A Question of Content or Theme?
The first balance we looked at was to distinguish between biblical and systematic theology. Our second balance is a question of content or theme. Ought a sermon be driven by content or them? Let me explain.
A content based sermon (called an analytic approach) seeks to analyze the Biblical text. An outline of this type of sermon typically follows the grammatical outline of the text. And the content centered sermon appears more concerned with conveying all the content of a particular passage and less concerned on an organizing principle or unity of the passage.
A theme based sermon (called a synthetic approach) seeks to synthesize the Biblical text. The outline of the sermon is structured around the main point or theme of a given text. This type of preaching is more concerned with the organizing principle or unity of the passage than conveying all the content of a particular passage.
Perhaps it helps to characterize it in this way. A content approach to preaching can be characterized as dealing with the text in the same way a commentary would. Preacher walks through a passage defining terms, looking at specific clauses, drawing out theological tidbits here and there, etc. The aim of this approach is to help the congregation understand the meaning of a given passage.
A thematic approach to preaching can be characterized as dealing with the text in a way of application (whether theological or practical). The preacher walks through a passage mining the depths of passage through the particular theme of a given text.
Clearly, both approaches ought to be utilized by the preacher. And different passages call for different approaches. The letters of Paul often lend themselves more to an analytical approach while the Psalms or prophets land themselves towards a synthetic approach. Both aspects are necessary.
In my own preaching, I think I naturally default more towards a thematic approach for several reasons: (1) My seminary training placed a heavy emphasis on this approach of preaching. (2) I think there is a connection between my appreciation for biblical theology and a thematic approach—I love preaching theological themes. (3) I don’t find preaching that merely regurgitates the best of a commentary to do justice to the field of preaching. (4) It’s difficult to preach a long sustained analytical series that is memorable and discernible. One can read a 1,000 page book in a year, but how many of those 1,000 pages does one retain? Human memory seems to work better in retaining synthetic (i.e. thematic) preaching than analytical content.
Our next post will look at balancing explanation and experience in preaching.