That Succinct Single-Sentence Summary

What is the difference between one sentence and half an hour? That is a key question in preaching.

We work hard to understand a biblical passage. We look at the context, wrestle with the flow of thought, analyse the details, and work out what the author was trying to communicate. Our end goal in studying the passage is to summarize the passage with a succinct single sentence.

However, when we preach, we don’t just say a sentence and sit down. So what makes up the difference? Let’s assume that the single sentence is an accurate summation of the passage. As we prepare the message (the second half of the preparation process), we essentially have two options:

Option 1. We carefully plan how to land that main idea in the hearts of our listeners. What form of introduction will best draw people into the message, making them thirsty for the passage and eager to hear the main idea? When should we present the main idea in the message? Should we repeatedly drive it home using the movements of the message to repeat the presentation of the idea? Or should we create greater anticipation so that once it is stated it will hit deeper? To put that another way, will the main idea be like a series of well placed sniper shots, or will it hit home like a bunker-busting missile? How will we explain the text, prove the points, and apply the truth in ways that reinforce the main idea of the message? In every aspect of content creation, structural formation, and delivery nuance, we seek to make that main idea so clear, transformative, evident from the text and applicationally earthed, that we will genuinely have preached the text before we sit down.

Or . . .

Option 2. We fill the half hour with material that will drown out the main idea. This is where we instead choose to fill the time, not to support the main idea, but at the cost of the main idea. We provide a series of informational segments, background descriptions, vaguely connected cross-references, somewhat amusing anecdotes, random highlights from our exegesis, favourite soapbox digressions, and illustrations that may or may not be well-suited to this particular moment. While most of these could be helpful, if we are not careful they can end up putting down a cover of smoke to keep the main idea from landing. Or we might hide the main idea beneath three or four points that tie to the text, but do not hold together effectively. The listeners will have an array of mini messages from which to select their favourite, but they are unlikely to have noticed the main idea.

While we probably would not consciously opt for option 2, we do so inadvertently when we embark on planning a message without crystallising our main idea first. After all, if you don’t have a sniper bullet or a bunker-busting missile ready to go, surely a random spray of machine gun rounds might hit home?

Moving from the passage to a single sentence is the first half of the preparation process. Moving from a succinct single-sentence summary to a fully formed message is the second half of the process. Let’s be sure to take option 1 as our approach to preaching.

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2 thoughts on “That Succinct Single-Sentence Summary

  1. Here is a quote on this idea from David Murray that use every single week in my sermon prep. “Most preachers (and I include myself in this) hate being asked for a throughline (or “sermon proposition”). That’s partly because it’s hard work to produce one. But it’s mainly because it usually exposes the lack of one, forcing more work on the sermon in order to create a credible and compelling throughline. But it always results in a better sermon.
    A “throughline” should be as comprehensive as possible (incorporating each point of the sermon), as clear as possible (a simple rather than a complex sentence), as brief as possible (max of 15 words is about right), as memorable as possible (so that someone can take it away with them), as interesting as possible (intriguing rather than boring), and as unique as possible (so that it could only fit that text and no other). If you can’t produce a throughline for your sermon you don’t have a sermon.”

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