As I was working on something today a simple question presented itself to me: “Why is it that so many large, growing, churches in the Bible belt today (and other places) have a large number of faithful members who know so little about the Bible?” Another question then came to mind? “And why is it that so many of them, when confronted with the challenges of life look to worldly solutions to get through instead of to God?” I am not mainly referring to those churches that don’t preach the Bible at all, I’m referring to many Bible believing churches with conservative views on the authority of Scripture.
One possible reason immediately came into my mind—because many of these pastors preach sermons that are not structured or sourced in such a way that is accessible to the minds of the average person. That is, they do not teach in a way that allows the audience to draw the conclusions for themselves, and they do not teach from a source that the audience can refer to at will. Many preachers of these churches tell stories or give example after example while feeding them little slivers of the Bible here and there throughout the message. Most of their messages are topical. Most of their series are topical.
One major problem with this, however, is that it does not lend itself to meaningful reproduction. There is no obvious logic as to the purpose or truth in these kinds of sermons that will manifest itself to the audience quickly. When they get home all they know is that they heard a nice story or that they liked (or didn’t like) what the preacher had to say today. In short, the origin, meaning, and content of the story are all bound up with the speaker. It is the speaker alone who knows how he came up with the logic, how he reasoned as he did, and where the conclusions should be drawn from.
This is one major drawback to consistent topical series’. They can be very speaker-oriented and very challenging to replicate in any meaningful way.
Preaching directly from the Bible is not fraught with such difficulties. When a preacher teaches straight from a Biblical text he can walk the audience through the text clause by clause and help them draw the conclusions (we call this the exegetical method of preaching). There is no mystery as to where the answers came from or why the preacher chose to say what he said—the bulk of the content either came straight from the Bible or sprung directly off of what was printed on the page. If a person gets home and has a question about it, he can reference his Bible for help. And if there is still a lack of clarity maybe he can talk to a mutual friend from church or pray about it, since God is the one who wrote the text. The preacher is involved minimally in the application of what was preached.
Though topical sermons are not wrong by any means (the Bible contains some of them), in contrast to the exegetical method, topical-sermon “preaching” does not have these advantages. The preacher must be intimately involved and must be the one to provide the answer because the audience has no clue where he drew his conclusions from and how he arrived at them (in most cases). There is no obvious logic that was built into the topical sermon because it is a product of the preacher’s mind, not a product of the Scripture text. Why he jumps from this idea to that idea may be explainable and understandable on some level, but there is no transcendent explanation for it. That is, his reasoning does not stem from the Bible fundamentally, so there is little way to explain it in terms that do not lead back to him. Maybe this is why so many pastors of these churches are like celebrities—they preach in a way that fosters dependence on them and not on God. Little godly fruit can be born out of such a ministry whether the preaching is accurate (or “Biblical”) or not.
THE WAY THAT SEEMS RIGHT TO US
One final thought to chew on. Often, sermons that are topically based assert our agenda and our priorities above God’s. And even more often, they introduce ideas and judgments that are not drawn from the text but from culture. This is overwhelmingly common today.
When we preach from the Bible directly and strive to follow it’s logic and it’s conclusions and it’s priorities, we are, in a very practical way, allowing God to be the judge of what needs to be said and of what is right and wrong. When we stray from this methodology for any serious length of time or in any fundamental way that alters our ministry practice, we may be endangering those under our preaching. The Bible says that there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Prov. 14:12). We must very cautious about what “seems right” to us.
It is a serious question we should ask our leaders: “Why do you preach on the things you do?” And if they are not preaching the Bible, ask, “Why do you not preach through books of the Bible very often or at all?”