastor from an associate one at the same church, and my transition to the pulpit coincided with the beginning of the summer vacation season. My foremost desire was to preach the gospel, by modeling—with the Apostle Paul—knowing nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2) and expounding the thing of first importance (1 Cor 15:3). And secondarily, I wanted to reiterate our vision—to be a church where the truths of the gospel shape every aspect of our fellowship. So I designed two series to accomplish those aims, first a series on the glories of the gospel in redemptive history (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation) and then a series on characteristics of a gospel grounded church. It seemed like a good plan, I rationalized. Over the course of the summer these companion series would make the gospel and its implications plain, and once completed, I would return to my normal expositional approach as vacations ended and school started back.

But I struggled mightily. In sermon preparation I would stare—alternating between my Bible and my laptop—pondering what to say. Though I had clearly defined topics and goals, I found a myriad of potential texts from which to preach these. Determining what to include (and exclude!) was maddening, and I couldn’t shake the sense that my own creativity and cleverness were driving my sermon writing. I began to despair. How could I be confident I was preaching God’s Word when the text selection, sermon structure, and application were all products of my own creation?

Of course, there was another way. Three topical weeks were down, and nine more remained. And like the son who came to himself while still in the far country, I made a course correction. At the suggestion of a trusted friend, I floated the idea one morning in staff meeting: “Should we consider casting a gospel grounded vision for our church by simply preaching through a gospel saturated book of the Bible?” (How novel!) “Yes, we absolutely should,” affirmed the patient brothers who make up our staff team. And eight wonderful weeks later, as I write this, we are nearing the end of a joyous journey through the book of Colossians. That journey has, in ways I would have never even conceived, helped orient our fellowship to the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. It has invigorated a vexed young preacher, and shown me that, while my efforts were well intended, I was trying too hard.

Pastoral ministry is complex. Difficult decisions, challenging counseling scenarios, and leadership demands can press in from every side. But preaching is simple. We must preach Christ—and we must preach Christ through the Word. Why complicate it?

Stated simply, “Expositional preaching is preaching in which the main point of the biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached.”[1] Recognizing that the Scriptures are the revelation of God, his very words clearly and definitively spoken, expository preaching trusts that when God’s Word goes forth (i.e., when it is faithfully preached) its intention will be accomplished just as rain and snow water the earth (Isa 55:10–11). Preaching consecutive, verse by verse expositions of books allows the text selection and sermon structure to be largely determined by the Scriptures, and here there is both safety and relative ease for the preacher. While I am frequently overwhelmed with the inadequacy of my own words to meet the needs of our diverse congregation, thankfully his Word penetrates thoughts and intentions, and we can be sure that his Word is alive and at work (Heb 4:12).

I failed as a topical preacher. And I have no regrets.

NOTES

[1] Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Nashville: B&H, 2012), 36.

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