Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?

In last week’s post I explained a few reasons why I believe the best diet of preaching consists of “expository sermons.” In expository sermons, the point of the Bible passage is the point of the sermon. This type of preaching is over and against “topical sermons.” In topical sermons, the theme of the sermon is what drives the passage (or passages) used.

I won’t repeat the reasons for why I believe expository sermons are best, but I thought it might be helpful to illustrate what the preparation for a topical sermon might look like, at least a very particular kind of topical sermon. The type of sermon I have in mind is an “application-heavy topical sermon,” especially one done within the context of the “attractional church.”

Say what? Application-heavy? Attractional church?

It would take a while to unpack these terms in detail, but in short, when I say “application-heavy,” I have in mind sermons that focus primarily on what we are supposed to do. So, for example, sermons titled “4 Steps to Living without Anger” or “3 Ways to Thrive during Trials.”

And when I say “attractional church,” I have in mind churches who view the Sunday worship service primarily as a way to reach the un-churched (or de-churched) within their communities, especially by providing a highly polished worship service that is presumably attractive to outsiders.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to reach outsiders. Moreover, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to teach the Bible in such a way that you give clarity regarding how to live. But think about something with me for a moment. Think about what happens to someone’s view of the Bible and Christianity and the gospel when he or she listens to this type of application-heavy preaching for a decade or so? If you spend years listening to preaching that is primarily designed to tell you what to do, how might this shape (warp?!) your understanding of the Bible and Christianity?

In his book The Prodigal Church, author Jared C. Wilson argues that application-heavy topical sermons become the “new legalism.” The old legalism was one of don’ts, while the new is one of dos. Both of these, however, “are just flip sides of the same legal coin” (84). Without a strong gospel focus, neither avoidance of sin nor pursuit of obedience will please God (Hebrews 11:6).

The remedy, Wilson argues, is Christ-centered expository sermons, that is, sermons that see every passage of the Bible as pointing to our need for the Savior and how we have that Savior in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

It sounds strange to say it, but this type of sermon—a Christ-centered expository sermon—was the type of sermon Jesus preached in Luke 24 on the road to Emmaus. So Luke tells us, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27).

And what was the audience’s response to this Christ-centered expository sermon? “They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’” (v. 32).

In my own experience as a pastor, after listening to a decade of these kinds of Christ-centered sermons, I can personally attest that people do change, and they generally change for the better. This has happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others. When we deepen our faith in the gospel week after week, we are only then able to live or apply the Bible appropriately. Remember, according to Hebrews 11 it’s “by faith . . . by faith . . . by faith . . . by faith . . . by faith . . .” that great deeds are done.  

Most of my ministry experience has not been in the attractional church where topical sermons reign. There was, however, a brief stint in college where this was the case as I helped in a local youth group that was part of an attractional church.

Nevertheless, because my experience with the attractional church is limited, I thought I would end this post by letting Jared Wilson himself share how he learned to preach application-heavy topical sermons in the attractional church. He has since left this way of preaching behind, but his recounting of his early days in ministry is a telling one and one that illustrates perfectly what I hope myself and others will avoid as we prepare sermons. Wilson writes,

“Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

“Ever heard the Bible explained that way? It’s a handy mnemonic device that certainly has some truth to it. But does it get at the heart of what the Bible really is?

“While being trained in the ministry, I learned how to craft sermons from listening to a lot of messages from our youth ministry, and from asking some pastors to help me. The gist of the enterprise was this: I needed to come up with a spiritual topic or “felt need” to address, something practical that my audience would be interested in or otherwise just needed to know. After identifying the topic, I needed to draft three or four sermon points, and these needed to be points of application, things my audience could actually do. The emphasis was constantly on practical application, not merely on intellectual information. The sermon needed some handles.

“When my practical steps were listed, I needed to find biblical support for them. Anything that could not be supported with Scripture had to be rewritten or abandoned altogether. Every sermon had to be, in the parlance of the times, “Bible-based.” (It is not uncommon now even to see on the websites of some attractional churches that their messages are “Bible-based” or that they offer “truth based on the Bible.”) So then began the work of digging through the concordance to find Bible verses that might match and support each point.

“It was typically a good idea to find a verse that used the wording similar to the message point, and if you found something close, you could always tweak the message point to match the language of the verse or, alternatively, look at the verse in other Bible versions to see if the wording in one of those versions better matched the wording of the message point. . . . In the end, it was common to see a sermon that contained references from multiple Bible versions—the result of searching for just the right wording.

“It took me years to unlearn this approach to preaching. But in the end I began to discover that the approach was very much upside down. I had learned to preach by making the Bible’s words serve what I wanted to say rather than by making my words serve what the Bible says. To teach and preach in this way is implicitly to say that the Bible can’t be trusted to set the agenda, and that my ideas are better than the Bible at driving changing in my audience. . .

“I’ve also come to see the Bible in a different way. I’ve always believed it was God’s Word, of course, and that makes it living and active (Heb. 4:12) and perfectly capable of making us complete Christians (2 Tim. 3:16–17). But I had been treating it more as a reference book than as a story, and more as a manual of good advice than as an announcement of good news. (Jared C. Wilson, The Prodigal Church, 71–72)


[Picture by Jazmin Quaynor / Unsplash]