Bible-Based Sermons

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.

3 thoughts on “Bible-Based Sermons

  1. Bob,
    one of the truths I have learned about “topical preaching” is that all preaching does become topical preaching, if we understand, as one of my seminary professors was kind enough to point out, that every text should bring to mind 3 other texts. Because of the context, the phrasing, or even the fact that it is quoting a piece of text or part of a story, each passage of scripture intertwines with other passages of scripture…and in this way it does become topical, for the topic of the primary text. I think, this is why Wesley was so adamant about the “whole tenor of scripture” when speaking of the primacy of scripture. The other premise I then bring to bear in preparing my sermons is that then I can do “topical sermons” as defined by the needs of the community (though I do not do current events as such, though I bring in current pieces as they relate to the text chosen ahead) because I allow for the text to speak to me and illuminate other texts from scripture.

  2. “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.”

    True. The pastor with an agenda will use this style to pick and choose verses that support their agenda and uphold their belief but that is not what the Word of God is for.

    I prefer the topic method where the message is not tainted with the preachers personal opinion or agenda.
    The pulpit was never meant to be a the political pulpit of the day.
    When I attend church I wish to learn about God.
    I want to worship God.
    I frequently look to scripture when I find myself in need of advice.
    I do not pick and choose what scriptures to use.
    I pull all the passages related to the subject and analyze the data.

    The divisions in the Christian Community are driven by:
    1. Personal agenda.
    2. Inaccurate information
    3. Poor and incomplete reference to scripture.
    4. No or little knowledge of tradition and history.

    Believe it or not, We have elders, teachers and pastors in the pulpit that do not believe in much of any thing the church is founded on like:
    1. Death and resurrection of Christ.
    2. Blood atonement.
    3. Old testament teaching. We have more Marcion’s in the church than we should have.

    How these person’s are accepted as members, let alone leaders is beyond my understanding.
    Person’s that hold these anti-Christian views wish to do public works for the good of the community they should become social workers not preachers, bishops, elders or teachers in the Christian Church.

  3. One thing I think is rarely considered is the following.
    The days of preachers, teachers, elders and pastors preaching before a church that does not have access to information on topics preached is over.
    In days of old people had to buy books and run to libraries to research a topic. Not so today!

    Today, in the pew and out, by a touch of a button, I can check, research and study any topic the church is teaching on.
    I can look up, with lightning speed, anything said that does not sound right.

    I can look up, by name, a persons past writings and know their position, left or right on almost any topic of interest.

    We need dedicated, God loving, Word believing teachers in the church.
    Any preacher teacher not dedicating a large amount of their week to study is probably not going to be a great teacher.

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