In the first post in this series on preparing to preach as a missionary, I noted that the preacher must understand both the Bible and the audience. Moreover, the preacher must connect the two. Now I raise the question, “Does a good sermon consist of one point (one main idea) or does it need at least three points?
Often expository preaching is viewed and practiced as a running commentary on a text of Scripture. The pattern seems to come from lectures heard in Bible college and seminary. Yet, I have never read a book on preaching that advocates a running commentary approach. In fact, John Stott points out that the chief difference between a lecture and a sermon is that the sermon “aims to convey only one major message.”John Stott, Between Two Worlds, Eerdmans:1982, p.225.
A sermon calls the audience to understand and respond to God’s Word. So, presenting one point in an oral presentation enables the audience to concentrate their attention on the biblical truth. People are more likely to remember and apply a sermon with one clear message.
The Big Idea
Terminology may vary – central idea, proposition, theme, thesis statement, main thought – but the concept is the same: an effective speech “centers on one specific thing, a central idea.”Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, Baker:1980, p 34.
Robinson has popularized the term “the Big Idea.” In fact, he devotes a whole chapter in his book to the concept. According to Robinson, an idea consists of a subject and a complement.Robinson, p 39-44. The subject is “what you are talking about.” The complement is “what you are saying about what you are talking about.” Some biblical texts might have two (or more) complements. In that case, it may be better to preach two sermons unless the two are closely related.
An example of the big idea for preaching on 1 Peter 1:3-5 would be: “Our new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ produces a living hope.” The subject is our new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The complement is it produces a living hope. Now there are a number of ways to word this. For instance, one might shorten it to “Our new birth produces a living hope” to make it easier to remember. Or, one might say, “Being born again brings hope.”
The Big Idea comes from the Biblical Text
In expository preaching the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different theme, nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but rather a master which dictates and controls what is said.John Stott, Between Two Worlds, Eerdmans: 1982, p 126.
The big idea of the sermon must reflect the main thought of the biblical text. As we study the biblical text, we look for the central point the author is communicating. Like the big idea of the sermon, this will have a subject and a complement. So, we ask what is the text talking about? Then, what is it saying about this subject? Everything else in the text will relate in some way to this central point. Robinson writes:
Finding the subject and complement does not start when the expository preacher begins construction of his sermon. He pursues the subject and complement when he studies his Bible. Since each paragraph, section, or subsection of Scripture contains an idea, an exegete [interpreter] does not understand a passage until he can state its subject and complement exactly. While other questions emerge in the struggle to understand the meaning of a biblical writer, the two – What is the author talking about? and What is he saying about what he is talking about? – are fundamental.Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, p 41.
The Big idea Must Be Clear
Words are the primary tool of the preacher. Likewise, words are the primary way the audience will receive the message. It follows, then, that the preacher must use vocabulary that is familiar to the audience. It is acceptable to introduce new vocabulary as long as it is explained well in common language. Also, it is wise to limit new vocabulary to words that are essential to understanding the text. Avoid vocabulary that flaunts your education. Clarity enhances understanding. Remember Paul’s prayer request for clarity in his preaching (Col. 4:3-4).
Knowing your audience is crucial in wording the sermon’s big idea. You might ask a church leader how they would express the big idea as you are working on your message. Keep in mind that the big idea is what you want your audience to understand and apply to their lives. Therefore, it is essential that it is expressed in common language that is easy to understand and remember. Yes, this is hard work, but effective preaching largely depends on a clear and memorable big idea. Robinson has some sharp words to say about this:
If a preacher will not – or cannot – think himself clear so that he says what he means, he has no business in the pulpit. He is like a singer who can’t sing, an actor who can’t act, an accountant that can’t add.Haddon Robinson, p 39.
The Big Idea Controls the Sermon
Once we have clearly stated the big idea in common language, the rest of the sermon develops it. The body of the sermon will explain or prove the big idea and apply it to contemporary life. Additionally, the sermon will show how this is found in the biblical text. The next post in this series will suggest ways to develop the big idea.