Why should the Big Idea govern the main point of a sermon?
Suppose a pastor, knowing the state of his congregation, sees that in Sunday’s bible passage there is some truth he judges they badly and urgently need. OK, it is not the main point of the passage, but he is sure it is what they most need. Is he not justified in making this subsidiary point in the passage into the main point of the sermon? Indeed, is this not his pastoral responsibility, to use his God-given intuition and knowledge of his congregation in this way?
Such an argument is plausible but dangerous, at least for regular week by week expository preaching. There is nothing wrong with selecting a topic for a one-off sermon and applying this particular bible truth because it seems to be timely and appropriate. But we must not pretend it is exposition. One of the great benefits of exposition is that we let God set the agenda, we give God the microphone, we trust that God knows best what we need to hear, that if we give our congregations a balanced diet of systematic consecutive exposition working through bible books, we and they will over time be built up in godliness and faith. So let’s not lose our nerve; let’s have the courage to make the main thing in the passage the main thing in a faithful expository sermon. Apart from anything else, it will save our churches from having too often to endure the bees buzzing round in the pastor’s bonnet.
Must there be a Big Idea?
Along with many others seeking to train in expository bible ministry, we at the PT Cornhill Training Course make “the Big Idea” one of the key pillars of our training strategy. For every bible passage, we ask our students to work hard to express the one central truth of the passage in a clear and concise sentence. If you come across one of our students on a bad day, you may well find them tearing their hair out trying to find the wretched Big Idea!
But are we right? OK, so it’s often a helpful exercise trying to find a Big Idea; but what if there isn’t one? Must there be a Big Idea for every bible passage? Or, to put it another way, is the whole “Big Idea” thing an arbitrary creation of Cornhill and other like-minded training methods?
It’s a fair question and a good one. What lies behind it is the whole business of coherence. If you, as a sane and rational person, say something to me, I will generally make the assumptions, first that you intend to say something coherent to me (rather than whimsical or random “Alice in Wonderland” speech) and that you succeed, at least approximately, in saying something coherent. Suppose I have had a ten minute ‘phone call with you, after which a mutual friend asks me what you said. She is not asking or expecting me to repeat what you said verbatim; what she wants is the main content of what you said, put more briefly (“I got the job,” “I have been promoted,” “She said yes” or whatever it may be). If this is so with fallible human beings, how much more ought we to make the assumption that God intends, and succeeds in conveying, a coherent message in his word. In which case I may reasonably expect to be able to find the main point of what he says.
We must be sensible about this. It does depend on wise divisions of passages in a bible book; some divisions fit better than others with the underlying structure. And some passages may have a tighter Big Idea than others. But it is a reasonable assumption that God is not making random disconnected statements, but rather speaking with coherence. That’s what the Big Idea idea is about.
Making Job less impenetrable
Job is Holy Scripture. I know that. But I also know that some things in Scripture, by its own admission, “are hard to understand.” I put Job in that category. Not that there aren’t wonderful truths which I know well (and recite at funerals). But understanding these truths in the larger sweep and answering quite basic questions (“what are we to make of Elihu?”) are not straightforward. And as I long to see Christ in every book, I have to confess that Job is one of the hardest.
That’s why I love Christopher’s new commentary on Job in the Preach the Word series. He’s written on Job before of course, but this new volume is substantial. I’ve been using it to help me as I read through Job very slowly in my personal devotions – and what a help it’s been in understanding the Scripture. Looking back, my notes in the margin are copious and full of exclamation marks. There’s nothing to be ashamed of using other people’s learning and study to benefit your own. And whilst I don’t plan preaching Job right at the moment (it needs more studythan a devotional reading can give it), nevertheless, I’ve found it both personally and pastorally helpful. Christopher’s is a really first class volume worth having on your shelf and using. This series was patchy at first, but is getting steadily better and better.
Having a bad day?
There are some days in ministry which are just bad. It may be a personal struggle with sin which defeats you, even though you know it should not. It may be a struggle with a sermon: you’ve been wrestling with it, like a dog with a bone, but you just can’t make headway. It may be a frustrating situation in church: someone has let you down, someone has sinned, a marriage has broken up, someone key has announced they’re leaving, a difficult email has arrived.
As pastors and preachers it is right to feel some of this burden: “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor 11:29). It is to be expected. But that does not make it any easier.
I had a day like that last week. Pretty much it contained all of the above. All together. All on one day. I don’t tell you this for your pity. I’m a complex Joan of Arc and your pity only fuels my sin! I tell you by way of encouragement. Because every minister of the gospel has days like that. And we need to know that the antidote to bad days is a big view of God; a clear sight of the Saviour, a deep work of the Spirit.
The day before my bad day, I wrote down a line from a Puritan prayer and put it on a post-it on my computer screen. It has been a deep challenge and comfort to me as I think of the gospel and how my heart is in constant need of change:
“O Holy Spirit, take the things of Christ and show them to my soul”
The four stages of man
It is always helpful for the preacher to be thinking through to whom he is preaching in terms of their spiritual state. Thomas Boston is helpful here with his fourfold state, picking up on Augustine:
- Primitive integrity, i.e. pre-fall – in Augustinian terms, able to sin
- Entire depravity, i.e. post-fall, pre-conversion, not able not to sin
- Begun recovery, i.e. regenerate, able not to sin
- Consummate happiness (or misery), i.e. glorification, unable to sin
It will not have escaped your notice that we are not preaching to either (1) or (4). However, chances are we are preaching to both (2) and (3). Moreover, it is easy to make two mistakes when it comes to Christians (category 3 to you and I):
- It’s easy to put them into (2) and forget they are indwelt by the Spirit and so able not to sin. The sinful nature remains, sure, but sin is not a power over them. I love Wesley here: to paraphrase, the power of cancelled sin is broken. We can appeal to believers on the basis of the work of Christ applied to them by the Spirit: it need not be this way. We fall into this error when we preach too much on sin (did I just say that?). I must qualify: if we only give the impression that the Christian life is one of failure and repentance in a demoralising cycle, is that really reflecting the teaching of Scripture?
- However, it’s equally easy to go to the other extreme and assume believers are somehow glorified already. It’s all about delighting, rejoicing and abiding in Christ with no (it seems) sin to be put to death. I caricature, but you get the point. We do this when preach too little on sin. Perhaps we scoff at old-Keswick holiness teaching, but there is a real risk that this sinless Christianity is creeping back into our preaching through the back door.
Find the middle biblical, road. Stay on the horse, Martin.
I like reading theology. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired. It’s not that I read theology in place of grappling hard with Scripture for myself and then coming to Bible commentaries and biblical studies.
It’s not (I hope) that I’m filling my mind with a framework that I can neatly shove any Bible passage into, preaching a theological system rather than the content and aim of this particular text. Instead, at its best, I like reading theology most especially when the writer builds his case through a series of insightful and careful readings of Scripture, rather than just stringing together theological assertions and adding a list of ten different Bible verses in brackets at the end.
That’s why I’ll look forward at some point to dipping into volume two of Douglas Kelly’s Systematic Theology, on Christology, because a review promises me that he regularly does the former. I’ve also been stirred recently by the same kind of thing in Donald Macleod’s little book of short essays on Christ, From Glory To Golgotha. Writing of the Transfiguration, he says that it was an encouragement from the Father to the Son: presumably Jesus did not stand talking with Elijah and Moses simply to make a show to the three disciples who were watching for their benefit. The Father, says Macleod, is reminding Jesus of his own essential glory; is giving him a foretaste of the future transformation of his humanness; and is giving him a glimpse of what his death will mean for others.
Are these going to be my headings in a sermon on the Transfiguration? Probably not! But does Macleod capture something significant in the way the Transfiguration is related to us in Scripture, and the context in which it is set in the Gospels? I think he does, and adding that to the spectacles with which I read the Transfiguration can only help.
Spot the difference?
You’re standing at the front of church, the first song has started and you look out to the sea of faces in front of you…Bob’s fidgeting and generally looking very awkward, Sophie looks bored and unmoved by what she’s singing… then you wonder what your face and body language is communicating to them.
Paul exhorts us in Ephesians to speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord. I can’t help wondering though if our particular brand of British awkwardness is getting in the way of the call to make melody in our hearts to the Lord – to sing to him from the heart – to really mean what we’re singing in a way that overcomes even British awkwardness and our fear of each other.
Shouldn’t we know and express a greater sense of delight and joy or conversely a greater depth of sorrow and grief when we’re gathered with God’s people, singing to our King, than we do at the football stadium or in front of our favourite film the night before?
Of course it’s not about putting on a show for the sake of others – ironically a show is probably closer to what we’re doing when we don’t sing from our hearts – but rather letting our singing express the inward reality of God’s work in us. Shouldn’t we expect to look around and see a beaming face or a look of earnest anguish rather than one of seemingly blank indifference? If we see blank indifference, shouldn’t we be asking questions about the health of peoples’ hearts and our own for that matter?
This will obviously look different for each of us but, in whatever way is appropriate, let’s beware of hypocrisy and in our own singing let’s encourage each other and our congregations to respond to God’s great mercies from minds and hearts that are transformed by his grace.
Let’s all sing … like we mean it!
Anatomy of a sermon: an afterword
I’ve presented a rather idealised view of my week, I know. The truth is, in pastoral ministry, I often was preparing 2 sermons and a Bible study concurrently, so I was doing what I’ve described times 3. Towards the end of my ministry, the evening sermon expanded on something from the morning series, and so I could not start the evening sermon until I was quite a way through the morning prep. There are funerals to fit in, other one-off events. Sometimes I had less time to prepare. Always I tried to front load Day 1 so it came earlier in the calendar, perhaps even one or two weeks previously. So, yes this an idealised timetable, but nonetheless I hope it has provided some food for thought.
Then there’s Day 6 or D Day or whatever you want to call it. My preaching day starts early – almost entirely about prayer and personal devotion. Sermons (for me at least) I amend at the last minute are almost invariably not improved. And prayer afterwards too. It’s too easy to preach and then forget. But I want to commend it to the Lord after it has been preached, as well as before.
And then it all begins again! The mechanics, however, must not detract from the enormous privilege of being called to proclaim Christ to his people. What a task! What a calling! What an honour! What a sobering thought! I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 5
Today I work on the manuscript. I reduce it to thoughts and ideas and preach from those – that happens to be my style. Years ago I used to do this with a fresh piece of paper. Sometimes I still do. But mostly I do it now by highlighting a key phrase or word per paragraph and preach from that. I also annotate the manuscript, sometimes fairly heavily.
I also preach it through, audibly, at least once, often twice, much to the amusement of my family. We have the most holy tropical fish in the UK, apparently, though I find the fish are remarkably unresponsive to my preaching.
This is the day when application tends to be honed. As a general rule, I find that my application has been too general at this point, and I try to find time to reflect and amend so that it is more pertinent. I also think about whether there is anything in the news that will serve better as an illustration. I don’t want to force the point, but it makes the sermon feel more contemporary if there is something I can relate to that’s happened during the week. I include Christian news in that, because I think it’s a good way for introverted evangelicals to hear a bit more about the world. An “information application” Mrs R calls it.
In my normal pastoral week this day is a Saturday, but as it happens, I made sure that Saturday ended in the study at lunchtime. There is always more I could be doing on the sermon. There is always more room for dotting and crossing. But I figure I am going to be a better preacher, and more use to my people if I have not spent Saturday evening fretting over the sermon and making wholesale changes. I need to leave it with the Lord at some point, and that’s halfway through Day 5 in terms of preparation.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 4
By the end of today I want a draft finished sermon. That means I work through the value added bits that will turn a dry lecture into a living message – introduction, illustration (where needed, more of that in a moment), application, conclusion.
I think of illustrations as windows. First – and perhaps primarily – they are windows that bring light. Some things are hard to understand and need illumination. A carefully worded illustration (which can be just a sentence) is a real help here. You need to know your people, of course.
But, second, illustrations can also bring fresh air. They can be breather. I don’t think we should use illustrations too much for this purpose, but they allow people listening a little moment to recover, regroup and stay with you. That purpose can be overstated, but I do think it is important. You’re generally more in love with your sermon than your people are – after all, it’s been your week’s work.
I tend, at this stage, to work up a full manuscript, even though I don’t preach from it. And at this stage, I show it to Mrs R. That’s not a stage everyone would want (I don’t think she has the time!). But I find it helpful to get her input; she normally has some wise things to say which are generally communicated by way of faint pencil marks in the margin!! She rarely suggests major things: minor points on application and illustration in the main: but her comments always make the sermons better.