There are two different approaches to the preparation and deliverance of a message. One is to speak about a particular theme or topic, while the other is to expound one text from the Bible. Both are valuable, and both have particular advantages and disadvantages.
1. Thematic preaching
The first approach is to teach or preach on one particular theme connected with the Christian life. Normally, the theme is chosen and a selection of Bible references are then used to support the message.
This approach is helpful if you receive a one-off invitation to speak to a church or group on a particular subject. It is particularly appropriate for teaching on subjects which are widely spread around the Bible. One example is teaching on the Character of God, as different aspects of his character are illustrated in different places in the Bible. However, the danger is that the teaching will become rather superficial. It may be better to concentrate on one or two key passages, and go into these more deeply.
One disadvantage with this approach is that there are only a limited number of topics to chose from. It would be almost impossible to preach on themes to the same church for ten years, without much repetition. You may be reluctant to chose some of the more embarrassing topics, such as money or sex.
There are also some dangers to be aware of. One is to ensure that your theme is correct, and that you take care that you are interpreting and applying all the Scripture passages you refer to accurately, and not taking the texts out of their true context. Another weakness is that it can lead to a rather superficial use of Scripture, scratching the surface rather than digging more deeply into the text. This gives a wrong model of how to use the Bible, that it is merely a collection of scattered verses to pull out when required.
2. Expository preaching
The second approach is to preach from one main text and to draw out a message from it. The approach is more inductive, as the message is drawn out from the chosen passage. This can either be a one-off message from one particular text, or part of a series in which the preacher works through a book of the Bible.
There are many advantages of this approach. Firstly it is almost impossible to run out of material and subjects to preach on. Over a period of several years, this approach makes it possible to give broad teaching from all the Bible, laying a good foundation of the major Christian doctrines.
If the preacher works systematically through different books of the Bible, then the church is given thorough instruction. It also avoids some of the danger of being selective, so all doctrines, and topics are covered at some point, including the more embarrassing ones.
You can bring much more out of one passage of Scripture than you can from many. This gives much more depth to your teaching. It is also much less work to study one passage in the depth required, than to study many.
Through using this more inductive approach the preacher is modelling to the congregation how to read and apply the Bible for themselves. In this way it encourages a greater reverence for the Scriptures. It also causes you to be more transparent, by allowing your listeners to see where you got your ideas. Very importantly, it takes the emphasis away from the speaker and more onto the Bible.
The main disadvantage is that this approach has the reputation of being dry, boring and irrelevant to people’s lives. However, that problem is with the preacher, rather than the approach to preaching. There is no reason why expository preaching has to be boring. If it is interesting, delivered well, and has relevant life-changing application, then it will certainly not be boring.
An expository message will normally be drawn from one main passage from the Bible, but the preacher may wish to make brief reference to a few other passages as required, particularly for illustrations during the message.
Dangers to be aware of
1. The Biblical hook
This is when the preacher begins by reading a passage from the Bible, but then does not refer to it again for the rest of the message. This gives the false impression that the teaching that follows comes from the Bible, when in fact it may not. It is far preferable to use the use the text, dig into it, and allow your message to come from it.
2. Biblical claims
Another danger is when the preacher claims the Bible says something, without giving any references. This also gives a false impression that the teaching is Biblical, when no such passage may actually exist. It is very important that you allow the listeners to check whether what you say is true or not, like the Jews in Beroea (Acts 17:11).
3. Selective quotations
It is very common for people to quote many different passages of the Bible to support their theme, while ignoring many other passages which may say something different. There are many concepts in the Christian faith where there is a paradox, in which two seemingly opposing truths are both true. One familiar and controversial example is God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.
4. Referring to the Greek or Hebrew
If you have the ability to understand the original languages of Greek and Hebrew, it can give greater understanding to your message if you refer to them. However we need to be careful that we are not effectively claiming secret knowledge by claiming, “The Greek means ...”, as the majority of people listening will not have the ability to check whether that is true. Referring to the Greek can sound impressive, but a little knowledge of Greek can be dangerous.