To write a sermon based on a topic is a very challenging task... if you want to do it well. Some call this a thematic sermon. No matter what you call it, a topical sermon begins with a topic, need, or situation and moves to find a passage. More often, it is composed of several passages which come together to fill out the sermon. Differing from a doctrinal sermon, the topical sermon generally addresses a life situation, deeply held concern, or question that people face when dealing with faith. A doctrinal sermon addresses a traditional doctrine and interprets it in light of one or more texts. Here is how to write a topical sermon well.
~ Define the topic as narrowly as possible ~ It is difficult to write a sermon on 'marriage' or 'death.' These are too broad. Try conflict in marriage, grieving a loss, or facing your own death instead.
~ Brainstorm a number of texts that might relate ~ You may already have a text in mind when you think of the topic. That can work. The only difficulty is you may have that text come to mind because you already know what you think that text says. Better sermons are born when the text surprises the preacher, catches her off guard, and helps her view the text from a new perspective. So find passages that you think might do this. For example, try preaching on Philippians 1 for conflict in marriage instead of Ephesians 5.
~ Limit the number of passages you will use ~ The biggest problem with most topical sermons is they give us all paper cuts. We sit in the pew frantically trying to keep up with the rapid flipping back and forth from one passage to the next. More importantly too many texts strung together increases the chance of proof-texting, and limits the texts' ability to say something we didn't expect to hear. Somewhere between one longer passage to three relatively short ones is a good rule of thumb.
~ Do your exegetical work ~ Here is the rub of topical preaching. You multiply your work. Some people think that topical preaching is easier since you can start with a problem and just outline an answer. That is a bad way to think about it. It certainly isn't faithful to the text. This is why step 3 is crucial. You need to study every passage you will preach on, at least at a structural and contextual level if not at the level of the original language.
~ Perform the texts out loud ~ Embodying texts with 'vocal and physical gesture' as Charles Bartow puts it is a way of making your 'entire self...a site for the acquisition of knowledge.' He suggests this leads us to a 'soul-deep body sure internalization' of the text. Most preaching processes leave speaking the text out of the process of interpretation far too long. Embody them out loud paying close attention to the tone, gestures, facial expressions, etc. that help the passage come to life.
~ Read the passages through others' eyes ~ Preparing to preach should never be an individualistic activity. At minimum the preacher should find commentaries that transcend his or her tradition to find a different perspective. Better, is the reading of the text from an empathic vantage point - how would a widow, a child, an immigrant, a person of a different ethnicity, or a different gender read this text? Best, is the ability to talk with actual people with real bodies about how they perceive the text.
~ Wrestle with how the text changes you ~ In a question and answer process with the text, try to arrive at what it is preoccupied with. It may not be preoccupied with what you think. Then become preoccupied yourself with that same obsession. Ask yourself, 'How does this passage want to change my life in thinking, acting, or feeling this week?'
~ Prepare a sermon that helps the listeners become preoccupied as well ~ If the preoccupation of the texts 'swallows up our questions' and shifts our thinking, acting, and feeling in light of the scriptures you have preached well. You can structure topical sermons inductively or deductively, in linear points or in a narrative format. (See related articles on this page) However you do it, the goal is the formation and transformation of the community . . . preacher first. ** See relevant tips on topical preaching below.
- A well-written book by a Christian author on the topic can often prod and poke you in the right direction.
- Be sure to make the texts come alive on our street. Use language, images, and if you have to stories that come from places we can relate to, understand, and envision in our own lives.
- Avoid giving pat answers to deep problems.