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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Four Thoughts on Relevant, Biblical Preaching

A recent Gallup survey explored the major reasons Americans gave for attending church.

Now, mind you, this was a survey of churchgoers – not would-be churchgoers. It’s why the “already convinced,” if you will, attend.

But with that in mind, the results are important to consider. The two top responses, separated by a single percentage point, are:

  1. Sermons relevant to life (75%)
  2. Sermons teaching scripture (76%)

Headline? Three out of every four choosing to attend church do so because of the message. The survey found other factors are compelling as well, to be sure, but these two are paramount in people’s minds (followed by what is offered for children and teenagers at 64%). 

So what is involved in relevant, biblical teaching?

More than mere exposition.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of, if not preeminence of, expository preaching. If you’re not familiar with that term, it means delivering messages that take sections/books of the Bible and teaching them verse-by-verse, “expositing” the meaning of the text.

It’s a wonderful way to teach the Scriptures. It’s helpful to those who are on the listening end. I am currently doing an expository series through the book of Philippians, myself.

But contrary to some circles of opinion, it is far from the only way to teach. And, even more to the point, far from the only way to do it biblically.

To my point, here are four thoughts about biblical preaching, particularly in light of the current pressure to make it merely expositional:

1. Jesus never preached expositionally. Not the way it is suggested to be done today (I’m not sure there are many examples of anyone doing it in the Bible.). If I had to categorize His style, I would call it topical preaching – proof-texting various passages, sometimes offering careful exegesis of a single verb – but more often laced with story after story, illustration after illustration. 

The irony is that if I used that description of a contemporary individual, there would be howls of protest of compromise and biblical shallowness.

Oh wait… Jesus was criticized that way, too, in his own day.

Some might counter: “We can’t make Jesus’ style uniform. He was unique and could teach that way with authority, independent of much Scripture.” I would agree that He was unique in every way, not the least of which His authority, but I would disagree that we can’t emulate His style in terms of use of story. He came to model both life and ministry. 

2. Topical preaching is often criticized as if it is not biblically based. For example, topical preaching would be a series on parenting, or a series on marriage, or a series on finances. But why isn’t this considered biblical? Topical preaching at its best is the best of biblical theology. And isn’t that what we’re after?

Biblical theology is looking at the Bible in its entirety for its comprehensive teaching on any given subject. This is the goal of all preaching, even expositional preaching. If I am teaching through Philippians, I will need to teach it with an eye toward all of Paul’s writings – not to mention the canon itself. The best model of interpretation is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. So the best expositional teaching is going to be based on a wider biblical theology. 

But that is all topical preaching is: biblical theology, based on solid exegesis. So let’s quit making it a derogatory classification. It’s one of the most important tools in our belt.

3. There can be a menu of styles and approaches, allowing a wide range of topics to be addressed optimally. In fact, if you want to be an effective communicator of Scripture, this is what should be pursued. 

When I prepare a teaching schedule, I consider several dynamics: the life of the church I lead and its unique needs; the questions and concerns being posed by the wider culture and, specifically, the unchurched community; areas of leadership that need to be addressed through the language of leadership; “hot” topics of interest that present spiritual questions being met by spiritual confusion; areas of discipleship that have been exposed as collectively weak… and so much more.

Each series tends to lend itself to a particular biblical source material. Perhaps a book of the Bible speaks uniquely to the need, and thus an expository series is at hand. Other times holistic biblical theology needs to be pursued through a topical series that draws together the relevant biblical teaching on a particular subject. Other times a specific sub-section of a book of the Bible is called for, such as the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.

Each topic can also lend itself to a particular style. Some are more narrative in nature, others more didactic. Some are laced with stories, some are much more bullet-point by design. The bottom line is that there should be – even must be – variety in teaching and presentation in light of the subject at hand.

But all with one foundation.

4. All sermons should be biblically based (specific scriptures), biblically informed (in light of the full canon of Scripture), with the aim of applying biblical truth (relevant).

And this is the real point that all should drive home. Not whether one style is better than another, but the importance of every style being biblical. When you examine messages contained in the New Testament, you do not find any uniformity in terms of style or approach, personality or structure. Whether Jesus or Stephen, Peter or Paul, there was variety. Even within the teaching of one individual, such as Paul, there was variety. 

The one commonality was that they were biblically based, biblically informed, and biblically applied.

And that’s what relevant, biblical preaching is all about.

James Emery White

Sources

Lydia Saad, “Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers,” Gallup, April 14, 2017, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.