Sunday Potpourri Versus Biblical Topical Preaching
A publication I once read stated, “No other single activity will make a greater impact on your effectiveness in ministry than preaching.”
While other factors contribute to the success of our leadership and relationships, we must give priority to preaching. Good preaching does not come easily—it is hard work. In response to our preaching, people vote on us every week with their feet and wallet or pocketbook.
During the Great Awakening, Charles G. Finney forever changed the face of American preaching by introducing creative elements such as storytelling, personal experience, humor, and persuasive appeal in his proclamation of the gospel. Those elements endure in the homiletical practice today.
Who was the greatest preacher/teacher of all times? Jesus! What was His style? Obviously, topical or thematic. Evangelical writers agree that He focused on six themes.
1. Fatherhood of God
Jesus made some reference to the fatherhood of God 150 times. Because of His unique relationship with the Father, He always said “My Father” instead of “Our Father” when speaking to or teaching the disciples to pray.
2. Kingdom of God
Jesus stated His public ministry by proclaiming the good news of God: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15*).
3. The Son of Man
Jesus often referred to himself as the Son of Man. He obviously used this term to describe His character and mission in terms of the vision described in Daniel 7:13.
4. The Messiahship of Jesus
Jesus taught His disciples to believe in Him as the Messiah, the Christ (the anointed King) of God. However, He expressly prohibited public proclamation regarding His messiahship among the Jewish leaders because of their many misconceptions.
5. The Death of Jesus
According to all four Gospels, Jesus taught that He would suffer and die, and He devoted much attention to His coming death, especially during the last part of His ministry.
6. Future Events
Jesus taught regarding the immediate as well as the distant future. Ultimately the kingdom of God will come in consummating glory when the King of kings returns; then the Father’s sovereign rule will be revealed in the Son on a universal and all-embracing scale.
TEACHING OR PREACHING?
It is not unusual for us to draw a sharp line of distinction between preaching and teaching; that is, between didache(ethical instruction) and kerygma (public proclamation). We draw that distinction from the summary of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Matthew 4:23): Jesus went about all Galilee teaching and preaching. While these two activities are ideally conceived as distinct, both are based upon the same basic facts. The kerygma proclaims what God has done, while the didache teaches the implications of this for Christian conduct.
Undoubtedly the most prominent feature in New Testament preaching is the sense of divine compulsion. Jesus did not return to those who sought His healing power but pressed on to other towns to preach, for He said, “That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38). Peter and John responded to the restrictions of the Sanhedrin with the strong words, “For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Almost every preacher has parroted Paul’s words, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Style and all other aspects of proclamation yield to the fact that this sense of compulsion is the sine qua non of true preaching. Billy Graham reminds us in his evangelistic crusades that preaching is God himself breaking into the lives of men and women and confronting them with a demand for decision.
My challenge as a pastor was preaching three times a week with the expectation that the congregation would remember the lessons and put them into practice. It was unrealistic. I needed to reduce the amount of material we covered each year.
Since the first law of learning is repetition, I chose to focus on one theme a month for the Sunday sermons. With all the best-laid plans, most people only remember three or four sermons a year. Perhaps we could learn 12 things a year as a congregation. My plan was to spend an entire month teaching on some relevant topic.
The challenge of thematic preaching is to make sure it is not just a compilation of stories, quotes, etc. Thematic preaching should be as biblically based as any other type of preaching. It needs the same amount of study. Careful exegesis is mandatory to maintain the integrity of consistent biblical preaching.
A SUGGESTED PLAN
Here is a suggested way to think through the calendar year for preaching.
January is a great month to teach on goals or stewardship of time, talent, and treasure.
Since February includes Valentine’s Day it is the ideal month to speak about marriage and family.
The 40 days before Easter are called Lent on the church calendar. Rather than avoiding these liturgical customs or criticizing them, why not use Lent as an opportunity to teach on sanctification? I found that people from other traditions appreciated understanding the real meaning of giving up something if it will help one to become more like Christ.
From Easter to Pentecost is perfect for teaching on life in the Spirit. One can teach on the fruits and gifts of the Spirit as well as the power for witnessing that comes with the baptism in the Spirit.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are special opportunities to touch families with the themes of love and responsibility.
For July, use the theme of freedom with a special emphasis on the Sunday nearest July 4.
A September series, “Managing Life,” was popular with my congregation. The four patriarchs of Genesis provided perfect material for this series. Abraham managed his life by faith; Isaac by love; Jacob by grace; and Joseph by a dream.
The last Sunday in October is Reformation Sunday. What a great opportunity to preach on justification by faith and to set the day in its historical context! It enhances the service to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” noting the verse that declares, “The Spirit and the gifts are ours. …”
Veterans Day and Memorial Day are opportunities to touch the military people of the community. Themes of authority and honor bring a warm response.
Thanksgiving rivals any holiday of the year. Remind the congregation of the biblical admonition to give thanks and to set the historical context of this national holiday.
Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) can be a prime time to connect with people in the congregation who have liturgical backgrounds and to expand the understanding of those who are unfamiliar with the church calendar. It also provides opportunity to invite friends to church and to preach the four cardinal doctrines of the Assemblies of God: Jesus is our Savior, Jesus baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, Jesus is our Healer, and Jesus is our coming King. Isaiah 9:6 is made for Advent: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”
These suggestions are intended to be impressionistic rather than exhaustive. Preaching in a series with attention to special days creates a pattern for learning and living.
I like to ask myself some questions as I prepare a sermon:
- Would I want someone to talk to me this way?
- If I weren’t the pastor, would this sermon interest me?
- If I lived near this church, would I come to hear a sermon like this?
- Will this be easy to remember?
- What difference will this make in the listener’s life?
Ministers know the power of a deadline. Every time you turn around, it’s Sunday. Wasn’t it just yesterday you last preached? Now another sermon preparation stares you in the face.
As you prepare for Sunday with thoughts about the entire calendar year, may the words of Jeremiah 5:14 live in you: “I will make my words in your mouth a fire.”
*Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
H. Robert Rhoden, D.Min., is former superintendent of the Potomac District of the Assemblies of God.