When you walk into any given church on any given Sunday there will come a point in the service when a man will stand in a pulpit or on a stage and begin to speak for anywhere from 20-60 minutes. Preachers preach differently. While nearly all of them will carry a Bible on stage with them, the way the message is presented differs.
If you want to know how your preacher preaches, take a look at the sermons he has preached thus far this year. More than likely, a preacher’s manner of preaching can be determined by looking at his sermons and sermon series over the course of a few months. It truly matters how a preacher preaches. I am not talking about what he wears, whether he paces up and down the aisles or sits on a stool, or how loud he preaches. Delivery style is not in mind here. I am referring to the manner in which the preacher presents the message of the Bible.
While I believe expository preaching is the only type of preaching that is valid for weekly preaching, there are other types of preaching that fill many churches each week. For those who do not preach expositionally, there are generally four major ways that they preach.
1. Anecdotal Preaching
The first type of preaching is anecdotal. An anecdotal sermon is a sermon in which the preacher primarily tells engaging stories with a moral lesson. While many preachers make use of anecdotes as an attention grabber to begin their sermons, an anecdotal sermon is filled with anecdotes. The preacher rarely gets around to a text of Scripture. These types of sermons are sadly very popular. People love stories and pastors who want to keep an audience roaring in laughter or crying from an inspirational story will attempt to motivate their audience with anecdote after anecdote after anecdote.
The best possible result from this type of preaching is moralism. People will leave the service wanting to be a better person and will take to social media to share the clever anecdotes and cute phrases from the sermon. People will go away from such a sermon entertained, but they will not have been fed from the Word of God. The big problem with anecdotal sermons is that they lack the sanctifying and transforming power people need to grow in Christ. If a preacher preaches anecdotally, he will ultimately fail to sanctify God’s people in truth (John 17:17).
2. Biographical Preaching
The second type of preaching is biographical. A biographical sermon is a sermon in which the preacher traces the life of a biblical character and draws contemporary moral implications. It is somewhat common for pastors to take a month or two out of the year to preach through the lives of men like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Paul, etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of preaching. There are many examples that we can draw from the lives of biblical characters. Seeing how David repented or how Paul risked his life for the sake of the gospel can be very edifying.
However, if the most these sermons do is call for moral improvement or behavior modification based on how biblical characters lived their lives, they fall short of the message of Christianity. The danger in preaching many biographical sermons is that it is easy to make points based on the lives of biblical characters totally out of context. Preachers who preach through the life of David, for example, fail to take in the surrounding context.
3. Topical Preaching
The third type of preaching is topical. A topical sermon is a sermon that has a topic in mind prior to consulting the text, and then searches for one or more biblical texts that addresses the topic chosen beforehand. This is quite possibly the most common type of preaching permeating American churches. A pastor thinks through a variety of topics he thinks would benefit his congregation, and then chooses one. From this point, he enters Scripture to find passages that support his topic. For example, a pastor may preach a sermon series on the family. He will take four weeks or so to address the family from four or five different passages. Topical preachers jump around the Bible throughout a given sermon series.
The danger in topical preaching is that the pastor’s mind or the congregation’s circumstances are ultimate while Scripture is nothing more than a helpful resource. The preacher is never surprised or challenged by a text of Scripture. He simply ends up studying and preaching his favorite topics. The text of Scripture does not set the agenda, so the text could easily be manipulated. When a preacher preaches topically, he can easily avoid passages that are difficult to understand. What’s worse, the congregation can never grow past the knowledge or maturity level of the preacher. If a preacher does not regularly preach expositionally, he will never preach more than he already knows. The church will slowly be conformed to the preacher’s mind, rather than to God’s mind.
There are certain circumstances when topical sermons are appropriate. For example, it may be necessary to preach on a certain topic when asked to preach at a conference, chapel service, or a special church event. A topical sermon can be expositional, insofar as it uses texts carefully and well, but the preacher must be careful since the point of the sermon was determined before the text of Scripture was consulted.
4. Textual Preaching
The fourth type of preaching is textual. A textual sermon is a sermon that refers often to a particular biblical text, but does not take the main point of the text as its own. Like topical preaching, this is a very popular type of preaching. Textual sermons look something like this: A preacher might have you turn to a particular passage and he might read verses from that passage, but then you might as well close your Bible and put it away. The main sermon idea in textual sermons does not come from the text. The biggest danger in this type of preaching is that the preacher can easily distort the message of the very text he has read, most commonly by placing his own ideas onto the text.
Preaching for Heart Change
Expository preaching is neglected by many in favor of these alternative methods. I think this is partly because expository preaching requires a tremendous amount of work. Expositional sermons take the point of the text as the point of the sermon. As I argued in my post yesterday, expository preaching requires diligent exegesis in order to dig for the meaning of the text as intended by the original authors. If one is to preach expositionally, one cannot just open his Bible on Sunday morning and throw an outline together.
Preachers must not allow the fear of the daunting task of expository preaching to scare them into other types of preaching that fail to expose what God has revealed. In preaching we are after soul transformation, not moralism. Heart change occurs when the man of God preaches the Word of God as it was intended by God. Expository preaching does this. Many of these other methods do not. Preachers, desire heart change that comes through the proclamation of the Word of God.
Beware of saying, ‘[Expository preaching] doesn’t work,’ and then turning to other techniques and leaving behind God’s way of changing people. You may be able to change people with ways and means different from this process of seeing the glory of the Lord in the Word of God, but will it be a change that magnifies the glory of Christ? Not all change honors Christ. Paul sounds this warning with the words at the beginning of 2 Corinthians 4:3, ‘And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.’ In other words, he admits that his gospel does not change everyone…Paul does not change his strategy because of this. Neither should we (from John Piper’s sermon at Together for the Gospel 2006)
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.