Squeezing One Sentence into Half an Hour

Last night I was involved in a very enjoyable Bible study in Ephesians.  After wrestling with the text together for a good while, we tried to summarize the section in one sentence.  Having made a first pass at a summary statement (or main idea), I mentioned that now there is a chance we could preach the passage.  A very perceptive (and tongue-in-cheek) question came right back at me.  “How come if you can say it in one sentence, a sermon has to take half-an-hour?”

So, how come?  How come we work hard to get the main idea of a passage and then take half-an-hour to preach a message that in theory can be stated in one sentence?  Let us make a dangerous assumption for the sake of this post – let’s assume that we actually have a one sentence main idea statement of the message of the text.  What do we do for half-an-hour?

Option 1.  We carefully plan how to best drive that main idea home. What introduction will draw people forward into the message with genuinely piqued interest and a thirst for this part of God’s Word? When should the main idea be presented? Should we repeatedly drive it home using the text’s sub-points (not annoyingly like a child’s impersonation of a sub-machine gun, but like the carefully placed bullets of a sniper) or should we create anticipation so once the main idea is stated it goes deep (like a bunker-busting missile)?  How can the main idea be supported by explanation of the text?  How can the main idea be earthed in our lives through carefully developed application?  Option 1 is to take half-an-hour and make that main idea so clear, so transformative, so evident from the text, so applicational for each life.  Option 1 is about turning one sentence into a life-changing power-packed single message. Or there is option 2 . . .

Option 2.  We use our half-an-hour to increasingly obfuscate the main idea. We provide a series of pieces of information, background descriptions, vaguely related cross-references, potentially amusing anecdotes, random highlights from our exegesis, etc.  All of these could be helpful, but if we’re not careful they may simply provide a cover of smoke so that the main idea in no way hits home.  Or we hide the main idea beneath three or four points from the text that do not hold together but function as a selection of messages from which our listeners can select their favourite.  Often option 2 is selected by default.  It is selected because the main idea is not fully crystallized in our minds so we spray random bullets hoping our listeners will make something out of it.

If a sermon can be stated in one sentence, why do we need half-an-hour?  I suppose it depends on the preacher, and it depends on the sermon!

It’s a Good Idea to Preach a Good Idea

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.

Stage 6 – Message Idea

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.