A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a couple for pre-marital counseling and at the end of our previous session I had given them a book to read–but I had given it to them with fair warning. I informed them that this author’s writer style wasn’t for everyone and that he was very conversational and unconventional, so just be prepared. When we got back together their response didn’t surprise me. One of them enjoyed it and responded well to the material, but the other did not. His response was something like, “The writer just jumped from one point to another, and so it seemed like the book was just one garbled mess.” It was a point well taken and it made me wonder, how many congregants would say the same of my preaching?
Now I enjoy being led on a journey, and I even enjoy being surprised when reading or listening to someone who keeps me in suspense and doesn’t tie it all together until the very end. When it comes to the typical Sunday sermon, however, I think we would be wise to consider the pattern of Jesus’ preaching, which was most often quick and to the point. In fact, if consider the breadth of Jesus’ teachings collected in the Gospels. Aside from the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain), the vast majority of Jesus’ sermons, teachings or parables are singular in structure. He addresses a single concern and allows the listener(s) to sit and simmer on the subject matter in order to evoke a stronger and longer response. Now this doesn’t mean we can’t have special Sundays, events, or sermons, but I think it does mean that for the majority of our teachings we should consider crafting our sermons around one major point for any given text.
I am forever grateful to God for the first preaching professor He placed in my path, Dr. Michael Walters (Houghton College). As a young and naïve undergrad I thought I could talk my way out of just about anything. For any topic or passage of Scripture, I could come up with a long list of ideas, stories, jokes, and sarcastic comments to fill up any amount of time I needed to complete a sermon. But very early on in my first preaching course with Dr. Walters I was informed that in his class we were going to write manuscripts and only manuscripts. I was shocked and horrified! How dare he suppress my creative energies! I have so much to say and not enough time to record it all, and what if the Holy Spirit speaks to me in the moment–what then? How could I possibly preach from anything other than an outline? Over the course of that semester, however, I was humbled and I slowly came to realize what God wanted me to learn, which was restraint, patience, and intentionality. Yes of course I could talk about anything, and yes of course every passage of Scripture is multi-fascinated and layered (like an onion…or a parfait), but that doesn’t mean we have to include all of it in every sermon.
After you have read through a text several times and prayed, and after you have completed your initial research and let it sit, ask yourself (or better yet ask God), what is the main point here? What is the one thing that cannot be ignored? Out of all of the possible angles and perspectives here in this passage, what is God primarily saying to us today, this week, or this month? When we start here we will begin to see and sympathize with Paul’s writings, because then we will begin to understand why he had to speak about the same things in so many different ways (like spiritual gifts: Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4). Then we can begin to understand that we don’t need to hear everything all the time. We simply need to share a single concern so that our listeners can sit and simmer and invite the Holy Spirit to evoke a stronger and longer response.
There is something to be said for “pointless preaching” for a sermon style and structure that is not bound to a certain number of takeaways, as if our sermons are only memorable if they have three points that all start with the same letter. Instead of trying to include it all, and instead of every sermon having a multiplicity of points, let us adopt and pick up the practice of pointed preaching. Let us prayerfully pursue the kind of communication that is impactful and memorable–not because it’s funny or clever, but because it’s carefully crafted and filled with rich intentionality.
Yes, there is a lot going on in any particular passage and it cannot all be ignored; but instead of telling your people everything at once, consider turning all of that wonderful material into a series of sermons or simply save it for later. Sure, that silly story or anecdote you’ve been saving is valuable and worthwhile, but ask yourself if is it absolutely necessary this week. Maybe you can set it aside, and trim the fat a bit so that the story of Scripture can remain clear and concise. The end our preaching shouldn’t be about everything that is going on in any given passage. Rather, our preaching should be pointed. It should point to the only thing, or to the only one, that matters after all.