Topical, Textual or Expository Sermons – What is the best method?

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to attend several church planting conferences.  Often, a session discusses whether preacher should preach topically, by text or if it should be expository.  What form of preaching is best, let's look at the options:

Topical Sermons: A topical message is a sermon where a preacher uses passages to support a thesis about a particular topic.  (eg. How to be a Godly Husband)  At a Purpose Driven Church Planting Conference,  one of the presenters said the very act of preaching expository sermons is a contradiction to the Bible.  To preach expository sermons was 'unBiblical' in the sense that the books were written to deal with specific issues & topics.  This is the model that a preacher should preach today.  Paul & Peter wrote topicaly and used 'texts' to support their points.

Text Sermons: A text message is one where a singular passage of the Bible is used as a jumping point to discuss a particular thesis. (eg. 1 Corinthians 13 to discuss Love is an Action)

Expository Sermons: An expository sermon is following a book of the Bible, passage-by-passage to allow the text to determine the point.  (eg. Galatians 1:1-4)  Most conservative churches would argue that expository preaching is the only way to preach.  Reformed churches stress lectio continua (preaching through whole books of the Bible in course).   Timothy Keller summarizes the sentiment as he writes why conservative churches feel non-expository preaching is theologically inferior; "1) First, other forms of preaching are considered 'man-pleasing' because we are choosing texts we prefer rather than preaching through the 'whole counsel of God' as God provides it in the Bible.  2) Second, other forms of preaching are more open to abuse since your thesis is not being controlled directly by the text.  3) Thirdly, other forms of preaching do not show as much honor to the text of Scripture.  The expositor focuses on the Biblical passage itself in a way that the others do not."

Haddon Robinson argues that expository preaching is essential in a postmodern context:

Twenty years ago it would have been almost impossible to bring a case to court against a minister. Today a lawyer that's defending a minister will do every thing that he can to keep the people in the jury from thinking of him as a minister. So we have lost a lot of the base, for a lot of different reasons. What we are really trying to say is, "O.K. if I can get people to study the Bible and to see the text, I believe that the Bible is self-authenticating." If I can get you to really read it, to look at it, to hear it, to understand it, it has its own power to convince and to convict and to change people.

Therefore in a postmodern age one reason that we work with the biblical text is to have the authority of the text — and behind that the authority of God — behind what we say. I've always believed that, but it has become clearer to me now than it has been in the past. That is not to say that the person in the pew has to accept my view of inspiration. It is simply to say that if the Bible is what I believe it to be — the word of God — and that the Spirit of God answers to the Word, then if I can lay that out before them in a relevant fashion it has the power to do what my authority today can't do. (source: Expository Preaching in a Narrative World: An Interview with Haddon Robinson)

Is there only one way to preach?  Tim Keller states that ultimately the method you chose is going to be selected for practical purposes.  (Often personal reasons & convictions that drive this.)  At the end of the day, preachers are going to tend to gravitate to what they are most comfortable with.

[Triperspectival Aside:  I would argue that Kings tend toward topical (and Purpose Driven Church plants), Priests toward text and Prophets toward Expository as part of their natural personality/gift structure.]

NEXT SERMON SERIES POST: Moving Beyond Method to Form: Propositional vs. Narrative Preaching 

  • Yucan

    September 13, 2006, 10:26 pm

    I think you can have a topical, expository sermon as well. If exposition is letting the text speak for itself, and topical is a matter of arranging various points that may be in different places in Scripture, then for sure it’s possible. Again, you have to properly exposit the text, in context, and use it in the topical sermon…

  • Laura

    September 15, 2006, 10:08 pm

    I agree with Yucan. Don Sunukjian, preaching professor at Talbot School of Theology, explains expository preaching as letting the text speak for itself. Thus, while the form of the sermon is flexible (book study, topical, first-person, etc) the basis for the teaching (biblical exposition) remains constant. This respects the Word and contextualizes the teaching.

  • D. Goodmanson

    September 16, 2006, 11:14 am

    Expository preaching isn’t only ‘letting the text speak for itself’ but I’m saying that preaching ‘expository sermons’ is a verse-by-verse preaching approach. Certainly you can do great work (as Yucan says) ‘arranging various points that may be in diff’t places in Scripture’, but this is what I’d refer to as ‘topical’ messages.

  • Yucan

    September 21, 2006, 11:50 pm

    Laura- funny you mention Don Sunukjian. He was my preaching professor, and that’s where I got my idea.

    Drew- I see your point. I think your definition is different from the typical idea where the thesis is not supported by the text used. thanks!

  • lussigagas

    April 2, 2007, 2:20 pm

    300 is a great movie full of visual effects and graphics which made it different and much better.
    Acting was great, director did a wonderful job and chose great actors, full of action, and it is based on a true story.

  • wilmore smith

    April 5, 2007, 7:15 pm

    please furnish information about your preaching guide.

  • Beck

    April 2, 2008, 5:06 pm

    what interesting conversations and helping me define what the difference of sermon types.
    Thanks all

  • Tobbias Ngala

    February 25, 2009, 6:36 am

    I Like your article on preaching, i am just tempted to think we are re inventing teh wheel, all these to me are preaching styles which can be incorporated in one session of preaching… i know you know this.

  • Isaac D.

    August 1, 2009, 11:07 pm

    Actually, the comment made under Topical Sermons isn’t true. Expository preaching is no contradiction to the Bible at all. It is as great a biblical example to do expository teaching as topical, if not more, because Jesus Himself did expository teaching to the disciples in Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (NIV) This wasn’t some topical teaching, but an expositional surveying where He systematically goes through the scriptures in order to show the areas that prove Him to be the Christ from what they’d witnessed of Him. The nature of the New Testament epistles contrasts what was said at the conference mentioned because the New Testament wasn’t written as books, but epistles or letters to specific churches and people – they weren’t intended to be topical “sermons.” So, when a church is feeding the flock he’s to take what is preached with apostolic authority in the New Testament scriptures and declare it expositionally. This is a position that considers better what the New Testament is.
    I was just doing a Google-search when I happened upon this website.

    • Rob

      August 16, 2016, 6:14 pm

      So what your saying is, Jesus was the topic, as he referred to the different passages that spoke of his coming.

  • Reverend David

    November 6, 2009, 5:15 am

    Expository preaching is verse by verse. However, most passages of scripture are based on a topical. For example, 1 Peter 4:7-11 tells us how to live in light of the nearness of Jesus’ return (1 Peter 4:7a). Living in light of Jesus’ return involves prayer (4:7b), love (4:8), hospitality (4:9), and ministry (4:10-11). When at seminary, I was taught that every sermon has a main preaching point and the sub-points expand and explain the main preaching point. In 1 Peter 4:7-ll, the main preaching point is “living in light of the nearness of Jesus’ return. The subpoint expand and explain the main preaching point. The sermon is expository because it is taught verse by verse but also it is topical. I have taught most of the New Testament this way.

    • Bro Ezekiel

      September 20, 2016, 8:01 am

      Expository teaching is actually passage based not verse by verse unless of course you meant to say verse by verse within the same passage. I agree with the author that exposition and textual teaching is the true method of exposing the truths of God’s word. Most of what I hear on TV today is more of entertainment than sound preaching. Blessings all.

  • Dan W.

    June 23, 2010, 10:39 am

    The idea of teaching anything that is man’s thought, the worlds thought is not only unbiblical but the primary meaning of the apostacy. Any type of preaching that ventures away from God’s thoughts and the original message is self-serving and will be the earmark of the “great falling away”. That being said, I believe that expository preachings aim is to get at the real meaning and intent. However, there is a time for everything under the sun.

  • gloria johnson

    October 14, 2010, 5:56 pm

    i am a min-in-training.since i can remember young, i been under the elders in the neighborhood hearding their conversions and they didnt mind,they said i had an old spirit,some would even tell me their problems,well what i am asking AM I CALLED ? WHY IS IT THAT I DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO IF I AM CALLED?I WAS GIVEN AN COMPLETE CASSETTE ON THE NEW TESTAMENT IN 1984.I NEVER USED, HAVENT THOUGHT TOO UNTIL FEW DAYS AGO.I AM A HANDS ON PERSON IN CHRIST NOT AFRAID TO BE A DOER, A GOOD LISTENER BUT… studies is a problem,what is what is not a sermon how to how not too,i do have patience but frustration kick in to remember any STUDIES,im sorry, i really need to know, by someone who dont know me AM I CALLED I FEEL IN EVERYWAY I AM BUT THE STUDIES SAYS OTHERWISE. gjj

    • Bruce C.

      July 18, 2012, 1:15 pm

      @ Gloria Johnson
      That’s a question that I have been asking for a long time. “How do you know when you are called.” When I started Seminary College in January 2012 I would ask my instructors that all the time. Their answer would be, “You will know when that time come.” Now, I was the type of person who would go to church sometimes and never read my bible. Just recently while I was home I received my calling. That soft voice talked to me and said, “You know what you have to do. It’s time to get about your Father’s business.” Something came over me and I knew immediately what it was referring too. That Sunday I popped up at church and no matter how hard I tried to sit back and not testify the Holy Spirit would not allow me too. I stood before God, the Pastor, and Congregation and testified about what I was called to do. With that being said there are a lot of people who go to church everyday, always speaking and reading in church and you would hear people tell them, “You will be a Preacher” or “That person is being called to Preach.” In other words if you speak about something long enough it will manifest itself into existence. They start believing in what PEOPLE are telling them. I much rather be called by the Holy Spirit to do work. The only advise I can give you is pray on it and ask God to guide you in the direction He wants you to go. Meditate on it and trust me you will hear that soft voice and when it speaks you will know who it is and what it is telling you. I hope this helps out. You have a blessed day.

  • Shepherd Mavizha

    September 22, 2011, 9:06 pm

    An expository preaching reveals the exact meanining of the scripture because unlike topical preaching,to expose a scripture 4contexts are to be considered namely grammatical context,immediate context,remote context and historical context.expository preaching illuminates hidden truth


    June 13, 2012, 10:21 am


  • Rev lawrence Tata

    April 7, 2016, 1:45 pm

    i think expository preaching is the best. but topical and textual can supplement when necessary.

  • Anthony Ekeson

    June 2, 2016, 12:51 pm

    If you are very conversant with the the scriptures you notice that both Jesus and his disciples employed all the various methods of preaching enumerated above to divide the word of truth. That being said, to me all of the preaching methods can be very beneficial if the user can strive to back them up with intensive prayer.