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.

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!

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?

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.

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…

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.

The Two Keys in the Simplicity Struggle

I’ve been writing about struggling to simplify messages.  There are numerous potential issues, but I want to keep this post really simple.  I think that when all is said and done, there are two key things to keep in mind:

1. Big idea preaching promotes unity, order and progress.  The big idea school of preaching is not about having a pithy grabber at some point in the message.  It is about recognizing the inherent unity in a unit of Scripture and letting that be the boss of the message.  That means that you will let it determine whether a detail makes it into the message.  And it will determine the best order of the details included.  And it will determine the best way to convey forward movement in the flow of the message.  The main idea is like the arrow, the sermon purpose is like the target, and the shape of the message is like the strategy for accurately planting that arrow deep in its intended target.

S0 an illustration may be a good one, but if it doesn’t help communicate the main idea, bye for now.  An exegetical insight may be impressive, powerful, moving, or whatever, but if it doesn’t help in the strategy for delivering the main idea, save for another time.  Every detail, every statement, every explanation, every proof, every application, every word in the message has to be there because the main idea is helped by its presence.  Like a commanding team captain, the main idea determines who gets to play on a given Sunday and who doesn’t.

2. Pray about it.  Simplifying your message in order to communicate more effectively is not a selfish pursuit.  You aren’t trying to be clear for your sake.  It is for the sake of the listeners.  It is that they might be gripped by the passage, transformed by the truth and marked by an encounter with the God who reveals himself in the Word.  Consequently, don’t be bashful about praying for your next message, and for your preaching in general, to become more consistently clear.  Ask for wisdom in terms of what to cut out.  Ask for a mentor.  Ask for understanding.  Ask for your preaching to be clear because your passion is for God’s Word to be heard and followed and felt and applied.

Neither Padded, Nor Dense – 4

I don’t normally use the movie analogy, but perhaps I could linger with it slightly longer.  A good movie does not pad the main plot, nor does it make it impossibly dense.  In fact, every good movie can be boiled down to something more precise than a ten-minute plot.  It will have one main idea.  And that idea is driven home by the plot and every detail throughout.

I actually watched a movie in the cinema this week (I can’t remember the last time I did that!)  One crystal clear main idea, effectively communicated with every detail included to support it.

Robinson uses the analogy of the arrow and the target – the big idea and the sermon purpose.  I like that.  I add to that the strategy of the preacher.  How is the main idea  to be delivered?  Will it be up-front and repeated throughout?  Will it be built toward and revealed strategically?  There are several approaches.

However the bigger issue is not how it will be delivered, but whether it will be the control mechanism for the whole message.

If the biblical text determines the main idea, and if the main idea is the gatekeeper for every detail of the message, then the message should not be padded, nor dense.

It will not be a padded sermon because every element will be there on purpose.  The explanations will be there to help communicate the main idea.  The proofs will be there to reinforce and support the main idea.  The applications will be there to drive home the main idea.  There won’t be padding because padding makes no sense in a message designed to communicate a main idea.

And it will not be a dense sermon because over packing makes no sense when the goal is the effective applied communication of the main idea.  Over packing only makes sense if the goal is something else.  If we want to show off, we may over pack.  If we want to communicate multiple ideas, we will over pack.  But if our desire is to see the main idea do its job, then we won’t want anything to get in the way of that.

The Dangerous Half Quit

A post on this theme from five years ago caught my eye, so I thought I’d offer a re-write.

There are always reasons to quit. This is true in anything you might pursue. Sport, music, hobby, fitness, work, ministry, marriage. Anyone who has ever been successful at anything has had to overcome numerous opportunities to quit. How true is that in preaching?

There are few things that can compare with preaching – how important it is, how much people need it, how much you give both in preparation and presentation, how emotionally and physically draining it can be, how open to criticism you become, how relentless the schedule can feel, how exacting the standards are in peoples’ minds for every other area of your life. To give the Lord our best as preachers we must exhibit a tenacious relentlessness.

The temptation to quit may always be lingering in the background, but for various reasons, good and bad, many of us would not simply quit. Perhaps it’s a little like marriage among some Christians a couple of generations back. A marriage could go very sour, but divorce was considered so inappropriate that couples would live out a “Christian divorce” – two separate lives lived under one roof for the sake of appearance. That’s a danger for us as preachers. When the pressures build, as they do so regularly, so do the temptations. Temptations to quit may be rejected. But temptations to half quit are an ever present danger!

When the schedule is tight and you are drained emotionally and physically, pulled in numerous directions, don’t half quit on your preparation. It may seem tempting to not really study the text, to short-circuit all exegesis.

When Sunday is rapidly approaching and your energy is low, don’t half quit on sermon shaping. Don’t just go with your study notes, but try to think through your audience and their needs, think through the best way to communicate this passage to them.

When you go through the post-sermon emotional roller-coaster that many preachers feel so often, don’t half quit.  Don’t make decisions that will undermine your subsequent ministry because of how you feel at that moment.

When you are on the receiving end of unfair criticism or unjustifiable sniping, don’t half quit. Don’t steel your heart against the people you minister to so that by not loving them they can’t hurt you. When you love you get hurt, but love anyway.

I’m not saying anything about rest, responsibilities with family, etc. I’m not saying sacrifice yourself to the point of burnout in an attempt to be spiritual. There are all sorts of appropriate balances to wisely employ in ministry. But those are for another post. All I’m suggesting here is that preaching is no easier than most other things you might pursue in life, and in many ways it is harder. To be the best you can be, to give the best you can give, you must be doggedly relentless. Don’t quit. And maybe more importantly, keep leaning on our good God and don’t half quit.