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.

?-Centric Preaching

There is a lot of discussion about whether preaching is anthropocentric or theocentric (man or God-centered).  Some like to get into the theocentric versus christocentric debate (God or Christ-centered).  I am not getting into that one in this post (although I will mention a helpful category I heard recently from Walter Kaiser – christocentric is one thing, but christo-exclusive is another . . . I like that helpful distinction!)

Based on the nature of Scripture, I think it is vital that we grasp the necessity of theocentric interpretation, and consequently, preaching.  Kent Edwards, in a journal article, stated:

The point of a biblical story is always a theological point.  We learn something about God and how to live in response to him when we understand a biblical story.  The narrative literature of the Bible is concretized theology.
J.Kent Edwards, JEHS 7:1, 10.

How true that is!  Even if you were to study Esther, the story in the Bible where God is textually absent, it doesn’t take long to recognize that God is very much present as the hero of the story!  Let’s be sure we don’t study Bible passages, stories in particular, and merely derive little lessons for life.  We can leave that with Aesop’s Fables.  Let’s be sure we grapple with the theological point of every story, the intersection between God and humanity.  God’s Word is all relevant and useful, so our preaching should likewise be relevant and useful to life.  But we also center our preaching on God, because the Bible is centered on Him!

Apologetics for Homiletics – Part 3

So the critical matter of the role of the Spirit raised issues concerning evaluation of past “fruit,” and more importantly, the dynamic tension between good stewardship and self-reliance.  Now another objection:

Doesn’t homiletics create a methodological strait jacket? People with years of experience in reading a passage, soaking in it and then coming up with something to say may resist a more “formulaic” approach.  After all, “soak then say” preaching methodology seems a lot more flexible than Haddon Robinson’s 10 stages, or Mead’s 8, or Ramesh Richard’s 7, or Bryan Chappell’s 14, etc.  Here are a couple of thoughts to consider:

1. Good methodology recognizes the natural progression from text to sermon, it does not impose a rigid process. When I teach homiletics I follow the order of the stages, but I regularly recognize that thoughts may come for any part of the process at any time.  Hence it is good to work on loose sheets of paper so insights and ideas can be noted in the appropriate place, before returning to the current stage in the progression.  While thoughts may come randomly at times, there is reason for the order.  One cannot and should not be forming the message before understanding the passage.  In the first four stages one cannot determine the passage idea before studying the passage’s content and intent (intent becoming evident primarily from content), etc.  In the last four stages, there has to be a message before there can truly be an introduction or conclusion, and the message structure cannot precede determination of the idea, etc.  The order is logical, not arbitrary, it recognizes the progression, it doesn’t impose restriction.

Again, there is more to say, but I will defer that to the next post.