Preaching Articles

OK, this is one of those questions where our practice is often at odds with what we say we do. What am I talking about? The big question, "What comes first, the text or the idea?" Some people will say that you are doing something illegitimate if you have a sermon idea before you have a text. But many of us definitely do that.

Some preachers tell me that you should always start with the text and let the sermon ideas flow from there. Addressing the needs of the community to affect what you preach is thought to usurp the authority of the Bible.

Let me say that I disagree with that stand. I believe that one can have an idea or a theme first. And as long as you do not allow that idea or theme to take over for the Biblical witness, you can still preach a faithful sermon. In fact, I would argue that ALL of us go to the Scripture with ideas and thoughts and interests, and questions. Your question is not my question all the time. Grandma’s question is not my son’s question all the time. And your questions do and must affect what we even see when we go to the text.

Now please don’t say, “Brother Cox says we need to preach our feelings and tack a text on at the end of it.”

That ain’t what I am saying. Let me put it this way. Our first question is how we find a text to preach. There are a number of methods for answering that question. I believe that allowing your understanding of the theme to help guide the selection of text can be helpful. But once you get a text, the text is in the driver’s seat. You have to struggle with that chosen text. You have to exegete that chosen text. You have to be true to that chosen text.

Now, piety tells us that we always have the text before our idea. But let’s be honest for a second; many of us have been given themes to address in a sermon. You know when you are given a youth day program and you are expected to preach to the youth. Or the deacons want you to address something related to the deacons on ordination day.

So you have a theme; is it legitimate to go to the text and then preach a sermon to the deacons even if the text is addressing something else?

OK, let’s get to the punch line. Someone is asking, “How am I supposed to do that?”

I’m glad you asked ...

I would suggest following a procedure like the following: You have a theme, so go looking at texts that you THINK will address that particular theme. Of course after a little exegesis you may find that it doesn’t address it at all. Or maybe it pushes you toward a deeper understanding of your theme. Yep, exegesis may confirm the text choice or it may push you to go find another text. Then again, it may push you to do a little bit more exegesis.

OK, you are thinking that this is a lot of work and it could take a lot longer than my sermon preparation normally takes. The only answer I have is…well yeah, it could take a lot longer…

So keep going forward with that text; it may or may not address that theme, but your in-depth exegesis will tell you if it does. Hate to tell you, but you may still later find out your text doesn’t address the theme. Then you must choose another text that may address the theme. This is why you need a lot of time to prepare for a thematic sermon.

In addition, I also would suggest that you take a chance from time to time. Like during youth day, why not take a sermon about an elderly Biblical character and see what it says to the youth. You may be surprised by the Spirit that one can be true to the text as well as preach a sermon relevant to the theme.

True, this is a painstaking process which is why you often hear the same sermons during youth day like, “Dare to be a Daniel.” But surprisingly, if you will only look at the Scripture with new eyes, you will see that many texts you thought may not address certain themes will address them.

Sherman Haywood Cox II is the director of Soul Preaching. He holds the M.Div with an emphasis in Homiletics and a M.S. in Computer Science.

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Tony Bland

commented on Sep 11, 2014

the truth is the only reason they who ever they are say get the text and preach it is because if you get the theme it will take the season preacher a lot of time to find the text and the less season you are the more time it will take but YOUR THEME IS IN THERE. I would not do it this way every Sunday, however from time to time you will need to do it this way. when the time comes start with all the stories you know in the bible, then check the stories you dont know

Douglas Hallman

commented on Sep 11, 2014

Back in the day it was called "proof texting" and this article is a good example of why topical preaching, while ok once in a while will not feed the souls of hungry Believers. Nothing can take the place of expository preaching, book studies that proceed verse by verse. That is the sure way of being led by the Holy Spirit and to feed the congregation. It also avoids the problem of "what am I going to preach about this week?" that textual, topical preachers often have. I suggest that this article be ignored.

Michael Garner

commented on Sep 11, 2014

Wow! So the only legitimate, spirit-led sermon series is one that slogs its way verse by verse by verse through a book of the Bible!!! I really thought the Holy Spirit was a little freer than that. Frankly, it takes a lot more study and application of scripture to do topical preaching on issues of importance to the body. I once heard of a preacher who bragged that he spent two years on a single verse of Ephesians. My only question was, "Where is he preaching? I'm not going there." I have done both styles and will continue to do what the Spirit leads me to.

Tony Bland

commented on Sep 13, 2014

thanks for saying that i don't need to do so

Robert Bravo

commented on Sep 11, 2014

Good article Sherman. I agree completely. I believe in this day and age the church needs to do everything it can to get the message of the hope found in Christ Jesus out there. Since preaching a one of the ways we should never limit ourselves to any one way. Use any sermon structure that is necessary as long as the message is supported by scripture. Thanks for your contribution. Keep the faith.

Mark Evans

commented on Sep 12, 2014

I don't understand what the misunderstanding is. lol. Did everyone, all of a sudden, forget what they learned in bible college? :) There are 3 types of sermons for a reason. There are topics: Sanctification, Justification, Marriage, Parenting. If were to constrain myself to a single passage on marriage then I would be missing the whole of scripture on the topic of marriage and would not be justifying the teaching nor pleasing our heavenly father. I therefore must, necessarily, preach topic sermons, textual sermons and expository sermons with balance with expository sermons being the what I do the most. Now what constitutes expository sermons? :) Now that's a "topic" for another day...or should I explain that in an expository manner?

Mark Evans

commented on Sep 12, 2014

I wonder if one could write a topical article in an expository way. Here's the real medicine to "take down"...Whenever you do preach a topical message make sure your "study" of it was expository to prevent you from inventing unnecessary points. A lot of sermons I hear that claim to be expository are really a hybrid of expository and textual.

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