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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Finishing Strong

Yesterday I offered five examples of how to finish weakly as your sermon finishes weekly.  Let’s ponder what makes a conclusion strong:

Elements required in a conclusion – sometimes it is helpful to review the flow of the message, usually it is worth reviewing the main idea and intended applications of the message.  The conclusion is a great opportunity to encourage response to and application of the message.  The conclusion has to include, at some point, the phenomena known as stopping.  Review, encourage, stop.

Elements not required in a conclusion – standard teaching it may be, but worth mentioning nonetheless: generally it is not helpful to introduce new information during the conclusion.  A concluding story?  Maybe that’s ok.  But don’t suddenly throw in a new piece of exegetical insight into the preaching passage, or rush off to another passage for one last bit of sight-seeing.

Finishing the journey – as someone who has flown once or twice, let me continue with the airplane analogy since there are several thoughts that can be shared here.  Passengers who have had a great journey with a bad landing will leave with their focus entirely on the bad landing.  Passengers want the pilot to know where he is going and to take them straight there.  They don’t particularly want the pilot to finish a normal journey with a historic televised adrenaline landing.  Passengers like a smooth landing, but they’ll generally take a slight bump over repeated attempts to find the perfect one.  Once landed, extended taxi-ing is not appreciated.  A good landing that takes you by surprise always seems to have a pleasant effect.

Haddon’s Runway – one approach that I particularly appreciate and find hard to emulate, is Haddon Robinson’s oft-used approach.  It is evident after most Haddon sermons that he carefully planned his final sentence.  He flies the plane until he gets there and then quite naturally the plane lands on that landing strip of just ten to fifteen words and the journey is over.  Smooth, apparently effortless, immensely effective.  As he teaches in class, much better to finish two sentences before listeners think you should than two sentences after!

Tomorrow we’ll consider the post-sermon elements of the service, since these also have an effect on the journey.

Extended Gestation

Somebody has likened (with all the necessary caveats and apologies) preaching to pregnancy.  You know the elements of the analogy: something growing within, the building excitement, that something has to come out at a specific point in time, with the resulting post-delivery tiredness and even sometimes the post-partum blues.

Among other elements where the analogy breaks down, there is one that I’d like us to ponder today.  The length of gestation.  Real pregnancy has a consistency of length, preaching preparation doesn’t.  It is easy to fall into a cycle of preaching preparation, from start to finish, taking only five to six days.  This fits between Sundays, but it creates issues.

Is the message able to fully grow, and specifically, is it able to fully grow and work its way into your life if you’ve only been working on it for five days?  “I’ve been studying this passage for the past few days.  I’ve lived with it since Tuesday, and have been applying it consistently since yesterday morning.  Listen to my powerful message from 24 hours of experience . . . ” We don’t say this when we preach, but sometimes we say it by our lives.

Haddon Robinson suggested using a ten-day preparation cycle.  This means doing some preparatory exegetical work on the Thursday of the previous week.  This give it time to stir in the heart and mind before launching into preparation in the week before preaching.

Some preachers suggest planning a preaching calendar a year in advance, allowing for time to do initial study, ongoing research/collection of information, and personal application.  Some advocate taking a week to do preliminary work on all messages to be preached as part of this process.

What do you do?  How long do you take to allow the message to grow, and to make sure it has time to make a mark on your life, before you commend it to others?


Projected Perspectives

I think most preachers who have some level of commitment to an expository approach to preaching are fairly clear on the importance of understanding the Bible and their listeners.  It is the two worlds that John Stott referred to in his great book on the subject.  I suspect most preachers are less aware of the inner world that Haddon Robinson refers to – the inner world of the preacher.

It is easy to assume that I know more about me than anyone does, except God, of course.  To a certain extent that is true.  The problem is in the blind spots.  We all have them.  We all struggle to spot them or recognise their influence on our preaching.  Let me suggest a few aspects of the inner world of the preacher and how such things will influence our preaching.

The Value System We Assimilated Growing Up – Perhaps you grew up in a family situation where some things were valued higher than others.  Actually, you did grow up in such a situation, for good or bad.  Perhaps a strong work ethic, or a weak one.  Perhaps a high concern for what others think.  Perhaps task over people.  Perhaps a view of the class structure of society.  Perhaps a skewed definition of success.  Perhaps under the pressure of perfectionism.  Perhaps in an atmosphere of racism, or sexism, or any other -ism.  Whatever value system you absorbed, it is influencing you.  Even if you think you’ve processed, rejected, reacted, or adjusted, it is still important to be aware of the grid through which your value system may process information, situations, biblical texts, and applications thereof.

The Emotional Baggage We Carry From The Past – Some of the items listed above result in emotional baggage.  So too does past trauma, relational breakdown, personal sin, the sin of others, abuse, grief, loss, etc.  While some of us have been spared the agony that others have had to face, and the burden they’ve secretly carried, none of us are free of emotional baggage.  Guilt, pressure, failure, pain, loneliness, grief, hurt, etc., will all influence our preaching imperceptibly (to us, but listeners will pick up a vibe at some point).  It is easy to project hidden issues onto texts and application.  We need to prayerfully and conversationally process these things in order to know the inner world of ourselves as preachers.

The Personality Preferences and Tendencies We Assume To Be Normal or Right – Everyone else has issues.  I’m normal.  You probably are too.  But actually we need to be aware of our own quirks in order that we don’t press them onto others.  Introvert or extrovert.  A way of thinking.  A sense of humour.  A view of the world.  An inner wiring to desire to be liked, or to be right, or to be accepted.  An approach to interpersonal communication.  A preferred conflict resolution style.  A level of energy or enthusiasm for certain things.

I don’t want to advocate for self-absorption or self-obsession.  We need to keep our gaze fixed on Christ.  Nevertheless, as we look to Him, let’s be honest with Him and ask Him to help us be aware of how the inner landscape of our lives might be influencing how we handle the text, how we preach it, how we live it.

Praise God for Influential Preachers

I just read an article from Preaching magazine –25 Most Influential Pastors of the Past 25 Years. The title should be “preachers” rather than “pastors” in any strict sense of the term’s current usage. Anyway, it is worth reading.  I’m sure some would be quick to criticise how American the list is, but that is always a cheap and easy critique.  What struck me was how many of these preachers have blessed me in recent years (and I don’t spend much time listing to famous preachers).

I would encourage you to read the article and give thanks for these and other well-known preachers who have faithfully sought to serve God through their ministries.  It is easy to critique the famous, but actually it must be hard to be in their positions, perhaps facing some unique stresses that most of us don’t face.

Perhaps the list might suggest some names that you haven’t heard before, leading you to trawl the web for a sermon by E.K.Bailey, or W.A.Criswell, or Fred Craddock.  Or someone who doesn’t fit in your theological or ecclesiological comfort zone . . . anyone from Adrian Rogers, to Bill Hybels, to William Willimon, to Stephen Olford, to Warren Wiersbe, to Rick Warren, to Jack Hayford, to Tim Keller, etc.  Have you observed Andy Stanley preach?  Have you

Maybe this kind of list has a handful of preachers that you have really been blessed by over the years – stop and give thanks for them.  I’m delighted to see Haddon Robinson on there, I know many who would give thanks for the influence of John Piper in their lives, I have friends who have been so blessed by John Stott, and other friends who have faithfully tuned in to Chuck Swindoll, and of course, there are numerous people I know who would count Billy Graham as the preacher God used to reach them with the gospel.

As with all lists, we could add others who would be on our personal list. Famous, or not, we do well to pause and give thanks for preachers God has used in our lives over the years.  I fondly remember the hours I spent listening to George Verwer messages while going through university – how making a quick meal of pasta could stretch into the afternoon as God dealt with and encouraged me through George’s preaching.  Or the Calvary Chapel preacher whose tapes I would rewind incessantly as I took copious notes in my black chair with my feet on the bed.  Or the seminary prof who preached in class every morning at 8am . . . Bruce Fong it was a pleasure to study God’s Word with you, man O man, what a privilege!

Too Obvious To State?

I was in a conversation with a friend the other day and his question prompted a response that I heard previously from Haddon Robinson.  Interestingly, I don’t remember Haddon overtly teaching this concept, but it came out several times in responses to questions he was asked.  Perhaps these three principles (from Aristotle, I believe), are too obvious to state.  Let me state them anyway:

A message needs unity – that is, a message should be about one thing.  Not three things, or numerous things, but one thing.  A sense of unity is important.  If it’s missing then the listeners will supply an imposed unity (often in the form of only remembering your most poignant or amusing illustration . . . which can be frustrating when you are later met with, “Hi!  You’re the preacher who preached the message about the child lost in the funfair!”, when actually you were preaching about salvation but didn’t make that clear by presenting a united message!)

A message needs to be in order – Often a message that makes total sense in the order of 1, 2, 3, 4, simply does not communicate  when it is structured 1, 3, 4, 2.  Or even worse: 1, 3, part of 4, part of 2, rest of 4, etc.  The speaker should think through the order of the message and make sure it makes sense.

A message needs a sense of progress – It needs to be going somewhere.  Without progress the message is about as enjoyable as treading water, in a confined space, with limited air (perhaps it’s only me that feels claustrophobic in a too slow message?)  The preacher needs to give a sense of going somewhere so that the journey through the message can be more satisfying than enduring the ticking of the clock.

Unity, order and progress.  Basics.  Obvious ones, perhaps, but probably worth stating to ourselves now and then!

The Theology Bridge

When we think through the expositional process, we are really concerned about three stages.  The first stage is understanding the text (exegetical).  The final stage is producing the sermon (homiletical).  The link between the two is the bridge in John Stott’s metaphor (in Between Two Worlds).  The bridge is the theological abstraction process.  In Haddon Robinson’s book you’ll find reference to the exegetical idea, the theological idea and the homiletical idea.  You could equally refer to the “at that time” – “timeless” – “at this time” progression of the stages.  This basic concept is important to grasp.  In order to accurately preach the message a passage today, we have to first consider the timeless theological abstraction of the main idea.  Here are a couple of questions to consider as you move from the exegetical to the theological stages of the process:

1. What does this passage say about God? Whether God is mentioned directly or not, every passage should be considered and preached theocentrically.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and since He doesn’t change, the timeless truth of a passage will relate to God in some respect.  This does not mean that the passage is stripped of human interest, but that God is recognized as the key character, whether or not He is mentioned in those specific verses.

2. What does this passage say about humanity in relation to God? Throughout the Bible we see humanity interacting with God.  Some respond with faith, others with self-trust.  Some love Him, some hate Him.  Bryan Chappell refers to the Fallen Condition Focus that can be observed in each text.  In respect to a fallen humanity’s response to God, contemporary listeners will always have a point of connection.

3. Where does the teaching of the passage fit in the flow of progressive revelation? It is always worth thinking through where the passage sits chronologically and progressively in God’s plan of self-revelation.  Technically I suppose that asking this question in the exegetical stage of the process might lead to presenting the meaning of a text in a way that the original readers could not have understood it.  Nevertheless, contemporary readers have to understand a passage in light of the whole canon.  Whether the broader understanding needs to be emphasized will depend on the particular passage and audience.

We study the text to understand what the author meant at that time (exegetical idea).  We abstract the timeless theological truth of that idea (theological idea).  Then we shape our presentation of that idea for our particular listeners at this time (homiletical idea).

Overly Narrow Application of a Principle

I’d like to build a little on the post from three days ago.  Here is a post I wrote a while back, but am fairly sure I forgot to post on the site.  It offers another angle on the challenges of application, again overtly leaning on Haddon Robinson’s work.

In simple terms the homiletical process involves three stages.  The first is the exegetical work of determining the original writer’s meaning.  The second stage involves abstraction of that meaning via theological principalization to derive a timeless truth.  The final stage is the earthing of that principle for the listeners sat in front of you – the homiletical application stage.  At this point our task is to not only demonstrate the meaning of the passage, but also to emphasize how it is relevant to the listeners.

Application is set up for illustrative material.  By definition, application involves demonstrating how the biblical principle might be applied in a contemporary setting, what difference it makes to us today.  At this point in the message, it makes sense to use illustrative materials.  But beware, there is a trap that is easy to fall into.

The incomplete variety of application error.  The meaning of a passage, and the derivation of principle, are both inclined toward single statement results.  That is to say, there is one meaning.  But how is that principle applied?  There are usually numerous possibilities.  If you only present a single example application, even if you state that this is one possible application, listeners will tend to presume that is specifically what you are preaching (or even, what the Bible is teaching).

Haddon Robinson gives the example of “honoring your parents” in a Pulpit Talk audio journal.  One possible application he gives from his experience with his own ageing father – that he ended up in a nursing home.  Another possible application he gives from their experience with his mother-in-law – that she was cared for by Haddon’s wife in their house.  To give one example without the other runs the risk of communicating only one option for applying the principle derived from the passage.

When you are applying a passage, demonstrating and emphasizing its relevance for your listeners, be sure to indicate the variety of possible applications, rather than leaving people with a faulty understanding of the passage because of an overly narrow applicational example.

Excessive Abstractions and Principles Too General

Preaching an ancient text to a contemporary congregation will usually require some level of abstraction.  To preach an ancient instruction simply as it stands is to present a historical lecture, rather than a relevant presentation of inspired truth.  Some preachers simply say what is there and effectively offer historical lecture.  Other preachers abstract from historical specifics to timeless abiding theological truth, but end up preaching vague generalities.

To grasp what Robinson calls the “exegetical idea” and move through the “theological idea” to get to the “homiletical idea” is not easy.  The end result needs to be clearly from the text or the authority has been lost.  Yet the end result has to be specifically clear in its emphasis on the relevance of that text to us or the interest is lost.  One temptation is simply to play it safe, perhaps too safe.

What I mean by that is that we might derive a general, borderline generic, principle from a passage and move from historical explanation (often curtailed) into general application of this general principle.  Was the message true?  Yes.  Biblical?  Yes.  Relevant?  I suppose so.  Life-changing?  Probably not!  Sometimes it is a fear of fully engaging the text that can lead to this “generic” preaching.  Other times it is a fear of fully engaging the listeners that leads to it.

John Stott’s metaphor of the preacher as bridge-builder is helpful here.  The best preaching will not only touch both the world of the Bible and the world of the listener.  The best preaching will be firmly rooted, planted, engaged with and connected to both worlds.  Let’s not preach vaguely biblical abstract generalities.  Let’s really preach this text to these people!