Category Archives: Stage 6 – Message Idea

Preaching Layered Story Sensitivity

WeavingJust a little post to finish off this mini-series.  So you have decided not to pluck a story and lift sometimes imaginary life lessons from it.  You have studied it in its context and started to note the layers of intricate story within story crafting that the author has done.  Maybe you’ve been nudged to recognize the meaning of the story with the help of commentaries too, of course.  But how do you preach it?  This can seem overwhelming.

1. Determine the main idea of the story.  In light of its context, what is the main thought of the story you are actually preaching?

2. Figure out how much context you need to set.  This is determined not only by the story itself, but also by your context.  Some groups of listeners are ready to handle the bigger picture more than others.

3. Decide which layering details help communicate that main idea.  There will be so much you could spot and point out, but some of it will not make sense to listeners, or will seem like exegetical trivia if you can’t give a full sweep and explanation.  But if you don’t give some “fingers on the text” observations, listeners may think you are making up your own take on the meaning of the story.

4. Be sure to tell the story.  So easy to think our task is to share exegetical insights and theological profundities and applicational nuggets.  Remember that God inspired the story to mark lives.  Let it do that.  Tell the story.

5. Make the application the theocentric application intended by the text.  It is about God and it is supposed to mark us in response to God.  Don’t drop God out for the sake of a top-tip for creative truth telling in foreign lands.

6. Don’t forget to invite people into the text.  Your preaching, with sensitivity to the flow of the book, should motivate listeners to want to read and dig for themselves.  Don’t be shy to suggest that.

So much more could be said, but let’s leave it there for now . . .

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 1-5

Summer50bAs we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching?  In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:

1. Be mastered by a book.  Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you.  Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book.  Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.

2. Invite others into the preparation process.  We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation.  Invite some folks to join you.  Perhaps in a group,  perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter.  Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie.  It will probably be better together.

3. Lean less on your notes.  If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less.  Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times.  Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!

4. Stay put, dig deeper.  If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put.  You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present.  Both are good things!  Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.

5. Craft the main idea a little bit more.  Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would.  How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?

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Don’t Just Get the Idea!

The Big Idea approach to preaching is birthed from an understanding of the nature of communication.  That is, when we communicate, we are not just firing words out into nowhere.  Rather, we are seeking to have the other party get the idea of what we are saying.  Communication is about ideas.  We want the other to say, “I see what you are saying.”

Ideas change lives.  People give themselves to ideas.  Christianity is a content-based faith.  Which is why a very high view of Scripture tends to resonate with a commitment to expository preaching.  That is, bringing out from the text the meaning that is there and seeking to effectively communicate that truth to others with an emphasis on why it matters to them.

But I don’t just want to extol the virtues of a “big idea” approach to preaching.  I also want to highlight a couple of potential misapplications of it.  Let’s use a very simple “communications” model:

WRITER > MESSAGE > RECIPIENTS

1. It is not just about the writer to the original recipients.  It is possible to be committed to discovering what the writer meant by what he wrote to the original recipients, and then to preach that.  Just that.  This can come across as textually accurate, but distant and irrelevant.  It can lose sight of the present and living nature of God’s Word.  We can become lecturers in ancient manuscript interpretation, even if we add on application by extension.  It is important to not lose the accuracy of original intent, setting, context, etc., but also to give a very clear sense that this is for us today.

So to tweak the model:

WRITER > MESSAGE > RECIPIENTS

                                                                                 including the message to Us

2. It is not just about the human writer, it is part of God’s self-revelation in the Word.  This is where I’ve seen Big Idea preaching misapplied and fall short.  Understanding, distilling and effectively communicating the main idea of a passage is not the whole deal.  We are not trading in brilliant information transfer, back then or today.  We are handling the inspired Word of God, given to us to reveal His heart to us.  When the text becomes opaque, when the personal nature of the Trinity grows distant, then all our meticulous accuracy and sermonic craft is wasted.  We don’t just preach the written word, we preach Christ.  Our preaching must be theocentric, for the Bible is all about God.

Final tweak?

The Revelation of God, who inspired the                                                                                                                       .

WRITER > MESSAGE > RECIPIENTS

                                                                                   including His message to Us

True preaching happens in the present.  As Donald Sunukjian puts it, in his shortened definition of biblical preaching: “Listen to what God is saying . . . to us!”  Let’s preach so that our listeners can meet the God who still speaks through His Word today.

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Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, Preaching, Religion, Stage 3 - Passage Purpose, Stage 4 - Passage Idea, Stage 5 - Message Purpose, Stage 6 - Message Idea

Get the Idea Really Well

A group of friends arrived back at the hotel where we were staying after visiting a famous church that morning.  We asked them, what was the big idea?  Their response?  He didn’t have a big idea, he didn’t a little idea, he seemed to have no idea!  Oops.  What are the characteristics of an effective and powerful main idea for message?

1. It will be an accurate synopsis of this text.  Looking at the passage, this stated idea gets a firm nod of recognition.  Or to put it another way: if just the idea were stated, then someone who knows their Bible well would be likely to pinpoint the passage from the idea alone.

2. It will be consistent with the Scriptures as a whole.  You may be preaching a single passage, but you are preaching from an open Bible.  The idea should not be contradictory to the rest of Scripture.  If it is, you need to keep working on understanding your specific passage.

3. It will be true to life.  There should be a deep sense of resonance in you as a preacher while you prepare the message.  It should ring true to those listening.  This isn’t trite, or simplistic, or out of touch, but profoundly true.  Good ideas stir people passionately, trite ideas just get a roll of the eyes.

4. It will be relevant to life.  You may be able to state a profound theological truth effectively, but if it isn’t stated relevantly, then you aren’t really preaching the Word.  God’s Word is relevant to life.  Make sure your main idea is too.

5. It will be pregnant with meaning and implications.  After stating your main idea, the follow up sentence shouldn’t be, “well, that’s about it, really.”  There should be plenty that flows out of it.  It is expansive.  It is rich.  It needs to be savoured.  It has to be pondered.  It begs development.

6. It will be precise.  This brings us back to number one, but with a nuance.  Not only must it be accurate to the text you are preaching – that text distilled into a single sentence.  It also needs to be precisely phrased.  No ambiguity (unless that is both an effective and accurate summary!)

7. It will probably not be perfect.  Just to add a slight caveat…most of the time you may only feel you have a decent idea, rather than a stunning one.  Accurate, clear, just decent ideas preached from God’s Word would bring significant health and growth compared to the standard fare in most churches today.  We can’t knock it out of the park every time we preach.  But decent ideas will transform lives.

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They Might Get the Idea!

Why is it worth the effort?  Getting and giving out a big idea is not easy.  It is much easier to preach collections of thoughts, rather than seeking to present a message that holds together around one main idea.  If I could cut out the “main idea” phase of preparation, I could probably save 30% of my preparation time.  Here’s why it is worth being committed to pursuing the main idea:

1. Pursuing the main idea will force you to study the passage more effectively.  I think we are all experts in following bunny trails wherever they may lead us.  Bible study can be an endless vista of bunny trails.  But pursuing the main idea forces me to not only ponder the meaning of the details in a passage, but also to ponder how they are working together to communicate the author’s intent.  The writers weren’t drunk or frivolous.  Every word mattered, and every word was included to communicate something specific.  Pursuing the main idea of a passage keeps me focused on what the author was trying to communicate, rather than playing creative word association games where I end up finding things that would leave a panel of original author, recipients and God Himself scratching their heads at my ingenuity.

2. Having a main idea will give you a guide for shaping the message cohesively.  The beauty of a main idea is that it becomes the organizing factor for the content of the message.  Should an illustration be included?  What about the historical explanation?  And that word study?  How about that anecdote?  Hundreds of decisions in every message.  But actually the main idea gives a clear organizing factor – does including it help communicate the main idea?  If not, save it for another day.  The main idea is the message distilled into a single sentence, everything else is scaffolding, or a strategically designed support structure.

3. Offering a main idea will help listeners engage with what matters in the message.  Here’s the thing: human minds don’t hold conflicted complexity.  Its true in politics, its true in preaching, its true in most things.  Rather than hang on to four major points, thirteen sub-points and five telling illustrations, the listener will subconsciously sift and determine the central thought.  Problem is that they may well end up with that extraneous illustration being the main point.  Since you’re spending the week preparing the message and thinking about it, do the work and decide what you want them to see as the most important thing.

4. Giving a main idea means there is a hope that listeners will remember something helpful from the message.  People don’t tend to remember outlines.  When they do, they don’t tend to do much with them.  Even if they write them down.  But Robinson is right when he tells us that “what people do live for, what they do die for, is an idea, some great truth that has gripped them.”  Let’s give the greatest of truths every week.

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Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, Preaching, Religion, Stage 4 - Passage Idea, Stage 5 - Message Purpose, Stage 6 - Message Idea

Get the Idea!?

As a child I would ask my Dad for help with various projects – fixing the brakes on my bike, getting the scalextric set up, getting the lawnmower to work.  Invariably he would show me and then say, “do you get the idea?”  I usually did and that was that.

Then I studied preaching at seminary.  All of my teachers (thankfully) were proponents of “Big Idea” preaching.  So now, as I prepare to preach, I am haunted by the question from years ago – do I get the idea?  If I don’t, I’m not ready to preach.  However, finding the main idea in a passage is usually not as easy as fixing the brakes on my bike.

It seems like a disproportionate amount of time can be spent trying to formulate a single sentence in the preparation process.  But this single sentence is so important that it is always time worth investing.  The payout is always sermon-wide.  And the fallout should be church-wide and beyond.  So let’s spend some days chasing the issue of the main idea, or as Haddon Robinson would put it, the Big Idea.

1. Ideas are the building blocks of communication.  We communicate in ideas.  Not words.  Ideas.  It is possible to get across a message without speaking a word – just think of advertising on the television or a billboard that uses imagery rather than words, just think of your mother when you came up with a creative activity as a guest in somebody else’s home.  Words matter, but ideas communicate.  So with any biblical passage – it consists of a set of ideas, some bigger, some smaller, all interrelated, and ultimately, all serving the main idea that drives the whole passage.  Our job as communicators is not to parrot words, but to grasp and give out the main idea of a passage.

2. Ideas are made up of two parts.  I tend to call it the single sentence summary.  Somehow that feels easier to grasp than the full explanation of an idea.  But let’s go to the full explanation, it isn’t that bad.  What is the passage about?  This is the subject.  What is the passage saying about that?  That is the complement.  Put them together and you have the idea.  Sounds easy.  Sometimes it helps to ask, “what question is this passage answering?” (subject-question), and “what answer does it give?” (complement-answer).  Or just summarize the whole passage in a single sentence.

Whatever it takes, let’s be sure we get the idea!

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Spaces: Thinking Through the Process

A little while back I offered the preparation process in terms of four locations: Study, Stop and Pray (Prayer Closet)Starbucks, Stand and Deliver (Pulpit).  To finish this series on spaces I want to poke around in each of these four locations and prompt our thinking.

1. Study.  I’ve talked about this over the past few days, but essentially the issue here is both noise and access to resources.  To really concentrate on getting to grips with the exegesis means not being pulled away by other things.  It also means being able to spread out the books, while also opening up the heart.  Is it worth considering a separate desk for this?  Is it possible to make the key resources easily accessible?  Can you put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door?

2. Stop and Pray.  This one is all about noise.  The noise of people interrupting, the noise of phones beeping, the noise of tasks calling you.  You need to silence them all.  I suspect many of us can’t achieve this in our study or office.  Would it be better to walk and pray with the mobile phone left at home?  Would it be better to go to the church and pray through this phase in the place where you will preach the message?  I find this helpful as it helps to prompt my prayers toward the specific people and families that will be there.

3. Starbucks.  This one is about targeting the message.  Personally I don’t find coffee shops the most conducive to concentrated preparation.  But I see the argument in favour of them (as long as I have music in my ears instead of loud conversations from the volume-unaware that tend to sit near me in these places!)  Somehow the goal here is to be sensitive and alert to the people and the kind of people to whom the message will be preached.  This could be as simple as putting a couple of pictures up on the screen, or placing names on 3×5 cards on the desk, or being around people.  But, if I can’t help but be distracted by being around people, it is better to get the work done in a room on my own!

4. Stand and Deliver.  Different issue, but worthwhile . . . what are the issues in terms of preaching proxemics?  Is there clutter in the preaching environment?  Am I situated in the best place for this congregation?  Should I come down to their level?  Can I lose the seaworthy pulpit and be seen?  Is there clutter from their perspective?

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Interactive Bible Observation Preaching 2

Yesterday I shared some reflections on the advantages of the approach I took to preaching through Ruth last month.  The evening meeting allowed a different approach to the morning meeting, so I had folks marking up the passage on a handout, and then interacting together about observations along the way.

Here are some of the disadvantages, limitations or challenges in this approach.

1. It takes longer.  If the church is very strict on end time, then you have to begin it earlier in the meeting.  What might take 30 minutes to preach, can take 45-50 minutes with this approach.  Having said that, people should feel fully engaged if it is done well.  It may also take longer in preparation. That is, even though the homiletical crafting may be less, the exegetical awareness needs to be maximal.

2. It requires a certain relational comfort level.  Maybe requires is too strong a word.  I appreciated knowing the people and feeling a sense of mutual trust.  Having said that, I have seen someone do the same thing with a group of people he’d never met before and it worked very well.  But he had to win trust very quickly.  Too big of a group and it would lose the relational connection potential.

3. It requires care in interaction management.  When people participate, you have to handle what is said graciously.  Even when they are wrong.  This is where knowing the congregation really helps.  A comment shouldn’t be crushed, or too overtly corrected, etc.  I see this as common courtesy, but I am used to it in more “classroom” environments.  Some preachers seem unable to handle interaction without offending people.  I was talking with someone recently and we mentioned a speaker who might be invited to something.  The comment was telling: “yes we could invite him, but don’t let him have any Q&A time!”

4. It requires lots of preacher thinking.  When people participate, there is less control for the preacher.  You don’t know where they will go.  Your questions will influence that, but you really have to know your stuff, and know your plan.  How will you create and sustain tension with this approach?  When will you preach, and when will you interact?  How can the conclusion have impact?

5. You may have to overcome other messages and ideas.  Perhaps it wouldn’t work so well in a very familiar New Testament passage.  Or perhaps it is just what is needed.  But you would need to help people see the text itself, rather than their preconceived ideas and favourite points from other preachers.

Overall, none of these issues disqualify the approach and I will used it again, modifying continually.  Print the text, let them mark it up and lead as you all enjoy the adventure together.

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Interactive Bible Observation Preaching

Last month I decided to try something a little different in our church.  I used the Sunday evening service (we have two services on a Sunday), for a study through the book of Ruth.  Each person attending was given a handout with the plain text of the passage for the evening with headings removed, but plenty of margin space allowed.  At various points I had them marking the text and then interacted with them as we observed the passage together.  I still preached, but it wasn’t a tightly controlled sermon.  I determined when there would be interaction, and overall I think it worked well.

Upon reflection, here are some of the advantages of this approach (not saying it should replace normal preaching, but I think it has a place).

1. It shows people that they can read and think about the passage, they don’t need to be spoon fed.  It is easy to get into the habit of only getting Bible input from “experts” – either at church, or for some, on MP3 downloads during the week.  But this approach subtly reminds people that they can look at and think about the text themselves.

2. It shows some people that they don’t automatically know everything.  This is in contrast to number 1, I suppose.  Some people are over confident in their view on everything.  This approach allows them to discover that they missed something and should look closer.  “I never saw that before” isn’t such a scary phrase from the preacher’s perspective, when they are actually observing the text with other people and it is plainly before them (rather than a homiletical invention).

3. It gives people experience of observing, then interpreting, then applying.  Some never really observe, some skip straight to application, etc.  This is a good group exposure to inductive Bible study.

4. It slows the pace of experiencing the text.  In this instance, it was Ruth, a narrative.  Good preaching can also slow the pace of experiencing the text, but this approach certainly did.  People felt the tension and it built nicely, both during the message and over the weeks.

5. The preaching element is proven.  That is, if done well, the preaching element should not get the “I wouldn’t have seen that in the text” kind of response.  They are seeing it, the preacher is just building and reinforcing what has already come through.  I found the more traditional preaching element in this series felt very gritty and real: it was the explanation and reinforcement of the main theme in each passage, tied into the bigger picture of the book.

There are other advantages, so feel free to add by comment…

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Expository: Why?

All week I have been raising concerns about different approaches taken to preaching.  There are others, but I wanted to finish with a reminder of the core requirements for expository preaching.  It isn’t about sermon shape – all four approaches mentioned this week might be used in an expository ministry.  Yet none of them define it.

1. The best preaching will always involve the work of God’s Spirit.  He is the one that searches the depths of the heart and communicates that.  We need to be sure that we are pursuing His heart as we study His Word.  We must prayerfully pursue the whole process of preparation, all the time being open to learning and changing and growing ourselves.  We also need to pursue His heart for the people to whom we preach.  Prayer has to be a critical thread throughout the whole preparation process.

2. The best biblical preaching will always be genuinely biblical.  That is, the text is not being used, but offered.  It isn’t a data source for anecdotes, for launch pads or for proof texting.  It is the inspired Word of God that we seek to offer to others as we preach.  This means that we take the form seriously, we take the meaning seriously, we take the relevance seriously.  The Bible is not something that serves us, it is something that changes us, and it is something we consequently serve to others.  And the more effectively we communicate the Word, the clearer the path for listeners to not only gain information, but to be transformed by encountering the God who gives of Himself in His Word.

3. The best preaching will always take the issue of communication seriously.  So it isn’t enough to pray hard and study well, producing a textually accurate and even a congregation specific relevant message.  If we don’t take our role as communicators seriously, then we can be a real bottleneck.  Communication is more than just a crude explanation of exegesis with some illustrations stapled on to the outline.  Communication is concerned with the mood of the text, the persons to whom we are speaking, the situation, etc.  It is concerned with the words we choose, the way we say them, the body language that reinforces or undermines.  Our communication matters because God places such a high value on communication.

4. The best preaching will always emphasise the relevance to the listeners.  We don’t make the Bible relevant.  We show how it is relevant.  And so we don’t perform a sermon to show off our own knowledge, nor even to simply declare God’s truth.  We preach to communicate to people.  So we care, and we prepare in order to communicate.

God. Bible. Communicator. Listeners.  All critical features of expository preaching.

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