A Topic or a Text?

By Duffy Robbins

I’m occasionally asked whether it’s better to do a Bible study or Sunday school lesson based on a text or a topic? Should we be working through one of the gospels, or should we be surveying the Old Testament? Should we use the curriculum that was sent from the Publishing House or should we just abandon traditional teaching altogether and go uber hipster: turn off the lights, bring in the candles, and just play Nooma videos back to back for two hours?

There are two approaches we can take when we teach the Bible. The following two exercises will help to demonstrate the difference between the two approaches.

1. Take a moment and read through 2 Kings 2:23-24. As you read, jot down the possible topics that are suggested in these two verses. What did you come up with? Here’s the list I came up with:
• Speaking to Build Up,
• Anger-Management,
• Respect for the Elderly,
• Animal Rights,
• Learning to Forgive,
• Bald People, and Why We Should Be Kind to Them.

2. Let’s take one of the topics from the lists above, “Dealing with Anger,” and in the space below, list five Bible passages that teach on that one issue. What did you come up with? Here’s my list:
• Romans 12:17
• Proverbs 15:1
• Mark 3:5
• James 1:19
• Ephesians 4:26-27

These two exercises, back to back, demonstrate very simply the difference between using a textual approach to teaching, and a topical approach to teaching.

When planning a lesson topic, it’s helpful to think in terms of two types of experiences—textual lessons and topical lessons. The difference is simple: with textual lessons, the text suggests the topic (Exercise #1), and with topical studies the topic suggests the text (Exercise #2). Both approaches are good and useful, and although you occasionally hear someone who feels that one is far superior to the other, both approaches have unique advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages to a Textual Approach
• Points students back to the words of Scripture;

• Points youth workers back to the words of Scripture;

• Makes it harder to duck texts that are “inconvenient” or hard to talk about;

• Helps students learn how to feed themselves from Scripture, instead of giving them a diet of ready-made processed talks;

• Offers a more balanced diet of truth—topics are suggested by the text rather than by the whims or hot topics of any one group or youthworker;

• Can get bogged down in more sophisticated theological-textual questions that might just “muddy the water” for a teenager who is asking, “What does God say about…?”

• Can make it more difficult to speak to student’s felt needs (it doesn’t have to). Obviously, there is a point at which the Bible speaks to every aspect of the human condition, but it doesn’t do that in every passage, or even in every book. So, it can feel a little less student-sensitive, a little less responsive to students’ needs.

Advantages to a Topical Approach
• Allows for flexibility. You can adjust and shift topics to meet the needs of the group;

• It’s easier. That doesn’t make it better; but it does require less study, and that’s just a fact;

• It approaches the text the way our students live. They don’t read the Bible to find out what it says, they read the Bible so they can do what it says. Now, obviously, they can’t do what it says without finding out what it says, but again, one approach is directed more towards concepts and one is directed more towards the concrete;

• Allows your teaching to be more needs-based;

• Requires a little less work to make it relevant because with topical, the topics are chosen because of their relevance. Whereas with a textual approach, the topics come to us because they are there in the text;

• Can develop in our students an appetite for “how-to” Christianity—can reduce all Christian truth down to a “fix it” guide;

• Could end up skipping over truths that might, in time, transform the mind (Romans 12:1), but don’t immediately have relevance for a teenager’s life;

• When we teach from a topical menu that jumps around from topic to topic, it can allow us to avoid hard topics that we don’t feel comfortable or competent to talk about.

Every group has different needs and every teacher has different gifts. Which method fits your situation?