Big Idea or Big Story? Lessons Both Ways

Tents2I studied preaching in the “Big Idea” school of preaching. We were required to read books from the “Christocentric” school of preaching.  In my experience, many preachers in both groups need to learn from one another.

The big idea folks tend to emphasize the particular passage open before them.  They never dismiss the big story of the Bible, but their primary concern is to communicate the message of this particular passage.

The big story folks tend to emphasize the big story of redemption, irrespective of which specific text they may be preaching.  They don’t dismiss the importance of a particular passage, but their primary concern is to preach the big picture gospel at every opportunity.

Both approaches can be highly effective.  And both approaches can be done very poorly.  One way both will fall short is where the Bible is mishandled.

Big idea folks focus on the specific passage, but this cannot guarantee accurate exegesis, nor effective presentation of the relevance of that passage to listeners.  If the preacher harvests the imperatives in a passage and preaches a pressurized message inviting the listener to self-initiate some kind of moral transformation, then the text has been abused and the message of the Bible corrupted.  If the preacher fails to effectively engage the bigger story of Scripture, then the particular passage could be mishandled in light of its whole Bible context.

Big story folks focus on the full history of God’s redemptive plan, but this cannot guarantee immunity from moralistic preaching, nor does it always generate accurate handling of the text.  If the preacher imposes fanciful shortcuts to get to the goal of the rest of the redemption story, then it may seem like the text before the listeners may be turned into a secret code that only the preacher can unravel.  When big story preaching does not handle each text carefully, it can have the effect of flattening the Bible so that every passage is essentially a vague reflection of the one big story that will get imposed on it by the preacher.  And even when the redemption plan is laid out, how easily moralism can creep in via pressure to choose belief as our great work.

Both schools of thought have a lot to offer and I would thoroughly recommend you read the best books in both groups. But whichever camp you choose to set up your homiletical tent in, be sure to benefit from what is good about the other group too.

2015 Blog Summary

designThis was an intriguing year for – thank you for visiting the site! Let me share some highlights and stats with you.

Some of the Series – We began the year with a series of preaching resolutions that stirred some good comments, followed by another provocative series on radars preachers need to develop, and then 10 reasons why your listeners may not be satisfied with the preaching they are hearing. People always seem drawn to Biggest Mistakes series too, since we all make lots! So 10 Listener Fatigues is worth a mention too in a similar vein.

Monthly Opener – At the start of each month I have shared a longer post that has been picked up by the European Leadership Forum.  These included, Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients, Jesus Nudges, Cracks are Serious, one that stirred lots of verbal response at a conference – 7 Ways to Guard Hearts at a Christian Conference (with its follow up regarding Guarding Hearts at Bible School, and also at Guarding Hearts at Church).

Book Launch – The end of the summer was given over to another guest series at the launch of Foundations – click here to find out more. Here’s the series intro, plus a couple of highlights for me?  Glen Scrivener on sin, John Hindley on being human, and Jonathan Carswell on a Passion for Books (have you heard about starting in the USA now? Please spread the word!).  Speaking of books, I also shared a chapter from Pleased to Dwell at the start of December (how can I nudge people to ponder the Incarnation during the rest of the year – all ideas welcome!)

There were quite a few other posts that seemed to stir response, such as Who Turned Preaching Into a Solo Sport? And probably the one that deserved the least attention, but somehow got quite a lot – Meaningless Chatter.

Most Popular Posts this Year?  Due to some friendly sharing from friends with big readerships, by far the most popular posts were these (can these posts get traction again on twitter? Feel free to share the links!)

10 Pointers for Young Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for Older Preachers

10 Pointers for Seminary Trained Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers

10 Pointers for Preaching Teams as well as for Preaching Easter, and Special Occasion Preaching, and of course, Evangelistic Preaching.  There was another on Planning a Preaching Calendar, and one on Planning a Series.

There you have it, another year of blogging. So much I didn’t mention, but thanks for reading this far!  What should I write about in 2016?  All suggestions welcome, most suggestions followed!

10 Listener Fatigues – part 3

yawningman2We have looked at textual genre fatigues, and some preacher-related fatigues, but there are still more . . .

8. Outline Fatigue. If your sermons always follow the same structure, then you may well be draining some energy from your listeners.  I know some preachers follow a prescribed pattern and claim that listeners love to spot how they make the turn to Jesus.  But since every text has its own uniqueness, let’s look for ways to reflect the diversity of the text, and add some variety to sermon structure too.  Can you introduce an inductive approach (building to the main idea), or a combination of inductive and deductive (build to the idea and then develop the applications), or perhaps preach an epistle text with a narrative shape?

9. Text-Length Fatigue.  If you are preaching through a book, it will be easy to fall into making every text roughly the same length.  Half a chapter per week through an epistle can get monotonous.  Why not mix it up and cover a larger section sometimes, and a very tight section at other times?  Why not introduce, or conclude the series with a big sweeping overview?  Perhaps a long series needs a mid-point big picture message?

10. Disconnect Fatigue.  Listeners can’t help but grow tired if the preaching goes too long in a disconnected mode.  That is, preaching historical and explanatory information without demonstrating its relevance (or even your relevance) to the contemporary situation.  The one exception is probably narrative where it can, if told well, grip people for longer than other types of text.  Nevertheless, if you make people listen too long without any hint of relevance to them, they will grow tired of the message.

What would you add to this list?

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.3)

envelope2And to finish off this series of pointers on preaching epistles, here are the final four:

9. Root imperatives in their own soil.  It is tempting to simply harvest imperatives and preach a to-do list.  Don’t.  Instead let each imperative be felt in its own context, including the earlier sections of the epistle where our gaze was pointed to Christ.  Don’t let application sections become self-focused when they actually are intended to present guidance for what flows from the doctrinal sections.

10. Be clear.  You can never be too clear in the way you structure the message and present the content.  Look for ways to help your listeners follow you, and also follow the author in his thought.

11. Preach the text.  The church has a full history of preaching messages from texts, but instead preach the message of the text.  There is a world of difference.  God inspired the Bible as it stands, He doesn’t promise to inspire every thought that is provoked in our minds as we read the text.

12. Engage in conversation.  Don’t just sit alone with your preaching notes.  Get into conversation.  First, with God.  Second, with others – commentaries and co-preachers, as well as listeners, etc.  Conversation about your sermon will almost always improve your sermon!

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 . . .

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?

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:


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:


                                                                                 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                                                                                                                       .


                                                                                   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.

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.

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.

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!