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.
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.
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.
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.