At a recent Draughts of Faith gathering, we got into conversation on sermons and the strong preference that sermons be based on the Bible and the sacred teachings that Christians find there. We agreed that sermons that are based more on a general morality are valuable, but as persons of faith we find it important to connect our daily lives with our sacred texts.
This brought about an interesting question. There seem to be two basic ways that preachers organize their sermons. One group is “topical,” taking a topic and using several scripture texts to support it. The other is “textual,” taking one scripture text and exploring how it applies to the world today.
I’m sure there are some who use different techniques altogether, and I’m sure there are some who do some blending of these two things. I get that. So let’s just deal with the two broader categories.
I’ve been to a number of churches where preachers there select a topical format. The sermons are very relevant to the social issues of the time. This is clearly a plus for this style. The preacher may select human trafficking, rising divorce rates, the current debate on abortion, or any other relevant topics. Again, a plus is the ability to read the the needs of a community or congregation and to shape a sermon that addresses those needs directly.
In my experience, there is necessarily some time to get into the topic and recognize its importance and impact on the community at hand. A number of scriptural texts are cited or quoted that may offer clarity or guidance on the topic at hand. I usually hear one verse at a time, and then there are a number of single verses used from various books of the Bible. I don’t hear in these sermons much exploration into their background. They are simply taken as they are read. In English.
Sometimes there are two or three scriptures used. Sometimes as many as half-a-dozen.
And every church I’ve been to that structures sermons in this way claims proudly to be a Bible-based church. And in some, I’ve understood somewhat of an undercurrent of the message that anything not done this way isn’t so Bible-based.
I even had a conversation with someone who told me that the more scriptures used in a sermon to make your point, the better. And that using just one text isn’t Biblical at all. And so I asked, what about using a passage of 6-8 (or so) verses all together? No, that’s totally not as Biblical. Biblical preaching does the same thing. When Paul – and even Jesus! – quotes the ancient Jewish texts, it’s usually just a verse at a time.
And so some seem to be at odds with a textual preaching style.
In this textual style, a preacher will usually select a passage from a single book of the Bible. This is often – but surely not always – selected from the Revised Common Lectionary (or another Lectionary). The purpose behind a lectionary is this (quoted from the Wikipedia link previously):
The major principle behind the lectionary is that on a Sunday members of congregations should be able to hear the voice of each writer week by week, rather than readings being selected according to a theme. Thus, in any given year the writer of one of the first three gospels will be heard from beginning to end. Likewise the rest of the New Testament is heard, in some cases, virtually in total, in others in large part.
The text is then generally analyzed in both historical and contextual senses, and often original Greek and Hebrew words are highlighted along with various translations to those words and how the text may be affected. This is an in-depth process known as exegesis.
This is the way I preach, and I clearly prefer this method to a topical style. So, why is that?
In a basic sense, I feel more like a topical style – while responsive to the needs of a community – is about humanity shaping our sacred texts to make them say whatever we want them to say. I can find any number of verses in the Bible, and as long as I use just the right verses (and leave out some of the context and surrounding verses) and I can tell exactly the story or make exactly the point I want to make.
And that kind of singling-out of verses has been used to justify things like slavery, sexism, and the oppression of LGBT persons (though I deal with these particular verses here). Now, clearly I don’t think everyone who preaches in this way is working toward the oppression of groups of people.
And it happens. Sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes it’s not.
And even if it happens unintentionally, isn’t that just as bad? Isn’t it a misuse of our sacred texts?
Could it even be blasphemy?
When we deal with an entire passage or pericope, when we get into the meat of it, I think it forces us to receive our knowledge from our sacred texts. It forces us to take God’s message for what it is rather than how we can shape it.
In other words, in topical preaching the message is our own enforced by a few cherry-picked verses. In textual preaching, we are guided by God’s message and we work to incorporate that message into our understanding.
Again, I’m clear that this is basic. Perhaps a little generalizing.
And I’d love to chat about it.