In the previous post in this series, I emphasized that a sermon should have one main point. Now I turn to developing the big idea in the body of the sermon. Haddon Robinson explains the task in this way:
When anyone makes a declarative statement, only four things can be done to develop it. It can be restated, explained, proved, or applied. Nothing else. To recognize this simple fact opens the way to develop the sermon.Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, Baker: 1980, p. 79
There is a story of a preacher describing his sermon outline in this way: “First, I tell them what I’m going to tell them, then, I tell them, and finally I tell them what I told them.” While repetition and restatement have their place in preaching, this leads to boring preaching. Additionally, restatement is only one way to develop an idea and it doesn’t add much to understanding. So, how do we develop the big idea of our sermon?
How does the biblical author develop the idea?
If we have correctly identified the big idea in our preaching portion, then the rest of the passage will amplify, explain, prove, or apply it. Hence, we look to see how the biblical author develops his thought. Here are four questions that help us discover the author’s development:
- Does he restate it in ways that amplify our understanding?
- In what ways does he explain it?
- Does he prove it?
- How does he apply it?
Application will always be part of the big idea development. Usually one of these will dominate a biblical paragraph. If the biblical author develops the big idea in more than one way, it may be best to preach more than one sermon from the text.
The organizational sentence
Following the statement of the big idea, the preacher needs to inform the audience how the sermon will develop it. This is often referred to as an organizational or transitional sentence. Greg Scharf defines its function using the term “proposition” in place of “big idea.”
The organizational sentence is defined as that element of the sermon that describes how the main points of the sermon develop the proposition. The organizational sentence helps you, because it puts you on record that the sermon will develop the proposition according to a clear plan. It helps the listeners by providing confidence that this message is going somewhere and that you the speaker know the destination. It gives the listener pegs on which to hang the thoughts to come – specific auditory sign-posts for which to listen.Greg Scharf, Prepared to Preach, Christian Focus Publications: 2005, p. 129.
There are a number of ways to form an organizational sentence. Greg Scharf provides a brief description of the most common ways. 1Greg Scharf, Prepared to Preach, 2005, p. 130-132. I was taught the “key word” type where a plural word is descriptive of the main points. Here, “key” is not used in the sense of most important. Rather, the term intends that the main points will key off that word. In other words, the key word describes each of the main points so that they are similar and parallel.
Following our example from 1 Peter 1:3-5, we proposed the big idea as “Our new birth produces a living hope.” An organizational sentence might be: “The following truths about our new birth in 1 Peter 1:3-5 demonstrate how it produces a living hope.” The key word in this example is “truths.” Each of the main points would be truths about the new birth.
- First, we are born again according to the Father’s great mercy (v. 3)
- Secondly, we are born again to an imperishable inheritance (v. 4)
- Third, we who are born again are kept by God’s power (v. 5).
Again, as with the big idea, wording can vary.
Keep Your audience in focus
Use familiar words and thought patterns
It is important that the wording of your organizational sentence and main points are common to your audience. Therefore, in developing the big idea, avoid words that you need to explain.
In cultures that teach through stories, the main points could be framed into a story. In our example from 1 Peter 1:3-5 we might in story form tell how our Father gives us new life in Christ, giving us an inheritance, and protecting us until we reach heaven.
Help listeners see the connection to the biblical text
Our listeners need to see how our sermon’s big idea and its development come from the Bible. This means that we will read the biblical words that support our point. Above all, we want our audience to understand the Bible. In fact, in our preaching, we are modeling Bible study methods. John Piper emphasizes the importance of pointing out the Biblical support for our sermons:
. . . the message must not only correspond to the meaning of Scripture but also show that it does. The authority of preaching lies in the manifest correspondence between what the preacher is trying to communicate with his words and what the biblical authors are trying to communicate through the inspired words of Scripture. If this were not so, then on what basis would the people believe that the meaning of the sermon is the same as the meaning of the Bible? They may discover on their own that it is, without any help from the preacher. But why would the preacher want to make it hard for the people to see the correspondence?John Piper, Expository Exultation, Crossway: 2018, p. 183.
Also, it is important to use a Bible translation that the listeners are using. This is even more important when preaching in another language. The big idea, transitional sentence, and the main points should be based on the translation the audience uses. Even if you are preaching with the help of a translator, make sure that you have carefully looked at the wording of the biblical text in the translation the translator and the audience will be using. Make sure that each main point clearly appears in their translation, not just in yours.
Fleshing out the skeleton
In this post I have suggested ways of developing the big idea. But, at this point we only have an outline, a mere skeleton. Consequently, it needs to be fleshed out with illustrations and applications. The next post in this series will give suggestions to guide illustrating and applying the big idea.