Biblical Clarity and Cultural Relevance Through Topical Preaching
Do you want to bring God’s Word dynamically into your congregation’s here-and-now experience? Then consider these four tools for effective topical preaching
by Doug Clay
When I pastored Calvary Assembly of God in Toledo, Ohio, in the late 1990s, nearby Lake Erie and the Maumee River proved to be irresistible attractions to one family-unfriendly crowd — the riverboat gambling industry.
I did not want to be known as a soapbox preacher. But I knew our church needed to take this opportunity to educate people on a biblical understanding of gambling, and, bigger than that, stewardship.
I did a topical series on culturally relevant subjects that summer, including a sermon I entitled “You Bet Your Life.” While the local papers touted the economic boom a nearby casino supposedly would provide, I helped families sharpen their understanding of God’s economics. Trusting in God’s provision and obeying His principles for living are always a better choice than trying to manipulate blind chance.
The apostle Paul said the preacher is “to equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12,13). A fundamental and biblical outcome of preaching should be to have each listener mature into the likeness of Christ.
If preaching is one of the methods God uses to change the character and conduct of the listener, then the preacher needs to build a bridge that connects the ancient text (God’s Word) to people who live in the 21st century and who deal with 21st-century cultural realities. This bridge building is a combination of art, science, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Topical preaching can effectively combine these elements to bring God’s Word dynamically into a congregation’s here-and-now experience.
When offered with excellence and after sufficient preparation, topical preaching helps listeners interpret the realities of cultural issues through the lens of Scripture to develop a Christian worldview. The preacher who clearly presents the truth of Scripture and applies it to the issues and felt needs of his or her audience creates a valuable starting point for this process.
Ecclesiastes is a profound book recording an intense search by the Preacher, or Teacher, (very likely, Solomon) for relevance, meaning, and satisfaction in life. You might say it’s the Old Testament’s most extended topical sermon. Tucked in this book is a set of blueprints that all preachers should consider using when attempting to build a biblically accurate and culturally relevant sermon.
“Keep this in mind: The Teacher was considered wise, and he taught the people everything he knew. He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them. The Teacher sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly” (Ecclesiastes 12:9,10, NLT1).
I suggest four tools for effective topical preaching, modeled on four tasks the Teacher undertook: gathering, reflecting, constructing, and delivering.
Four Tools for Effective Topical Preaching
1. The gathering process: “He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them” (emphasis added).
One of the first exercises when preaching on a topical subject is the topic itself. Sometimes a community issue, such as riverboat gambling, hands you your sermon on a platter. Other topics will present themselves at key events on your church calendar. A concerned parent may ask you to address a controversial subject a child faces at school or among friends. I pastored Calvary Assembly just as J.K. Rowling began sharing the adventures of Harry Potter with the world.
When you identify your subject, find out what God says about the issue in His Word. I invest time to find biblical references to the issue and study these references in the context of their historical setting. In my research, I ensure the context of the verses accurately connects with the subject.
You might identify one key text or discover a wealth of material concerning an issue. My treatment of Harry Potter connected with many parenting guidelines in Proverbs. A series on marriage could include marital counsel and marital examples from throughout the Bible.
I pepper a message with various texts to reinforce the value I am communicating. My goal is to substantiate each topical point with a biblical text people can wrap their memories around.
In topical preaching, personal and contemporary stories can powerfully augment the scriptural text. As you gather resources, identify someone whose life story energizes your theme. This story will be far more effective if you contact the person, record the details accurately, and gain his permission to share the information. If he can share the story himself, so much the better.
In the aftermath of 9/11, we invited someone to speak about losing a loved one in the World Trade Center. The speaker spoke about grief, about dealing with anger toward Muslims, and how to process why God allowed that tragedy to happen.
While the Bible should always be your primary source, topical preaching can open your horizons to other reservoirs of material. I would periodically preach from the front page of USA Today. The goal was not to present some news commentary but to ask how followers of Christ biblically interpret these issues.
I use the same approach when researching people in the news. At times I preached on the theme, “What Would God Say to …?” and then included the name of a celebrity like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or LeBron James. Out of that cultural connection I reinforced a biblical value. Again, take care not to go beyond reliable facts about that person’s life; in the same way your treatment of the biblical text should not include conjecture.
2. The reflecting process: “He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them” (emphasis added).
Reflecting on Scripture is biblical. The Psalmist said, “I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways” (Psalm 119:15). Sometimes the process brings a flash of inspiration. Sometimes your reflection calls for time and patience.
When you experience a Holy Spirit-inspired eureka moment, record your ideas quickly. There were times on a Sunday night after a service that I identified a follow-up theme to the message I had just shared, and I went to the office to work on the next message.
But I have also discovered when you are plodding through a subject, there is no sin in stepping away from it. Do some broader research. Google the topic. I am a big fan of Google (when protective filters are in place). Sometimes I will see a quote from a current article or news flash that resonates with the Scripture passage I have been studying. Sometimes I can break up my outline into smaller thought processes that generate productive hits during an online search.
Feedback is invaluable at this stage. You can generate feedback formally with a creative team on your staff or a focus group from your congregation. But feedback can originate informally. “I’m thinking about doing a sermon on this topic. What do you think? What’s your take? What questions would you have?”
I tend to divide the reflection process into two components: biblical exegesis and personal/cultural reflection.
The more technical process of reflection centers on the exegetical part of sermon preparation. This is taking time to consider the historical setting, literary style, grammatical structure, theological framework, etc. A variety of Scripture translations, commentaries, and other Bible helps will contribute to this step.
Probably the longest sermons series I ever preached was on the end times. Sermons on biblical prophecy and the end times all too easily shift from solid biblical exegesis to personal conjecture. I was determined to keep our people focused on what the Bible really communicates.
The series went 8 weeks. I started with “What to Do if You Miss the Rapture.” The Bible never allows us to set a date for the Rapture, but Scripture is clear we must be ready for the return of Jesus Christ. I encouraged people to prepare a DVD and put it in a safe deposit box and let unsaved loved ones know about it. “In the event of the Rapture, we would like you to watch this.”
But particularly in regard to topical preaching, your personal and cultural reflection process can play a much larger role. This is the devotional part of sermon preparation. This is meditating on the verse and asking, “What is this verse saying to me?” “What is this verse saying to the lives of our church family within our culture?”
Do not rush this process. New thoughts often emerge as you reflect on the material. Chuck Swindoll said, “If you think that the gathering of biblical facts, and standing up with the Bible in your hand, will automatically equip you to communicate well, you are deeply mistaken. You must work at being interesting. Boredom is a gross violation. Being dull is a grave offense. Irrelevant is a disgrace to the gospel. Too often these three crimes go unpunished and we preachers are the criminals.”2
3. The construction process: “The Teacher sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly” (emphasis added).
You have identified a topic; you have built a scriptural framework; you have identified additional resources; you have reflected on how you can put these components to the best use. In the construction process, you want to arrange and organize your material in such a way that you achieve understanding and application.
We do not measure the strength of a sermon by alliteration or other verbal tricks, but rather by how readily people grasp the message and act on what we have taught. Here are some observations.
- Keep your points/thoughts simple and clear. Each key concept should be able to stand alone. With numbers of families in our church dealing with the deployment of loved ones in the armed forces, I preached a message and gave a handout on, “Is War Really Hell?” I let each point in the message and each point in the handout deal with one challenging question.
- Keep a logical progression from point to point. In the aftermath of 9/11, I preached a message, “Are Jesus and Muhammad Related?” I wanted to clearly guide our people through a biblical and progressive understanding of who is Jesus Christ. They needed a structured framework, a biblical grid, for Jesus’ identity. They also needed a basic, point-by-point presentation of Muhammad.
- Offer clear action steps or takeaways. When I preached about Harry Potter, some parents wanted me to demonize the books. Others wanted a pastoral endorsement to let their children read the popular volumes. Instead, I directed moms and dads to biblical principles of parenting.
- Flavor the teaching with appropriate illustrations. The events of 9/11 flooded our nation with turbulent emotions and patriotic fervor. My sermon, “Moving the Christian Flag Closer to the American Flag,” used two of the most iconic symbols in our culture to illustrate an array of life choices we could make journeying through that experience.
- •Personalize your teaching with a generous dose of “I.” When your life connects with topics you share, let your congregation mentally walk in your shoes and face your challenges.
- Tie in to what’s going on in culture. If the economy is tough during the Christmas season, and all the news is about a lack of retail sales, craft a message that weaves stewardship and giving beyond monetary means into the larger narrative of Christmas.
4. The delivery process: “The Teacher sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly” (emphasis added).
A lot of preachers have good content, but they do not know how to turn a phrase. J.B. Phillips says, “If words are to enter people’s hearts and bear fruit, they must be the right words, shaped to pass defenses and explode silently and effectively within their minds.” Solomon said, “The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly” (Proverbs 15:2).
Solomon said the Teacher both found the right words and could express them clearly. When you are looking for the right words, ask yourself:
- What is the most practical way to say it?
- What is the most interesting way to say it?
- What is the simplest way to say it?
The topical message lends itself not only to the weekly sermon but also to the significant moments in our lives. It creates a scriptural framework for life-shaping events and gives an eternal context to a memorable day.
When the reigning atmosphere is one of joy, a topical message directs that joy toward God and His wonderful plan for our lives. I have helped many couples celebrate their wedding, and I always connected the key components of the ceremony — vow exchange, ring exchange, pronouncement — with topics that resonate with life stories of the bride and groom.
As well, in most Christian weddings, you can think in a second context beyond the central focus on the couple. Yes, it is all about this couple, and you want to speak into this very day when the two become one. But also, you want to speak to guests who may not have a Christian context but they are watching their Christian friends get married.
Life’s crisis moments find your listeners coming to the Word from a position of abject need, even as shock, pain, and anger can cloud their awareness of that need and foster resistance to the truth. At such times, your dependence on the Holy Spirit to convey eternal truth into a painful moment can make all the difference.
I have conducted five suicide funerals. I cannot remember a more difficult environment in which to offer a message. But my approach was both prayerful and quietly reassuring. “I am not here to place this individual in one of two eternal destinations,” I would say. “Let’s leave that in the hands of a God who loves this person better than we do.” I then clearly communicated that suicide is not God’s will for us to leave earth, and I urged everyone present to consider His best plan for their lives both now and in eternity.
You will do a disservice to your people and you will only partially fulfill your calling if you fail to take advantage of the opportunity to pastor your people through crisis. They will hear plenty of false messages about God from a culture that seeks to discredit the Almighty and throw every tragedy in His face — “This is the judgment of God.” “This is the end of the world.” You can reinforce that God is in control; His grace is sufficient to sustain.
People are hungry to know, “How do I handle this; how do I process this with some scriptural truth?” The caring pastor will seize the moment to bring the truth of Scripture into a calamity.
One of the most common dangers of topical preaching is when culture and Christianity are merged without any distinction. When pastors saturate a sermon with talk-show sound bites so people cannot tell Scripture from opinion, then they have compromised biblical preaching. When preachers lift the political banners of conservative or liberal agendas so high that the cross of Jesus becomes just a shadow, then they have made their quest for relevance become irrelevant.
Being relevant has nothing to do with watering down the gospel or compromising truth. Neither does it mean you need to eliminate all references to sin, the Cross, or commitment. Relevant is about using language that will connect the truth of Scripture to the people to whom you are speaking. Topical relevance is not being trendy or faddish; it is about using the language, vocabulary, analogies, and illustrations that will relate Scripture in such a way that it convicts the heart and motivates and structures a congregational response so they become living testimonies in the community.
The Christian preacher has the distinct privilege and awesome responsibility to present a biblical worldview filled with redemption and hope. Much of our culture’s collective message is that our world is beyond hope. Economic uncertainty, political distrust, and the threat of terror and violence have become the norm of nightly news. But the Christian preacher, with biblical clarity and cultural relevance, can offer the good and unexpected news that redemption is possible, hope is obtainable, and life is — contrary to popular belief — meaningful and eternal. No wonder the apostle Paul said, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
1. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.
2. Evangelical Church of Fullerton Newsletter, date unknown.