The surprise of preaching texts

I preach texts. Almost always. By that, I mean that my sermon is governed by the selection of one text. In fact, I think of my sermon as a performance of the text, not as a way of talking about a text or making points about it or pointing to its lessons. Rather, I think of the sermon as a faithful enactment of those things in the text that want to perform. 

As I go from place-to-place and listen to sermons, I realize that my approach is not really very common. More and more, I hear sermons on topics. I note this as an observation, not a judgment. These sermons are good. Very often, these sermons hit the main criteria I use to evaluate a sermon: is it gospel? I think its just as likely that you could take a text and miss the gospel than it would be taking a topic. So, I have no criticism for preachers who take topics as their main way of preaching. In fact, to be good at it, you have to be a pretty good theologian.

As with any approach, there are strengths and weaknesses, and I’m a big believer you should preach to your strengths. The strengths of preaching topics is the way they provide clarity and settle things for the listener. There are often more immediate take-aways in a topical sermon.

I’ve had more than one person say to me at the end of a sermon, “that was beautiful, what does it mean?” Fail. Sometimes I wish I was good at topical preaching.

I always had trouble sketching out a topical series. It requires in advance a good idea of what you are going to say from sermon-to-sermon. I’m not clever enough to do that, I guess. For instance, I blogged a few weeks ago about a topical series I did on the” five-finger exercise” a few years ago. I already knew what I was going to say about each and what verses I would anchor my sermons to. But in this series, the topics were obvious, handed to me by Church of Christ tradition, and I’m not good at stitching other broad themes together. And I’m horrible with titles, which a topical series kind of thrives on. My titles are like, “Mark 1:1-18.” Yeah, I need help. So, I’m envious (hopefully, in a grateful, thankful kind of way) of preachers who can line all that stuff out.

And I think I prefer topical preaching to a certain way of preaching texts. Often I hear sermons from texts where the most boring part of the sermon is the reading and “explanation” of the text. This is typically the result of the “stance” the preacher takes vis-a-vis the text. When the text is in view, their stance is often outside of the text. They stand in the contemporary world making observations about a distant text. They point to it, more than they inhabit it. “Paul told the Corinthians…the greek word here means…in context this verse means… .” Yawn. So the text often loses the emotional valence contest with the illustrations or stories or jokes that take place outside the text. If this is how texts are preached, give me a topical sermon by someone who knows what they are doing.

But, here’s the magic for me of preaching texts the way I do. I’m nearly alway surprised. And I’m a fan of surprise for theological reasons.

Now, I’ve done this enough by now that I’ve preached on a lot of texts. So, sometimes I have a sense beforehand of the direction the sermon will go. But I don’t keep sermons or outlines, precisely to keep the possibility of a new hearing of the text alive. And a text never performs in a vacuum. It is always performing in the world in front of the text, that is in the world of the readers, which is always moving and changing. It is always a live question, “what is this text saying today, to these listeners?”

In my experience with topical sermons, that question is sometimes decided beforehand. There’s less opportunity for surprise. But in the struggle to hear simultaneously text and context, I’m nearly always surprised by the shape or direction the sermon takes.

Let me say it another way. There’s the possibility that a topic in a series represents something I already have or think. It travels on more settled terrain. But a text is always “other” than me. And while some texts are familiar friends, many of them are strangers that I would never mention in a sermon where I already have the conclusion in view. Like Jacob and the heavenly stranger, taking a text is a wrestling, hoping that there will be a blessing in the end.  And I think as a general principle, wrestling with the other leaves room for surprise and surprise is sometimes is where the Holy Spirit resides.

Preaching a textual series, then, often has this feature: you take texts that you would otherwise never visit. In fact, it’s less that you take the text than the text takes you. The same could be true for topics. You might decide to preach on a topic that you would ordinarily not visit, but I think it’s less likely that if you preach texts in a series, and in this case, it’s still the preacher who decided to take on the topic. (Now, I realize that if you only take texts, it won’t be clear what a contemporary Christian imagination might have to say about topics or ideas that don’t appear in biblical texts. You should absolutely preach topics from time-to-time).

One last advantage to taking texts. I think if your main preaching diet consists in topics, its tougher to avoid the charge of preaching an agenda. Now, I know that taking a text can be a thin disguise for working an agenda. But I think I’ve avoided that charge, even in congregations more conservative than me, because they sense that my sermons are governed by a disciplined approach to texts over time. This may be a case where perception becomes reality. That is, I might be quite deluded in thinking that preaching texts keeps me from soapboxes. But, I know congregations would rather believe they’re being worked on by the text than the preacher.

So, I take texts most often when preaching, partly because of my weaknesses with other approaches, but partly for the ways that this kind of preaching surprises me, and its the surprise that often makes preaching satisfying. 

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to The surprise of preaching texts

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Mark, this is a key reason why I tend to use the lectionary to guide my preaching. I do diverge for topical series from time to time, but that is not my starting point. Right now I’m using an alternative 4th year lectionary, which gives a bit of variety and takes me to texts the RCL tends to avoid — often for good reasons! You have to handle some of these texts with great care.

  2. norma says:

    I’m glad you have remembered to ” . . . devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture . . .” I remember how surprised I was to find that just by reading Scripture, I could not find most of what I was being taught by my preachers!

  3. I also preach texts almost all the time, and more than part of the reason is because I, too, am just no good at topical sermons. However, I think it is to some degree fair to claim that even approaching a text from a certain angle is not quite as subject to eisagesis as is preaching a topic supported by various texts. While I approach the text from my own point of view, which usually is not identical to the author’s point of view, the process of wrestling with the text provides the opportunity to let the text “overpower” me and shape my own view in the proclamation of that text. There is the possibility, under this theory, of having a different point of view when preaching the text than I had when approaching the text. If that’s true, then I’d say it’s probably good for the church (for some of the reasons you noted).

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  4. Ken Boggs says:

    I started as a topical preacher, but two years in to it I felt that I wasn’t being true to the text. I’d chose the topic, then decide what I wanted to say, then find the text to support my premise. I switched to textual preaching and have found it much more rewarding. Thanks for sharing!

  5. sjpattersons says:

    After your point about ” is it gospel ” my interest kind of drifted.. I read the rest but, really I think that’s your best scale with which to weigh the matter… I think we all preach the good news with our words and actions everyday. I think I am as much of a missionary as anyone.. Although many wouldn’t agree with me , but , that’s not something I need. You do an awesome job in your delivery of the word. Never stop learning 🙂

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