“I design plain truth for plain people”
While on a layover at the Salt Lake City airport, I began to pass the time by chatting with the captain of our flight. I soon discovered that he was unhappy because the air traffic controllers were threatening to go on strike.
“Your contact with them is mainly by radio,” I said. “Do you ever get to know them personally?”
He smiled. “You get to know them fairly well just by the way they give you directions for landing. Most controllers just give the instructions clearly and concisely, but there’s a lady controller at a California airport who reads to us right from the operations manual! One pilot I know listened to her for several minutes, and when she asked him if he understood, he replied, ‘Ma’am, you sounded so much like my wife, I didn’t hear a word you said!'”
Later, as our plane flew to Los Angeles, I pondered that pilot’s answer. I asked myself, When I preach, do people hear only instructions from an operations manual or do they hear the living God speaking to them through His Word? Or perhaps they hear a different voice that distracts them from hearing God’s voice and they totally miss the message. Sobering thoughts.
When we prepare a message, we must keep in mind the elements that are involved:
– Understanding the text1
– Determining the object of the message
– Stating that object clearly
– Planning the development of the message in light of that object
– Deciding how to get the people’s attention and hold their interest
Understanding the Text
According to our Lord’s parable of the sower, unless people understand the Word of God, they can’t receive it into their hearts where it can take root and bear fruit (Matt. 13:1-9,18-23).2 In the parable Jesus explained that the hearers with hard hearts can’t receive the Word because they don’t understand it, so Satan snatches the seed away. A humble prepared heart is essential to an understanding of God’s truth. “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether My teaching comes from God or whether I speak on My own” (John 7:17). F. W. Robertson called obedience “the organ of spiritual knowledge.”3
The listeners in the parable with the shallow hearts and the crowded hearts also failed to understand the message. The shallow-hearted group expected only joy from following Christ and gave no thought to suffering. When persecution came, it exposed their insincere faith. The people with the crowded hearts didn’t understand the message because they failed to pull the “weeds” out of their hearts (repentance) so that the good seed would have room to grow. It was the people who heard the Word and understood it who received the good seed, cultivated it and produced fruit.
If we are to succeed in explaining and applying the text to people in the congregation, we must understand the text ourselves and apply it to our own lives. This means investing hours of hard work, week after week reading and studying the scriptures, meditating, praying and serving our Lord and our people. You know what time of day (or night) is best for you to do creative work, so set it aside, guard it and make good use of it. Don’t complain about the time you don’t have; prioritize wisely the time you do have.
Ministers who complain that they don’t have enough time for study (and who does?) should remember that the conscientious preacher who is in the will of God is always preparing. Ministry isn’t a series of activities that we turn on and off like the computer. We don’t just “do ministry”; we are ministers, and therefore we can’t escape ministering. We can meditate on a text while driving down the highway; we can read a book while waiting in the dentist’s office; we can get a fresh illustration while standing in line at the supermarket checkout counter. Life is ministry and ministry is life, and we must not separate what God has put together.
There are days when we can hardly wait to get to the desk, open the Bible and start working on the message. We feel like a cook preparing a banquet or a tour guide plotting an exciting journey. But there are also days when we feel more like a general making a battle plan or a miner crawling through a tunnel. No matter what our feelings, we can still get into the text and let the text get into us.
Studying that is motivated only by how we feel can’t produce authentic Biblical preaching. After all, the people who originally penned the scriptures didn’t always feel healthy and happy, and perhaps we’ll understand their messages better if we suffer a bit.
One of the advantages of planned preaching is the opportunity you have to work ahead. You get a set of file folders (or you open files in your computer), label each folder with a message topic and text and each time you get an idea, add it to the file. The fact that you plan your texts and themes in advance doesn’t mean the Lord can’t break in and give you a prophetic word for that hour based on a different text. In fact the interruption will call attention to the importance of the message.
However, if more and more of you sermons are “interruptions,” it’s likely that series preaching isn’t your greatest strength. Don’t apologize; some of the church’s most effective preachers rarely preached series of sermons or expositions of entire books They delivered the messages God gave them week by week. This is a much more difficult approach, but you must be true to your gifts and calling as they were to theirs.
There’s a danger, however, that we plan so far ahead that the sermons become isolated lectures totally divorced from the preacher’s life and the life of the church. I’ve heard of ministers who have a full year’s ministry all blocked out, with embalmed outlines buried in their files and waiting to be resurrected and preached.
But the archaeologist who fails to breathe new life into the message will not have a congregation that hears the Lord speaking exciting new truths or sees Him work in fresh ways. In my conference ministry, I’ve preached some sermons thirty times, but each time I invested many hours asking God to preach it to me in refreshing new ways lest I find myself a tour guide in a Biblical museum.
I like to keep my basic tools around me so I can lay hands on them before I forget what I’m investigating in the text. If I’m expounding a book, I keep the best commentaries near me on the desk and don’t put them back on the library shelf until the series has been completed.
It isn’t necessary to consult twenty or thirty commentaries as you exegete a text. Learn what the best commentaries are and use the ones that help you most. Books are tools, and just as tools must match the strength and skill of the workman, so books must be suited to the student. If you find that a “classic” commentary encumbers you instead of enlightens you, don’t feel guilty. Just lay it aside and give yourself time to “grow into it.” The book may be whispering to you, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12). One of the blessed by-products of ministry is the constant opportunity for growth.
Is it necessary to make your own translation of the passage you’re studying? I’m a heretic in this matter and reply: not necessarily. But you ought to study carefully the keywords and the textual matters that relate to interpretation. So many excellent translations and language helps are available today that even the average student can mine a great deal of gold from the text. If doing your own translation delights you and doesn’t consume time that might better be invested elsewhere, then by all means enjoy yourself.
But I’m prone to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson who admitted that he preferred reading accurate translations of the classics to reading the originals. Why swim the river when somebody has already built a sound bridge?4
So read the text in several translations and paraphrases, check the original languages, do some serious thinking and let the Scriptures minister to your own heart. Don’t read homiletical commentaries and sermons on the passage until you’ve developed your own approach.
If you get ideas from other preachers’ sermons, document them and give credit when you quote. If they’ve quoted somebody else, try to get back to the original and be sure the quotation is accurate.5 The temptation to plagiarize is a great one, especially when you’re under pressure. I’ve told students that in my sermon preparation, I milk a lot of cows but I make my own butter; and if I pour some cream out of other people’s pails, I give them credit.
Determining the Object of the Message
While you’re engaged in reading and studying, keep asking yourself and the Lord, What’s the major message of this passage? Don’t search for obscure themes; stick to the main road and leave the detours to the homiletical Athenians who are always looking for something new. Life is too short for us to preach all the great themes in Scripture, so don’t waste time pursuing minor matters. Here are some hints for determining that overriding theme:
– Look for “boundary verses” that seem to mark out thematic boundaries, such as John 14:1 and 27 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled”) and 2 Corinthians 4:1 and 16 (“we do not lose heart”).
– Watch for repeated words and phrases, such as “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” in Psalms 42-43, “fear” in Isaiah 41, “better” in Hebrews, and “mourn” in Revelation 18. Check your Greek and Hebrew concordances.
– Be alert to the images in the passage. The image of the flock dominates John 10 and relates to chapter 9, which is the account of a “sheep” who was thrown out by the religious leaders but taken in by the Good Shepherd. In James 3 you find six pictures of the tongue illustrating the right and wrong use of speech. Isaiah 59 paints several graphic pictures of a corrupt society, including a traffic jam (V. 14)!
– Be sensitive to the “atmosphere” of the text and don’t approach poetry the way you would approach narrative or theological arguments. Galatians 1 and 2 are clearly autobiographical and describe Paul’s defense of his message and his ministry, while Galatians 3 and 4 are theological and constitute Paul’s argument for salvation by grace alone. We read 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings (and sometimes at funerals), but Paul wrote it to be read at local church business meetings! We also read Psalm 23 at funerals, and surely it fits (v. 4), but the psalm speaks about God’s care “all the days of my life” (v. 6), not just when I die.
– Note the way New Testament writers use Old Testament verses, images aid allusions. The background for John 10 is surely Ezekiel 34 plus Psalms 23 and 100. Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:37-38, each time emphasizing a different aspect of justification by faith.
– Note also the way the authors of the Epistles refer to experiences recorded in the four Gospels. Peter has a number of these allusions in his two letters. Give yourself time. Immerse yourself in the text and apply it to your own heart. Trust your gut-level feelings to point you in the right direction. Prayer, meditation and honesty will carry you through.
A final suggestion: As you exegete the passage and take notes, use small pieces of paper (3 x 4 inches) and write only one idea on each piece, giving each one a thematic title (for example, “unbelief”) and the Scripture verse in the passage to which it belongs.
When your spadework is done and you’ve moved into developing an outline, you can arrange the notes on your desk and put them where they belong. Many you will use, some you will file away for future use, and some will end up in the wastebasket.6 This is much more efficient than taking notes on a legal pad and then having to separate them and decide where to put them. Using smaller pieces of notepaper gives you much more flexibility.
Stating the Object of the Message Clearly and Concisely
Those who teach preaching and write about preaching use different names for an important element in the sermon — stating the object clearly and concisely. Following the lead of Austin Phelps in his book Theory of Preaching, Charles Koller and Lloyd Perry christened the important sentence that states the object “the propositional statement.”7 Haddon Robinson writes of “the big idea.”8 John Henry Jowett maintained that no sermon was ready for preaching “until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.”9
Call it what you will, this sentence is the heart and soul of the message. Perhaps a definition would help: The proposition is the statement of a timeless truth found in Scripture. It is in the Present tense. It declares the intent and determines the content of the sermon. And perhaps some examples will help:
The Holy Spirit enables Christians to witness successfully (Acts 1:8).
The purpose of prayer is to glorify God (Matt. 6:9).
Just think of the joys of a life that God blesses! (Matt. 5:1-12).
The fact that we’re going to heaven someday ought to make a difference in our lives every day (John 17:24).
We may forget our decisions, but our decisions won’t forget us (Gal. 6:6-10).
It’s a dangerous thing to pray out of the will of God (Matt. 20:20-28).
The proposition or purpose statement unifies the content of the sermon, so it discourages the preacher from covering too much territory or wandering off into foreign lands. It also clarifies the intent of the sermon so the listeners know where the message is going.
No sermon can include everything that’s taught in the text, although some of the Puritans came close to accomplishing this difficult feat. The proposition helps us focus our studies wisely and select our materials carefully. Just as a river without banks becomes a swamp, so a sermon without a clear proposition becomes a rambling religious speech that tries to say so much it ends up saying nothing. Asked about an address he heard Emerson give, James Russell Lowell said, “It began nowhere and ended everywhere.”10 Perhaps Emerson needed a propositional statement.
In his seminal book Design for Preaching, H. Grady Davis reminds us that a generalization (which is what a proposition is) “condenses a broad area of experience into a single statement and sees a large truth in a single glance.” Then he adds, “For it is the generalizations that organize the material.”11 Those statements should be read again and pondered.
The proposition isn’t a statement about the sermon; it’s a statement about God and human life. It must be specific enough for the listeners to get their hands on it, interesting enough for them to want to stay with it and so full of life and anticipation that they can’t let go of it. It touches people where they live and when expanded in the sermon, it makes people see, think, feel and want to obey.
Refining the purpose statement is a difficult task but a most important one. At least three factors are involved in the development of the proposition: (1) the truth found in the text, (2) the needs of the church and (3) the constraint in our own hearts. We aren’t just giving a lecture about a portion of Scripture; we’re seeking to meet the needs of a church family collectively and of family members individually.
Any preacher can make a tolerable outline of almost any passage and preach from it, but that would be “sermonizing” and not real exposition of the Word of God. Unfortunately, an outline isn’t a message any more than a recipe is a meal or a blueprint is a house, so be sure that the propositional statement is connected to life as well as truth.
So as you study the text, take time to study your people and your own heart, and ask the Spirit to bring these elements together so you can give expression to a proposition that will express the truth of the text. This can lead to a sermon that will meet the needs of the people. If you’ve done your homework in the study and your pastoral work with the people, the Spirit has something tangible to work with and won’t disappoint you.
Developing the Message Outline
The development of the message grows out of the union of the text and the proposition. If the proposition is what it ought to be, it will contain the “homiletical DNA” that will determine how the message develops.
Let’s consider a familiar passage, 1 John 1:5-10: “This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives.”
Even a cursory reading of the passage reveals that there are three deceptions God’s people must avoid if they want to be in fellowship with Him:
1. Trying to deceive others (v. 6)
2. Trying to deceive ourselves (v. 8)
3. Trying to deceive God (v. 10)
If that approach seems a bit negative, take it from the positive viewpoint: If we would cultivate Christian character and fellowship with God, there are four conditions we must meet:
1. We must recognize that God is holy (v.5)
2. We must be honest with God’s people (vv. 6-7)
3. We must be honest with ourselves (v.8)
4. We must be honest with God (9-10)
The words in italics (deception and condition) are what we call “key words.” They describe each of the main points in the development of the message. In the first outline, each point is a form of deception; in the second, each point is a condition we must meet. The points are parallel and belong together. It’s an approach that enables people to follow the message and understand the text and apply it. When you change the key word, you change the approach of the message. For example, the proposition might be: When we start living as though our God is not a holy God, we’ve taken the first step toward ruin. John describes the stages in this sad experience:
1. We begin to lie to others (v. 6)
2. We begin to lie to ourselves (v. 8)
3. We try to lie to God (v. 10)
John also points out that in each of these stages, the believer incurs some fearful losses:
1. The truth no longer controls us (v. 6)
2. The truth is no longer within us (v. 8)
3. The truth is no longer welcome within us (v. 10)
If you change the intent of the proposition, you will probably have to change the key word as well. Remember, the key word is always a noun and always plural. Because it characterizes the main points of the message, the keyword must be concrete, precise and accurate. Although Paul uses the word things frequently (see Romans 8 and Philippians 3), it isn’t a good key word for today’s preacher because it’s too broad. A proposition such as “Paul tells us several things about prayer” isn’t likely to attract much interest. “If you decide to be a person of prayer, it will radically change your life” is much more incisive. Your key word could be ways or changes or alterations.
Another key word that needs to be used with care is reasons, not because it isn’t a good word, but because it announces to the congregation, “I’m going to debate with you, so get ready!” Halford Luccock used to remind his Yale Divinity School students, “People don’t come to church to hear reasons; they come to see visions.”
You ought to own a good thesaurus and a book of synonyms, but your best tool will be a dependable dictionary of synonyms that gives you definitions of the words and illustrates the fine shades of meaning that distinguish them.12 For example, there’s a difference between results and consequences. The words shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word was the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
The wise preacher will seek to be a student of words and use them as jewelers handle precious gems or surgeons their instruments. Most good dictionaries list synonyms and antonyms, and the preacher will want to own and use the best linguistic tools. It’s important to know the value of the words we use and to treat them with respect.
The propositional approach to preaching makes for clear outlines, but if we aren’t careful, it can lead to mechanical sermon preparation that results in messages that are predictable. The beginning preacher, like the beginning musician, must obey the rules and learn the basics. You don’t break the rules until the rules have first broken you. But the proposition doesn’t always have to be an affirmation (Jesus wants to increase our faith). It can be a question (Whatever else our churches may be known for today, are they known for their great faith?) or even an exclamation (Think of what could happen to our families, our community and this church if we really exercised faith in God!). There’s even a place for the hortatory proposition (Keep on praying!). Study and experience will help the minister develop the kind of intuition needed for framing the proposition.
Getting and Holding Attention
We have three goals in mind as we introduce the sermon: getting our listeners’ attention, telling them what the sermon is to be about and convincing them that if they listen, it will do them good. It’s a real challenge to prepare an effective introduction, but with the Lord’s help and the exercise of a sanctified imagination, it can be done.
D. L. Moody once opened a sermon with, “I do not think there is a word in the English language so little understood as the word Gospel.” J. Wallace Hamilton began a message with, “Conspicuous among the many by-products of the machine age is the rise to royalty of the repairman. We ordinary people are almost wholly at his mercy.” He then preached from Jeremiah 18:4 (KJV), “so he made it again.” G. A. Studdert-Kennedy opened an Ascension Day message with, “He ascended into heaven. Did He? Where is heaven? What is it? Is it a place? Can we know what it is or where it is?”
These three examples introduce rule number one for the introduction: Plan to hit the pulpit running. Design that first sentence so it will grab the attention of the congregation and hold it. The day of the casual, unplanned, rambling introduction is over: “Now if you were with us three weeks ago when I started this series, you may recall…” Or, “Now if you’ll take your Bibles and turn to the Epistle of Jude, right next to the Book of Revelation…” Preachers are heralds of the King and we don’t have time to saunter through the introduction. If you want to say something about the weather or local events, do it at some other time. Years of experience in radio ministry have taught me the importance of those first few sentences in getting people to listen. They can turn us off very quickly, even if they’re sitting in the pews looking at us.
There was a time when people expected sermons to have long introductions that included the background of the text, a few exegetical matters and what other preachers have said about the passage. Those introductions assured the congregation that their pastor had done his homework, but those days are gone forever. Long and learned introductions that review past material are fine for Bible classes and lecture halls, but not for ministers in the pulpit who have thirty minutes to raise the dead.
We live in the day of fast foods, digests and sound bites, and the sooner we get down to business in the pulpit, the more successful that business will be. If you must refer to material presented in previous sermons, do it in the body of the sermon as though it were new material. If you use the word remember, those who don’t remember or didn’t hear it to begin with will be embarrassed, and those who do remember may feel proud. Either way, you’ve done more harm than good.
Turn on your right brain, ponder the text and the proposition and imagine the best way to open the sermon. Let’s consider the first outline on 1 John 1:5-10 and think about deception. Truth is the cement that holds society together, whether it’s a marriage vow at the altar or a campaign promise at a political rally. Smooth-talking con artists are robbing elderly people of their savings, and scams of all kinds abound. There’s a cry for integrity in government and in the church, yet many citizens believe that there’s no relationship between an official’s work and his or her character or lack of it.
Write down phrases and quotations that come to your mind. “Remember the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not get caught.” Recall Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of an evil man who stayed young and handsome while his hidden portrait became uglier the more he sinned. An English proverb says: A clean glove often hides a dirty hand. Solomon wrote, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper” (Prov. 28:13). You have no doubt had some painful experience with a liar.
Here’s one approach: “All of us want to live in a peaceful community and a safe neighborhood. What makes this possible? Good laws are important and so is good enforcement of those laws. But according to scripture, the cement that holds things together — friendships, families, churches, communities and even nations — is truth. If that’s an accurate analysis, and I believe it is, then deception is the most dangerous virus we can ever encounter.”
Let’s refine it: “What’s the cement that holds society together — our friendships, families, neighborhoods, churches, communities and even nations? The answer may shock you. It’s truth; that’s right, truth. The most dangerous virus we can encounter in the world today is deception.”
Sometimes an arresting quotation will get their attention: “Perhaps when you were in school, you had to learn two lines of poetry from Sir Walter Scott: ‘O what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive.’ Another writer added: ‘But when we’ve practiced quite a while / How vastly we improve our style!’ An accomplished hypocrite is a dangerous person to have around, and yet people are moving in that direction and don’t realize it.”
One of the greatest encouragements I ever received in my years of preaching came from a lad about ten years old who approached me after a worship service, looked up at me and said, “I understood every word you said.” It was like getting the Pulitzer prize. We preach to be understood, and that involves clear thinking, careful preparation and organization — and the kind of delivery that makes people want to listen.
Reprinted with permission from The Dynamics of Preaching by Warren Wiersbe, published by Baker Book House Company, Copyright (c) 2000.
1Some books you will want to consider are: Elliot E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990); Walter L. Liefeld, From Text to Sermon: New Testament Expostition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1984); A Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963); Ramesh Richard, Scripture Sculpture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998); Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980); Keith Willhite and Scott M. Gibson, eds. The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching (Colorado Springs, Colo.: ChariotVictor, 1991).
2take it that producing fruit — a changed life that glorifies God — is the main evidence of conversion. See Matthew 3:7-12; 7:15-27; John 15:1-16; Romans 7:1-6; Galations 5:22-23.
3Frederick W. Robertson, Sermons: Second Series (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench Trubner and Co., 1990), 94.
4See Joel Porte, ed., Emerson in His Journals (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982), 301. During a seminary class one day, a student asked me, “When I’m in the pastorate, do I have to spend thirty hours a week on my Greek?” “Who told you that?” I asked. He said, “My Greek professor.” “How many churches has he pastored?” was my next question. The answer was “None.” At that point a second student spoke up: “My Hebrew instructor said we have to spend twenty hours on Hebrew!” “Gentlemen,” I said, “don’t lose your skills with biblical languages. You’ve worked hard to develop them and it’s a shame to waste your gains, but if you spend fifty hours a week on Greek and Hebrew, you’ll lose your church.” Blessed are the balanced.
5It’s remarkable how many inaccurate statements and biographical myths are attributed to famous people and passed from one preacher or writer to another. They Never Said It by Paul F. Boiler Jr. and John George (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) is a dependable resource for checking such things, and you ought to have two or three good quotation books in your library. I recommend Angela Partington, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Robert Andrews, ed., The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); and Rhoda Thomas Tripp, comp., The International Thesaurus of Quotations (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970). When in doubt about a story or quotation, don’t use it.
6Lloyd Perry used to say that the art of expository preaching lay in knowing when to use the wastebasket.
7See Faris D. Whitesell and Lloyd M. Perry, Variety in Your Preaching (Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1954); Lloyd M. Perry, Biblical Sermon Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970); Charles W. Koller, Expository Preaching without Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962)
8Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980). See also Willhite and Gibson, eds., The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching.
9Jowett, The Minister, 133.
10Alfred Kazin and Daniel Aaron, eds., Emerson: A Modern Anthology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 377.
11H. Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 245.
12The thesaurus on your computer program is handy and helpful and I use mine frequently, but it can’t take the place of a good dictionary, especially a dictionary of synonyms. Just as soldiers must know their weapons and carpenters their tools, so preachers must know words.
“I design plain truth for plain people”