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.

Resolved: Preach Christ

resolved2Here’s another resolution to throw into the mix as we head into another year.  How about making a prayerful determination to preach Christ, rather than the tempting alternatives?

Here are some tempting alternatives that are worth dumping in favour of Christ:

1. Don’t preach issues – It is tempting to be contemporary and to buy into the idea that what people really value above all else is contemporary relevance.  Of course the Bible is relevant and Christ is relevant, but that doesn’t mean your preaching should be salted with relevance like meat in a medieval barrel.  Some preachers are so concerned about being up-to-date that they lose sight of what they have to offer those sitting before them.  Relevance is important, but it is not the primary and central goal in preaching.

2. Don’t preach tips – Of course God’s way is the best way and lives gripped by the Gospel tend to work a whole lot better than lives lived according to the values of the world.  And yes, the Bible does include a lot of insight into living life, both legitimate and moralized.  But our job is not to be the weekly top tip provider for a people totally absorbed with successful living.  There should be a huge difference between our preaching and the self-help guru folks may pay a fortune to hear on Friday night.  The gospel will transform lives, but we are not called to be known as life coaches.

3. Don’t preach pressure – With all the best intentions we can easily undermine the work of the Gospel in the lives of those we preach to each week.  That is, we want them to be thriving spiritually and in life.  We know the damage sin can do.  So we will always be tempted to twist arms and pressure people to conform to an outward Christianity.  It makes church life easier if all messes are hidden and people act appropriately.  But pressure preaching assumes that listeners can fix themselves and that we can achieve God’s goals without any meaningful involvement from Him.  There will be moments where we seek to appropriately apply the pressure of God’s Word, but that is not what defines us as true Christian preachers.

4. Don’t preach yourself – Over the years our own flesh has this amazing ability to get used to being the centre of attention.  If you are naive enough to believe the polite comments you receive after preaching are objective evaluations of your ministry significance, then you can easily start to buy into your own hype.  Please don’t.

5. Do preach Christ – The Gospel is not a self-starting life-change program, it is good news that involves us introducing listeners to God in Christ.  Don’t preach self-help programs, or church programs, or Christian morality, or even Christianity . . . preach Christ.  Make 2015 a year marked by a weekly introduction to a heart-capturing Saviour!

Where Does Christ Fit?

When you are preaching the Old Testament, there should always be a radar bleeping in your heart regarding where Christ fits into the message.  Some will suggest that every message must be entirely and purely about Christ, whatever the text was originally intended to convey.  I feel this approach can bring our view of the inspiration of Scripture into disrepute.

Not every Old Testament passage is just about Christ. I know that Jesus took two disciples on a tour of the Old Testament on the road to Emmaus, but I’d also like to point out that that road is only 7 miles long!  We need to recognize that many passages are about humanity responding to the God of the covenant, or about the power of the creator God, or about judgment, etc.  If it is a stretch to make the passage be about Jesus, don’t.  However,

The listeners are always listening to the sermon post-incarnation. Consequently there is a need to make sure we are engaging with the text in light of later revelation.  That doesn’t mean we have to reinterpret the original meaning to be something that it could not have been originally.  But we do have to land the bridge of the message in the contemporary circumstance of our listeners (including the fact that we are post-incarnation, post-cross, post-resurrection, post-Pentecost, etc.)

The Old Testament is, of course, heading toward Christ. It is Christo-telic.  That doesn’t mean it is Christo-exclusive.

May God grant us wisdom as we seek to honour His whole revelation in all its fullness, recognizing the progression of revelation, speaking with absolute relevance to contemporary listeners and always honouring and glorifying the Word incarnate!

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Question to Ponder – What is it we preach?

What is it that we preach?  I’m really “preaching to the choir” in this post.  I’m addressing those who are committed to expository preaching and therefore will unhesitatingly affirm – “we preach the Bible!”  Others may hesitate and desire to preach contemporary ideas or whatever else, but for those of us who, at least in theory, preach the Bible, my question stands.  What is it that we preach?  I see two approaches among expository preachers:

Option A – We preach the main thought of a text.

Option B – We preach an aspect of biblical theology prompted by the main thought of a text.

I see strengths in both approaches.  I see potential weaknesses in the way either approach might be applied by some preachers.  I see different preachers and different “schools of thought” falling under different categories in this over-simplified schema.

So how are we to select our option and move forward?  I see value in both options, but on this site I urge a commitment to option A (preach the text you are preaching), with an awareness of option B (develop the theology of the text biblically if you deem it necessary).  I know and respect others who essentially affirm option B for every sermon (always develop the thought through the canon to its fulfilment).

Identifying these two categories is an intriguing starting point for reflection on my own approach to preaching and hopefully for yours too.  Where might this reflection lead?  Is it necessary to offer rationale and critique of each?  Will people recognize that I am not setting up a permanent either/or mutually exclusive construct, but rather identifying the primary leaning of the expository preacher?