Get the Idea? – Part 3

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So a lot of people endorse Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching but seem to miss the prize jewel in the book – the Big Idea.  They may use the language, but many miss the point.  We’ve thought about the Big Idea in terms of communication, and in terms of biblical studies.  One more:

The Big Idea in terms of the Holy Spirit Continue reading

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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Main Idea – Easy Mistake

I suppose there are several easy mistakes to make when it comes to getting the main idea of a passage.  I’d like to point out one today.

Do not look for the biggest detail of the passage and then omit the rest of the passage. It may be tempting to look for the weightiest element in a passage and make that the main idea.  Equally, it may be a misunderstanding of the process to search for the biggest point and then miss the rest.

What we should be doing is distilling the whole passage, allowing every detail (big or small), to influence the statement of the main idea.  Some details may not be visible in the wording of the main idea.  Perhaps they influence the tone or the feel of the idea.  Some details are developments of the main idea (perhaps explaining, or proving, or applying it) and consequently may not show in the statement.  However, it is important to approach getting the main idea in the right way:

The right way: every detail feeds into our understanding of the whole, which is then summarized or distilled into one sentence.

The wrong way: only the most significant detail (or even the most attractive or preachable detail) is used to define the main idea, all other details are skipped or omitted.

Why State Ideas Explicitly? – Part 2

Here’s the question again:

Since our culture is shaped by the communication of implicit and pervasive ideas, and much of the Scriptures use a narrative communication with ideas implicitly conveyed, are we communicating effectively when we state explicit ideas in preaching?

Two more thoughts:

Generally speaking, explicit statement of the idea is necessary if people are to have any chance of getting it. I’ve seen it time and again in preaching classrooms.  The preacher knows that the class will be asked what the main idea of the message was, so they try to exaggerate it, repeating it until they feel almost embarrassed to do so any more.  Then when the group is asked for it (knowing they would be asked and some looking for it throughout the message) . . . many fail to give the preachers idea accurately!  It is scary as a preacher to realize how easily people miss the main idea, even when we are explicit.  So we need to consider how to communicate that idea effectively.  Generally this means repetition, emphasis, etc.  Sometimes a better way is more subtle, but strong through subtlety (as in an inductive message – less repetition, but more impact).  Moving deliberately away from explicit statement of the main idea without a very good alternative strategy and plan seems like homiletical folly.

This question does raise a valid issue. Not only do we need to think about the explicit main idea of our message, but we need to consider our implicit communication.  How can we reinforce the main idea through implicit means during the sermon?  What other values and ideas are we conveying implicitly in this or any sermon?

Is it right to state the main idea explicitly?  I think it is.  But this does not call us to simple formulaic approaches to idea repetition.  It calls us to wrestle with our entire preaching strategy as we seek to convey the true and exact meaning of the biblical text with impact in the lives of our listeners.

Why State Ideas Explicitly?

A while ago I was asked a very perceptive question:

Since our culture is shaped by the communication of implicit and pervasive ideas, and much of the Scriptures use a narrative communication with ideas implicitly conveyed, are we communicating effectively when we state explicit ideas in preaching?

I think a question of that depth requires a better answer than I am about to give, but perhaps this post and the next can challenge both our theory and practice.  A couple of thoughts in lieu of a full-orbed answer:

Preaching is different since listeners cannot soak in it. I would suggest that the pervasive influence of our culture is a soaking influence.  People are constantly and gradually bombarded with messages about life, reality, meaning, self, beauty, satisfaction, money, sex and so on.  This “implicit” pounding continues moment by moment, day after day.  Then we stand on a Sunday morning and hope to counter with truth from God’s Word.  From one perspective, it is hardly a fair fight!

Culture, Bible and Preaching all influence both implicitly and explicitly. While the question recognizes the implicit nature of communication in both culture and the Scriptures, it fails to recognize that all three use both implicit and explicit communication.  Culture is implicit in the communication of the general main ideas of the world, but when “soaking” is not possible, it can become very overt.  An ad campaign that will be seen many times can be subtle, but witness also the numerous explicit “big ideas” communicated daily in advertizing, film, music, etc.  According to Robinson, the Bible communicates eight or ten big “big ideas” repeatedly throughout the canon.  Spend a life soaking in the Word of God and those ideas will mark you deeply.  Yet each passage also conveys its idea more directly – with language, propositional statements, images painted with words, even narratives that leave a mark on the reader (whether or not the reader bothers to try and put exact words to the idea that has been presented therein).  Preaching also communicates both implicitly and explicitly.  Over the years, listeners who soak in your preaching will be marked by implicit messages and attitudes conveyed in your preaching – attitudes toward God, toward truth, toward the Bible, toward people, etc.  Yet we also make explicit that which the listener should not miss – the idea of this passage, presented to us today.

Tomorrow I will add a couple more thoughts in response to this question.

It’s a Good Idea to Preach a Good Idea

When you read books on preaching, you often find stunning Big Ideas.  Often the ones included are pithy, memorable, poignant, poetic, clever, assonant, etc.  Let’s be realistic and recognize that those preachers do not come up with stunning Big Ideas for every sermon (unless they only preach a handful each year).  Probably the reason so and so is still using the example of his Big Idea from a 1982 sermon is that he has not come close since!  I am in no way criticizing these authors.  If I were to publish a sermon outline or idea, I’d want it to be the best I can manage.  But let’s not feel pressured by these examples.

When you come up with a stunning Big Idea that absolutely nails the meaning and relevance of the text, then use it (and publish it, etc.)  But most weeks you will have to make do with the best you can come up with.  An idea that is hopefully accurate to the text, fairly succinct, somewhat memorable, or perhaps just plain clear.  These are the sermons that gradually transform lives.  They may not make the preaching books, but the fruit of good honest prayerful preaching preparation will last for eternity.  Don’t feel intimidated by the “big guns” and their best bullets.  Remember that they preach some very average Big Ideas too.

In the time you have, with the skill you have, work on your sermon idea as best you can and then go with what you’ve got.  An average message idea is still better than no message idea at all.  As long as we don’t settle for average out of laziness or poor preparation, as long as we preach the best we can manage as stewards of the opportunity, then lives will be changed, eternity will be different and God will be pleased.

Stage 6 – Message Idea

One thing is certain in preaching. If your message idea is not clear, then listeners will synthesize and selectively remember. They will subconsciously choose their own highlight, the point that stood out to them, or the illustration they enjoyed the most. It is far better to do the work yourself and then present a clear, well-articulated main idea in the message. You start with the passage idea, remove any historically specific references (like Paul, Timothy, Roman Jail, etc.), take into account your sermon purpose and then look to phrase the message idea in a way that is memorable and relevant to your listeners. It doesn’t have to be an all-star big idea every time (it won’t be), but it is worth putting extra effort in on this one critical sentence. Once you have it, it will be boss of the message shape and the details – the next two stages. It may seem like a lot of work, but working on the idea is well worth the time and effort you put in.

Just recently we had three posts on ideas that stick – if you didn’t see them, check them out here 1, 2 and 3.

Stage 4 – Passage Idea

Having studied the content of a passage, focusing on the structure, outline and flow of thought (stage 2), and the intent of the author (stage 3), it is important to arrive at the goal of your study. The goal is the passage idea, a distillation of the author’s thought in one sentence. This sentence should convey the true and exact meaning of the author. This sentence is critical for the building of the sermon. To bypass this stage is to miss the central link between passage and sermon.

Many people study a passage and never feel that the task is done. Details lead to more details, bunny trails, etc. The more they study, the more they feel they need to study and the task (even if enjoyable) is never over. Understanding the importance of finding the idea helps to bring closure to the first half of the preparation process. Once the idea is determined, further study will either clarify the idea, or simply affirm the idea. Once our study starts to affirm what we have determined, it is time to move on to preparing a sermon (so many new preachers get so excited or overwhelmed by the study of the passage that they don’t give enough time to actually formulating the sermon, even though Sunday is looming).

Previously – Here is an important reminder of the importance of the idea. Working on the idea will improve your preaching, as long as you are saying the text’s something. Passage selection will influence this stage too, since a bigger passage has a broader idea.

Remember you can click on “Stage 4 – Passage Idea” for a full list of posts on this important stage of the process.

Remember the Main Thing

It’s easy to be overwhelmed as a preacher.  So many things to keep in mind.  The different aspects of delivery, built on the different elements of a sermon, not to mention the multiple facets of biblical study.  You pour in whatever hours you can find in order to try to understand the passage, then to shape a sermon that will accurately and effectively communicate the meaning of that passage to your listeners with some degree of relevance to their lives.  And maybe the many details feel overwhelming.

It’s easy to get caught up in the introduction, the conclusion, the illustrations, the support materials, the elements of style, effective delivery and so on.  These all matter.  These are all important, but they are all details.  The best delivery you can conjure is hypocrisy without a solid message to preach.  The best message flesh in the world doesn’t look good unless it is on a well-formed skeleton.  And the best bones in the world only make sense as an outline when there is a master design involved.  And that master notion needs to be worthy of all the work.

Delivery makes the most of a good sermon.  The flesh of the sermon makes a skeleton of an outline into an attractive and compelling being. But the skeleton only makes sense if it is serving the main idea of the message – each bone supporting the unity of the message, each detail moving the message forward toward a goal.

I’m not undermining the importance of any sermonic detail.  Details of the sermon and details of delivery, are important, but they are details.  Unless there is a core concept, a big idea, a central proposition, whatever you want to call it.  Unless there is that main idea derived from effective study of the passage to the best of your ability, all pursued in dependence on the Spirit of God.  Unless there is that, there are only details.  Random details.  Remember the main thing.  The main idea is your goal in Bible study.  Then that main idea is boss of the message.  The main idea is the main thing.  Let’s remember that.