Instead of focusing on a specific Bible passage and drawing out the things it has to say, a topical sermon starts with an issue and tries to find out what the Bible says about it. For example, the sermon might deal with an issue in church life such as prayer, giving, worship or evangelism. A topical sermon may deal with particular challenges we face in life such as suffering, temptation, balancing family life etc. Sometimes the topic will be to do with apologetics and might deal with questions such as “Science and the Bible? Or “Can you prove that there is a God?”
My personal preference, even when preaching on a topic is to stick with a specific Bible passage and see what it has to say about it. This enables me to focus on doing a good job of exegeting the passage properly, understanding its context and its primary purpose. However, quite often, a topical sermon will draw on various Bible passages to explain, illustrate or prove a point.
The temptation when listening to a topical sermon is to simply listen out for the specific information and advice that will be given on the subject. If the preacher is talking about marriage, then I will take note of all he says about how to be a good husband, to work on my communication, be forgiving, take time to listen etc. The risk is that I treat listening to the sermon like reading a self help book. If I do this, then I will treat what is said like any other piece of advice and I will judge it pragmatically: does it feel right to me? Will it work?
Similarly, the preacher may be tempted to select Bible passages which seem to prove his point and even to read his preferred application into them. This is known as eisegesis and is the opposite of exegesis. Exegesis involves drawing the meaning out of a text and we do this with expository preaching, eisegesis means reading meaning into a text.
So, as hearers, we should be listening out not just for the application but for the Biblical basis as well. We should be asking why the preacher has chosen particular Bible passages and checking that we understand their meaning and context.
Like any other sermon, we still want to hear and obey the application. We should not just treat the topic as a matter of interest or curiosity. It’s also important not to pick and choose which topical sermons we pay attention to. If a preacher chooses to speak on a subject to the whole church and not just to a specialist group, then we should assume that God has something to say to us, even if the subject does not relate directly to us. For example, if a sermon is about being a good leader and you are not a church leader then you can still gain so much from this.
First of all, you will want to pray for your leaders and so the sermon will help you know what to pray for them.
Secondly you will want to be a good church member who respects and submits to godly church leaders. A sermon on leadership will tell you a lot about what the leaders are seeking to do and will help you to respond to what they ask of you.
Thirdly, in many churches, the whole congregation are involved in choosing church leaders and so you will want to know how t go about choosing the right sort of leaders in the right way.
Fourthly, you may not be a leader now but this may be something that one day you are called to. The sermon may even be the means by which God begins to speak to you about this.
Fifthly, whilst the specific examples in the application may not relate directly to your situation, you will find that these are underpinned by good Gospel principles and you will be able to apply them analogously to your own situation.
To give another example, I recently preached on divorce and re-marriage. Now, I didn’t choose to do this as a specific topical sermon, it was actually the case that the subject came up as we worked through an expository series on Mark’s Gospel. Most members of our congregation are not divorced or facing divorce, though some have been through very difficult relationship issues. However,the subject is very relevant to all because:
There won’t be a person in the church who does not know at least one family facing the pressures of breakup. Listening to a sermon about divorce should challenge us to pray for those whose relationships are in trouble. We should also want to know how to relate to others and support them as they go through these circumstances.
Although we may not be experiencing difficulties in our relationships now, we still want to hear godly wisdom now so that should we face challenges in the future, we will know how to respond. Indeed, even for those who are not yet married, hearing what Jesus has to say about marriage and divorce helps them to consider the seriousness of marriage and to think carefully about the relationships they engage in.
Although divorce may not be immediately relevant to many of us, the underlying principle of faithfulness in relationships is relevant as we think about family life, friendships, church life, work commitments etc.
Finally, I suggest you listen sparingly. Well to some extent you don’t have much choice aboutn what is served up to you do you? So this is really an appeal to congregations and preachers alike. Please commit to serving a good diet of teaching anchored in expository preaching. Topical studies have their place but do not allow them to overwhelm the teaching menu!