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.
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.
Is it possible to arrive at one big idea for a passage, even if the passage is relatively long? The answer is yes, as long as you are dealing with a unit. Where there is a unit, there is some level of unity. In almost every case (maybe in every case), a book could be treated as a unit of Scripture. Within that greater unit there are sub-units. Perhaps we could call them major sections. Within major sections there are sub-sections. Within sub-sections there are complete thoughts. These terms are deliberately vague to allow for the different genres. But essentially a book is like a Christmas tree. The higher you go, the more is included within your chosen section.
For example, is it possible to determine a big idea for Ephesians 1:13-14? Yes, in the English Bible this is a sentence with a complete thought. (I know that for Paul it was not a complete sentence, but we’ll get to that!) Now if you step up a level, these two verses would be swallowed into 1:3-14. Again, big idea is possible, but would be different than just the last two verses of the section. Then you could step up a level again and preach that section swallowed within a larger unit – perhaps 1:1-2:10? Certainly you could move up to 1:1-3:21. Again, a big idea that would have to encompass more text, but still it could be a preachable big idea. Then you could move up another level and preach the whole book.
The main idea of a shorter passage becomes a point or movement within the main idea of a longer passage.
The important thing to remember in preaching a larger chunk of text is that you still have to deal with a legitimate unit of Scripture. Also, the details in the smaller units cannot be reflected fully in a succinct big idea. Be very wary of over complicating a big idea for a bigger passage. It may feel more responsible with the text, but it will undermine your main goal of communicating the text relevantly to your listeners.
Ideally the passage is studied fully, leading to a strong passage idea. Then the congregation is taken into account and a message idea is formulated. Great! That’s already put the message into a league above many that lack such unity. But just having a big idea or message idea is one thing, having a good one is another. Some preachers try so hard to be pithy and clever they’ll sacrifice the idea on the altar of wit. Don’t do that. Others have ideas that are almost as long as the message itself. Maybe more accurate, but they won’t communicate well, they won’t stick. So how to refine a long idea? How to take a good thing and make it better:
1. Write out the idea and count the words. I’m not a huge fan of rules in preaching, but several writers have suggested the idea should not be more than 15 or maybe 18 words in length. I tend to agree, although it’s a flexible guideline rather than a rule. If you need more, use them, but in reality most ideas could be refined without harming them.
2. Evaluate it phrase by phrase and trim words. Don’t say in six words what could be said in two. Are you using roundabout ways of saying something? Could you be more direct?
3. Could internal lists be summarized? Within the idea you may have two or three qualifiers for an element, perhaps qualifiers that will be points in the message. Consider whether these are needed at the level of the idea, or whether a summary term might be more memorable. If the message is preached well then that summary word will be explained and defined by the message anyway.
4. Is there a more memorable option available? Some will give up too much to make this step. Don’t. But if there is a song title, pithy phrase, play on words, movie line or contemporary proverb that can be adapted to add memorability to the idea, consider it.
Often just getting the idea in any form takes a lot of thinking. But if you’ve got any energy and time left, consider how it could be leaner, meaner, more precise, more memorable. None of us get a killer big idea every week. Even the authors of preaching books only share the strongest few they’ve managed in years of ministry! But effort invested here is effort well spent. Work on the idea pays dividends in the message – you’ll be taking a good message and making it even better!