by David Sisler

Doughnut holes. You know they are there. You can see them. They have form, but absolutely no substance. You can eat them all day long, but if that is your only food, you will starve to death.

So much of what passes for preaching today is a lot like doughnut holes.

I once asked a pastor if he preached topical sermons or expository sermons.

Before I reveal his answer, consider two definitions.

Topical sermons are just like the name suggests, you choose a topic, find a few scripture verses dealing with that subject and build a sermon. Expository sermons expose the meaning of a passage of scripture. To preach an expository sermon, a minister must first learn what the passage meant to its original audience, then he must relate it to the lives of his listeners. To preach a topical sermon only requires a concordance.

Don't misunderstand. Topical sermons can be good sermons. The basic tenants of our Christian belief system--prayer, faith, salvation--can all effectively be told through the use of a topical sermon.

The problem with a topical sermon is illustrated in the life of a fictional (I think) preacher whose favorite subject was "water baptism." Like all roads which led to Rome, all of his texts led to water baptism. One day his deacons called him aside and said, "Reverend, you are without a doubt the best 'water baptism' preacher we have ever heard. But would you consider preaching about another subject?"

The next Sunday, the good reverend was back in the pulpit and by way of introduction, he repeated the meeting with his deacons.

"In an effort to accede to their wishes," he said, "I am going to open my Bible at random, take a text sight unseen, and preach from it."

As luck would have it, he opened to Matthew 3:10--"Now the ax is laid at the root of the trees."

"Evidently," the minister began, "these trees were growing down by the river, and they were clearing out for a water baptism ceremony."

The danger of such preaching is that it leads to imbalance. A minister's favorite subject can be expounded to the neglect of all other topics. His listeners will become malnourished, starved for good spiritual food, or malformed, denied essential spiritual vitamins. I like pinto beans, but I would get very tired of them if they were on my plate three times a day, seven days a week. Topical preaching can become like that plate of beans.

Expository preaching is hard work. It demands study. It demands preparation. It demands that a minster walk where his people walk. Or as Hadden Robinson, one of the 20th centuries greatest expository preaches said, "He must scratch where people niche."

Expository preaching demands honesty from the preacher.

Let a minister announce that he is going to preach through the Gospel of Mark, discovering the truths of that book so that his congregation can grow up in the Word. He will eventually be confronted by Mark 10, the passage where Jesus talked about divorce. Sitting out in that minister's congregation will be people whose lives have shattered by the experience of divorce--husbands and wives, children, in-laws. Mark 10 will challenge him to deal with their wounds as well as his own feelings. Expository preaching will challenge him to discard personal feelings in favor of the entire counsel of Scripture.

Or let him announce that he is going to preach through 1 Corinthians. Perhaps he begins that series with a personal bias against certain of Paul's list of nine spiritual gifts. When he gets to 1 Corinthians 14:39, he will be forced to be dishonest, or else confront the command "covet prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues." On the other hand, his preconception may be that a free-wheeling spiritual atmosphere is the cure for what ails his congregation. That preacher will be challenged by the next verse which cautions, "Let all things be done decently and in order."

But back to my friend.

"Basically, what kind of preacher are you? Topical, or expository."

"I preach topical sermons almost exclusively."


"Expository preaching is just too much hard work."

"But don't you think your congregation would benefit from the balance of the two styles?"

"Perhaps," he said, "but did you hear the one about the ax being laid at the root of the trees?"

The trouble with that attitude is, most of the axes become dull and rusty. Sharpening them on new texts and fresh ideas keeps the axes--and the preacher who wields them--sharp.

With apologies to John the Baptist, maybe it's time the ax was laid at the root of the doughnut maker. God's people are starving for real food.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 5/27/95

Copyright 1995 by David Sisler

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