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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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.

Get the Idea? – Part 2

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This is the middle post in a series of three on Big Idea preaching.  Specifically, I’ve been struck by how many people recommend Haddon Robinson’s book, yet seem to not have grasped what it teaches.  I understand that they are impressed by the well written chapters dealing with various elements of sermon preparation and delivery (I was impressed first time through), but the powerful notion of the Big Idea is not instantly grasped (took me a while!)  So yesterday we thought about The Big Idea being about communication.  But more than that . . .

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Get the Idea? – Part 1

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Over the past few years I’ve come across quite a number of people who talk about preaching and recommend Haddon Robinson’s book, but don’t really understand Robinson’s teaching on the subject.  It seems that some people are impressed with aspects of the book, Biblical Preaching, but don’t really grasp some of the core teaching of it.  In particular, the nature and power of the Big Idea in preaching.  Today I’d like to focus on communication, but will continue the series tomorrow in respect to biblical studies, then finish with a focus on the Spirit of God.  Do we really get the Big Idea?

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Preaching and Those Few Key Sentences

How many hundreds of sentences are used in a sermon?  And they all matter.  But they don’t all matter as much as a few of them.  I suppose I would suggest the following sentences as worthy of extra effort:

1. The Main Idea. Hours might be spent crafting and honing the main sentence for a message.  That would be hours well spent.  The main idea is the boss of everything in the message, it is the filter through which much extraneous “good stuff” is sloughed off.  It is the burning hot focus that is to be seared into the heart and mind of the listener.  It brings together understanding of the passage with emphasis on the life-changing relevance for the listener.  The main idea really is all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s absence will only confirm that billing!

2. The first sentence. It’s great to start the message with an arresting introduction.  Instead of beating around the bush until you get into your stride, much better to start with a bang.  It may be a startling sentence.  It may be an intriguing sentence.  It may be a contemporary paraphrase of that infinitely powerful sentence, “once upon a time . . . ” (narratives do grip listeners fast!)

3. Transition sentences. I think transitions are oft-neglected.  A good message with poor transitions will lose people.  Give some extra effort to transitioning slowly, smoothly, safely.  Keep your passengers in the car when you take the turns.

4. The final sentence. That last sentence can ring in the ears as silence descends and you move to take your seat.  Despite the best efforts of over anxious worship leaders or people chairing meetings, the final sentence can resonate in a life.  Don’t fizzle to a halting stop.  Stop.  Clear.  Precise.  Having arrived at your destination.  Having achieved your goal.  Having parked the message with exactly the final sentence you determined.

Preaching may involve hundreds of sentences, but a few of them are worth extra careful crafting!

Main Idea – Another Easy Mistake

Yesterday I mentioned an easy mistake to make – finding the biggest detail and losing sight of the rest.  Here’s another easy mistake to make:

Encompassing everything via a statement that is so vague it could come from any number of passages. I suppose it is an overreaction to the fear of missing the point of the passage.  I suppose it gives the preacher comfort that no-one could argue with what the main idea actually says.  The danger though, comes precisely because it is so vague.  What are the possible results of a “We should trust God” kind of main idea?

1. Lack of authority. If it obviously does not represent the preaching text effectively, then the listeners are left with a sense of inadequate preparation on the part of the preacher.  Our authority is really God’s authority demonstrated by the fact that the Bible is boss of the message.  Vague and loose use of the text can only undermine authority.

2. Insipid application. If the main idea derived from the text is vague, the result will typically be vague application also.  Lack of diligence in explaining the text will not set up diligent application of that specific text.  The personality of the preacher may incline them to detailed applications, but without the biblical foundation, such application is likely to be more along the lines of personal suggestions to the listeners.

3. Limited life change. Of course God is able to work despite and around our poor preaching.  But our aim should never be to need a “despite us” kind of grace.  While life change can only ever come from the work of God through His ministry in His people by His Spirit and His grace, He calls us to handle His Word well and preach as effectively as we can.  Vague main ideas come from inadequate biblical study, lead to insipid application and typically result in limited life change.

So what do I suggest?  I suggest the “Hypothetical Bible Expert” test.  Presuming somebody knew their Bible really well, would they be able to identify the passage from just the statement of the preaching idea?  “We should trust God” could come from any number of passages.  A distinct and carefully written main idea will point to one (or a very limited number of passages).  Aim for a unique main idea for each unique passage.

Squeezing One Sentence into Half an Hour

Last night I was involved in a very enjoyable Bible study in Ephesians.  After wrestling with the text together for a good while, we tried to summarize the section in one sentence.  Having made a first pass at a summary statement (or main idea), I mentioned that now there is a chance we could preach the passage.  A very perceptive (and tongue-in-cheek) question came right back at me.  “How come if you can say it in one sentence, a sermon has to take half-an-hour?”

So, how come?  How come we work hard to get the main idea of a passage and then take half-an-hour to preach a message that in theory can be stated in one sentence?  Let us make a dangerous assumption for the sake of this post – let’s assume that we actually have a one sentence main idea statement of the message of the text.  What do we do for half-an-hour?

Option 1.  We carefully plan how to best drive that main idea home. What introduction will draw people forward into the message with genuinely piqued interest and a thirst for this part of God’s Word? When should the main idea be presented? Should we repeatedly drive it home using the text’s sub-points (not annoyingly like a child’s impersonation of a sub-machine gun, but like the carefully placed bullets of a sniper) or should we create anticipation so once the main idea is stated it goes deep (like a bunker-busting missile)?  How can the main idea be supported by explanation of the text?  How can the main idea be earthed in our lives through carefully developed application?  Option 1 is to take half-an-hour and make that main idea so clear, so transformative, so evident from the text, so applicational for each life.  Option 1 is about turning one sentence into a life-changing power-packed single message. Or there is option 2 . . .

Option 2.  We use our half-an-hour to increasingly obfuscate the main idea. We provide a series of pieces of information, background descriptions, vaguely related cross-references, potentially amusing anecdotes, random highlights from our exegesis, etc.  All of these could be helpful, but if we’re not careful they may simply provide a cover of smoke so that the main idea in no way hits home.  Or we hide the main idea beneath three or four points from the text that do not hold together but function as a selection of messages from which our listeners can select their favourite.  Often option 2 is selected by default.  It is selected because the main idea is not fully crystallized in our minds so we spray random bullets hoping our listeners will make something out of it.

If a sermon can be stated in one sentence, why do we need half-an-hour?  I suppose it depends on the preacher, and it depends on the sermon!