On Saturday I was asked to speak on prayer and fasting. I decided not to try to be definitive or exhaustive. Instead I chose a foundational and central truth and then preached that with the aim of marking the listeners with that truth. In this case I chose to survey briefly the writers of the New Testament to hear a consistent witness to the “loving Father” aspect of prayer that I had chosen to emphasise. I covered fasting in about a paragraph at the end.
Definitive? Not at all. Helpful? Hopefully.
By choosing to preach this message as I did, I was choosing not to say so much. I didn’t mention repentance or thanksgiving, or worship, three key aspects of a healthy prayer life. I didn’t get into aspects of spiritual warfare, or do close analysis of biblical prayers. I didn’t fully engage with the challenges of unanswered prayer. I gave fasting only a cursory mention (although seemingly satisfying to people if feedback is anything to go by). It wasn’t definitive, it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead I tried to drive home the main idea of the message and hope that people will build on that in the future. I would like to take that foundation and build a series, but it was a one-off opportunity on this occasion.
So why didn’t I try to cover all these vital elements of prayer? Because a message that tries to do everything often achieves nothing. It is like the difference between a bed of nails and a single nail. The bed of nails may be impressive, but it leaves a superficial impression. The single nail will penetrate. In preaching terms, the single main idea arrow will cut to the heart more consistently than the exhaustive sermon’s magazine of smaller artillery.
Let’s not overestimate what can be accomplished in a single sermon, so that we do not underachieve by overpreaching. Preach specifically to penetrate substantially.