I am a pastor, and as a pastor I spend the majority of my time preparing and delivering sermons. As I made my way through Bible college and seminary, there has always been two sides of the fence when it comes to preaching: book by book or topical.
I grew up in a church that was fed weekly with topical sermons until my teenage years. At that point, we had a pastor come that wanted to preach through books of the Bible. This was my first taste of book by book preaching, so I didn’t have a lot to go on going into college. Granted, this is probably not as sizable of a debate as Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism, or what’s going to happen in the end times. However, as a guy who was going to “preach for a living,” it became something I needed to take time to think about.
So here’s where I came down on the issue, and it can be seen in my ministry. I prefer to preach book by book. Here’s why. When God lays on my heart a book to preach through, he already knows that it is what I need and what his people need. He knows the schedule that it will fall into and what Sundays will present what topics within that book. Book by book preaching, for me, is putting the results in God’s hands. He handles the topics that need to be handled when they need to be handled.
Think about this with me. There is a situation going on in your church where a person is struggling to give to the Lord or they’re contemplating an affair or divorce, or they’re questioning whether they really believe in God. You know about the situation, so you pick a passage of Scripture to try to convince the person one way or the other. How do you think that will affect that person? God is greater than our agendas and our mistakes, so he could work in that situation. But there is something amazing about preaching through a book of the Bible and coming up on a passage of Scripture that deals precisely with something that a person needed to hear from God. It makes this pastor’s “after the service handshaking” so much better and more encouraging when I hear, “Pastor, that message was for me this morning.”
You see, God knows better than you or I what someone is going through, so I trust him in bringing the right message at the right time.
With that being said, I am not too obtuse to realize that God does lay topics on our hearts. I have preached month long series’ on conversion, giving, why Jesus came, being grateful, and more. I am also aware of the single sermon that God gives. I have interjected a few in my short time in the ministry. There are also special days: Palm Sunday, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and others that you may celebrate at your church.
So what does the pastor do then? I believe that no matter what, whether the sermon is part of preaching through a book or topical, that the passage must be properly understood in its context and that it must be preached in a way that exposes that understanding. What do I mean? Let me give you an example.
You can take a verse out of the Bible that deals with a topic and make it say what you want, but it is not what the verse means in the context within which it was written. We have just celebrated the Fourth of July, and no doubt many pastors may have preached on 2 Chronicles 7:14, “…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (ESV) This verse may have been used to speak to your church about the United States, but that is not the context.
Solomon just spent most of 2 Chronicles 6 praying to God. What we have in 2 Chronicles 7:11-22 is God’s response to Solomon’s prayer. This verse applies to the people and nation of Israel. Are there principles that we can pull out and apply, sure there are! But the fact remains, God is not promising this to the American people.
There are other examples, but they only express the danger of topical preaching. Really, it is the danger in all preaching. We have to preach from original context to today’s application. Whether we preach topically or by book, if we start with our own thoughts and biases, we’ve already messed up.
So here’s my summary. As a pastor of a church, you must decide what works best in your context. Do your people prefer series that are on a specific topic? Do you people prefer studying a book at a time? Do your people not have a preference? Once you decide what will work best in your context, let the Lord lead you to specific books or texts. And when he does, put in the work to determine it’s proper context and how it can be applied today.
With that, I leave you with the words Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the Word!”
Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think about preaching preference.