From time to time people will ask me why I don’t preach verse by verse through books of the Bible. It is true that I would not call myself an exegetical, verse-by-verse preacher, but I also don’t think the style of preaching I do could be truly characterized as topical. In most cases I am walking through larger ‘chunks’ of Scripture in a sermon and unpacking those verses and applying them to the issue being address.
Here are some of the reasons why I preach the way I do here at Grace Fellowship:
- Rather than preaching verse by verse through a book of the OT, Jesus preached sermons related to a topic – if Jesus thought it was effective… so do I! Seriously… when you read through the Gospels you don’t see Jesus gathering a crowd and then starting to preach or teach verse by verse through one of the Old Testament books of the Bible they had at that time. He used visual illustrations, and He met the people right where they were and taught using just a verse or two for the basis of His teaching. It was hard hitting, and did not compromise God’s truth, but it was not an in depth explanation verse by verse through a book of the Bible.
- There is no biblical record of the Apostle Paul or any other disciples ever preaching exegetically, verse by verse, sermons from a book of the Bible. You can see examples of this with Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts (on Mars Hill and other places).
- There is no command in the New Testament instructing pastors to preach or teach verse by verse through books of the Bible. In Paul’s letters to Timothy, he doesn’t take time to exhort him to preach in a certain manner. He simply says to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2).
- Many times the emphasis on preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is driven by a belief that Bible information is the key to changing lives. Paul tells us that knowledge alone puffs up, but love edifies (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1). Not always, but many times the preachers and churches that are characterized by verse by verse preaching through books of the Bible are heavy on information or Bible facts, and much lighter on how those Bible truths apply to your life. I think that Bible application is the key to changing lives. Sheer volume of Bible information is not what changes lives. In-depth Greek or Hebrew word studies is not what changes lives. Understanding how to apply God’s Word practically in our everyday lives is what produces a love and passion for changing & growing.
Too often the goal of exegetical preaching is simply “What?” “What does the Bible say?” Our goal at Grace Fellowship is not just “What?” but “So what?” and “How?” “How does that apply to your life today?” “How would you start doing what God’s Word says to do in that verse?” “What needs to happen for you to start obeying what is being taught there?”
The clear and practical application of God’s Word to a person’s life, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is what changes lives. As a communicator I certainly benefit from word studies, but I rarely choose to pass all the details of my study on to my listeners. Believe it or not… my goal is not the preaching or teaching itself… my goal is changed lives. I want to connect real people to a real God, through His life-changing Word.
- But make sure you understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying it’s wrong to preach verse by verse through books of the Bible, but I am saying if you choose to do that, be careful. Make sure you don’t get more caught up in your exegesis, and the details of your word studies, and lose sight of the main thing… communicating for changed lives.
- There seems to be an arrogance among Christians who prefer exegetical verse by verse teaching of the Bible… as if they’ve got the corner on the market… they love God more… and they honor God’s Word more. This isn’t true of everyone, but I run into it frequently when this question of preaching style comes up. I rarely hear anyone criticizing exegetical preachers, but I do hear quite a bit of criticism from exegetical preachers, and Christians who prefer that format, towards preachers who preach more topical or expositional sermons.
- Look at the end result. I can’t speak for every other pastor who’s chosen to preach sermon series that are more topical or expositional (rather than exegetical), but God has been very good to us here at Grace Fellowship. People are changing and growing because of what they’re learning from God’s Word. So if changed lives for the glory of God is the final goal, then look at the fruit of our ministry. Are people being saved? Is the Gospel being preached? Is Christ being exalted? Is the cross central in the preaching and teaching? Rather than backing away or watering it down, do we preach and teach the whole counsel of God’s Word – even the hard places? Are believers being fed and grounded in God’s Word to know how to handle life effectively by handling God’s Word accurately? Are people more devoted followers of Christ? Is the Bible our source of authority for making decisions and setting direction in our church? Is sin being exposed? If all of that is happening effectively, I see no reason for alarm or concern. The comment I hear more than any other at our church from new people is “I’ve never grown this much in my life at any other church.” If changing and growing more and more into the image of Christ is the goal (see Roman 8:29) then it appears that God in His mercy has been pleased to use both expositional or topical sermons, along with exegetical sermons to get us there.
- It could be that this question regarding the style or format of the preaching is centered around a personal preference more than it is the issue of “right” or “wrong.” It is the same as people who want to argue hymns versus choruses. I’m aware of people that leave our church for this and other matters of personal preference, and they are not wrong to do so. However, God has been using this expositional style of preaching here at Grace Fellowship to bring people to Christ and root them in His Word and His grace.
- Preaching and teaching expositionally does not mean it’s lighter in theology or preparation time. My first priority is the sermon preparation; I spend more time each week preparing my sermon than anything else I do. Preaching expositionally rather than exegetically does not mean that it was just thrown together at the last minute. Also, preachers who preach the way I do are not more liberal in their theology, and they are not less committed to the authority of God’s Word. God has graciously used people to communicate His Word who have been more topical or expositional rather than exegetical. Charles Spurgeon was certainly not liberal in his theology or uncommitted to God’s Word, yet he rarely preached an exegetical sermon. However, he always preached a biblical sermon that was anchored by a verse or verses that he was driving home to the hearts of the people. He preached for changed lives, and God blessed.
- Format or style of preaching is no indication of the level of love for God’s Word. I hope that my love for God’s Word and my submission to its authority is equal to any exegetical preacher. While my messages are not usually rooted in one passage that is being unpacked verse by verse they are rooted in the truth of God’s Word, and each point is anchored by a biblical truth or verse that from Scripture. Now… please understand. I don’t expect to convince you to prefer topical sermons; that may never be your preference. However, I am hoping to persuade you that expositional or topical messages can be as rooted in the Word of God as exegetical ones.
Below are some additional comments from Pastor Andy Stanley that express the same passion and approach to preaching that I hold:
“If spiritual maturity were synonymous with information transfer, or more specifically, Bible content transfer, then thoroughly covering Bible material would be fine. But it’s not. And you know that. I know that. Everybody I know knows that. You and I know that Bible knowledge can lead to pride; the antithesis of spiritual maturity (I Cor. 8:1). It’s interesting that the group who knew the Old Testament Scriptures best were the very ones who considered Jesus a blasphemer and arranged for His crucifixion. Knowing isn’t enough.
The goal should be to teach people how to live a life that reflects the values, principles, and truths of the Bible. In short, my goal is change. I want them to do something different instead of just think about it. When I’m finished preaching, I want people in the audience to know what to do with what they have heard. And I want them to walk away motivated to give it a try. This goal flows from what I understand the Bible to teach regarding spiritual maturity. The way I read it, spiritual maturity is gauged by application not contemplation… So here’s my point. Preaching for change requires a different approach to communication…Every communicator I know wants to see lives changed as a result of their preaching and teaching. But too few communicators have developed an approach to communicating that supports their passion… Preaching for life change requires far less information and more application. Less explanation and more inspiration. Less first century and more twenty-first century.
Preaching for life change involves picking those passages that are most appropriate for and applicable to our target audience. This is what Jesus did. This is what the apostle Paul did. They addressed felt needs and supported their teaching with references from the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Scriptures is there an example of, or reference to, anyone teaching through a book of the Old Testament. They knew better.
I find it particularly amusing when I hear of pastors spending months preaching through one of the epistles. Think about it. Each epistle is a carefully written argument addressing the specific issues of a specific church. So what do we do? We carefully exegete a letter written to a first-century church about the issues they we facing while ignoring what’s happening right in front of us. If we really want to take our cue from the apostle Paul we should address the specific issues confronting the people of our audience. Communicating For A Change, by: Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, pgs. 95-97
So what’s your goal? How do you define success? Which concerns you more, how you did on Sunday or what you people are doing on Monday? And if it is the latter, does your approach to communicating support what you are trying to accomplish? Or does it compete?
We have enough hearers. The church in America in particular has been listening for generations. We need doers, appliers. This means we need sermons that are loaded with applications and preaching that is communicated with inspiration. Will you make it your goal to lead your people to do and not just to hear? And would you commit to doing whatever you have to do to bring them to that point, regardless of the changes it requires of you? Communicating For A Change, by: Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, pg. 98