Published on December 30th, 2013 | by Dave Bitler
The Importance of Preaching: Sermon Flavors
God has blessed his church (i.e. His People, not the buildings they gather in) with various gifts. Preaching and teaching are important gifts in the life of the church (Eph. 4:11) and the Bible declares that those who utilize these gifts will be judged by God with increased strictness (James 3:1; see also 1 Timothy 1:6-7; 2 Timothy 4:3; 2 Peter 2:1). However, even in the midst of these warnings we see those who sit under teachers and preachers are not to accept things blindly, but like the Bereans we are to search the Scriptures ourselves so that we can judge what is true (Acts 17:10-11). This is why we should aim to be discerning listeners and learners. This does not mean that we should criticize our teachers and preachers, but that we should weigh what is being taught and ask questions – always appealing to Scripture as the basis of our knowledge and faith.
With this in mind, I want to continue with thoughts on the importance of preaching, and expound briefly on the different types of sermons that you may hear. Preachers often will have their own preferences and lean to one style more than the others, but being able to discern what type of sermon you are listening to will allow you to listen more intelligently because you’ll be able to know what you should be listening for and how to go about evaluating it.
There are several different ways a sermon can be organized and developed, the exact number is dependent on who you ask. I am going to keep it simple and talk about the most common 3: Topical, Textual and Expository.
Topical sermons are designed to answer the question, “What does the Bible say about (some topic)?” This involves a more systematic or holistic approach to the studying the Bible. These sermons may cover multiple biblical texts and be extended over several weeks. Often times topical sermons are delivered in response to some community event: perhaps a sermon on marriage or dating in time for Valentine’s Day or a historical overview of a certain topic (charismatic gifts, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, baptism).
In topical sermons, the preacher is (most likely) going to have to draw the main ideas/points from one or more scriptural passages combined with other sources (i.e. historical documents, church creeds, etc). The Bible alone may not provide sufficient source material to cover the selected topic completely (for example, the Bible cannot give us an account of how a particular doctrine has evolved over time – historical documentation would be needed).
Topical sermons can be very informative and practical, but they also require listeners to be especially discerning. Because topical sermons generally involve a variety of Scripture texts, it becomes very easy for the context of each of these texts to be lost. The old saying is helpful and true, “Any text without context is pretext.” This does not mean that preachers will (or must) explicitly define the context of each passage in order to make the point, but we must take care not to allow the practice of taking selected verses from here and there out of context in order to make the case that the Bible is saying something that it does not intend to say. Topical sermons can easily become sermons of personal opinion rather than expounding on what the Bible really says about a topic. Making sure that we understand the context of scriptural passages is a good first step in ferreting out biblical truth from personal agenda. Personal opinions are an acceptable part of any sermon provided that they are under the authority of Scripture. Extra-biblical sources are also fine as informative support material, but they never hold the force of a biblical mandate.
A textual sermon can, in some ways, be similar to a topical sermon, but a textual sermon pulls its main points from one or more biblical texts without significantly drawing on outside sources. Textual sermons will often take a Scriptural text that contains a general theme and use other biblical material to flesh it out. For example, a sermon on the topic of sins of the flesh may be grounded in Galatians 5:16-21, but in order to expound on a specific sexual sin a preacher may chose to relate the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) to develop his main points.
Again, as with topical sermons, context is very important. When dealing with any biblical text we always want to be asking, “What is this text really saying?” Many Christians however (even the most seasoned among us) come to the text already assuming we know what it says. The problem is that many of our ideas about what the Bible says are informed on sources other than the Bible. Traditions, culture, and ethnic heritage are just a few of the outside factors that come to influence our view of God and His Word. These things shape our understanding of the Bible. Whether we like it or not, we bring these things with us every time we read it or hear it. This is not to say that these things are bad, but we need to recognize their effect on our understanding and be willing to make necessary adjustments. To start, we need to pray and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance every time we approach the Scriptures. We need His power to overcome our preconceptions and allow the Word to speak to us. Church traditions and denominational teachings can be helpful, but they are not infallible and should always be subject to the Word.
Expository sermons are completely driven from the biblical text chosen by the preacher. The overall theme of the message and the main points (and any sub-points) are all going to be directly based in the scriptural text. The goal of an expository sermon is to communicate what this particular text says in its context. Preachers will often employ expository sermons when they want to preach through a larger section of Scripture, or even an entire book. Here the text itself sets the agenda. Every point or distinction made in an expository sermon should be readily evident from the text.
Expository sermons are, in my opinion, the most helpful to a congregation because it allows the preacher to demonstrate the process of good biblical exegesis (the process of discovering what the text says) in addition to the result. In other words, if you listen carefully, an expository sermon will not only tell you what the text says, but it will also give you guidelines for how to handle context, grammar, word/phrase meanings, literary genre, etc. in your own personal Bible study.
As you seek to be a more effective listener, please remember to pray for your pastor daily, especially as regards sermon preparation because that is arguably his most important task.
To Christ alone be the glory!