Willhite, Keith and Gibson, Scott M., eds. The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching: Connecting the Bible to People. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998. 199p. ISBN 0-8010-9066-0.
Haddon Robinson (a contributing editor of Preaching is one of the most popular and respected preachers and teachers of preaching in today’s evangelical world. He left the presidency of Denver Seminary to move to the Harold J. Ockenga professorship of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in South Hamilton, MA because of his commitment to focusing his remaining years of ministry intensely in the teaching of preaching. He asks the poignant question, “I listen to some preachers who preach for an hour and it seems like 20 minutes. I listen to others who preach for 20 minutes and it seems like an hour. I wonder what makes the difference?” For Robinson, the basic answer is the effective communication of a single big idea from a text of Scripture.
Keith Willhite and Scott Gibson, founders of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, along with several of Robinson’s colleagues and students have written this festschrift in honor of Haddon Robinson’s life and ministry. Drawing from many friends and proteges of Robinson, most of whom are out of the Dallas Seminary tradition, the book is divided into three major sections. First, Willhite and Scott Wenig argue “Why a Single Idea Lands the Best Punch.” Bruce Waltke, Duane Litfin, Paul Borden, Terry Mattingly, and Bruce Shelley argue the “Biblical and Theological Power” of Big Idea Preaching. Finally, Donald Sunujkian, Joseph Stowell, John Reed, and Scott Gibson offer advice on “Communicating the Point.”
Willhite discusses Robinson’s concept of “Big Idea” preaching by arguing that the only way to say “thus saith the Lord” is to say what the Bible says. Big idea preaching is propositional preaching — a notion that has been the topic of much discussion in academic homiletical circles. Propositional preaching does not mean woodenly deductive. Rather, it means that the intention of the sermon is to use the most effective means to communicate the “big idea” of the biblical text.
Robinson says, “Ideally, each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.” The text may say many things but the sermon should focus on the synthesis of the “big idea” behind the many statements of a given text.
Scott Wenig helps us to see how a sermon that is “text driven” must be “audience focused.” Using several historic figures ranging from Chrysostom and Augustine to Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., he demonstrates how they were able to contextualize their message. He says, “Transformational preaching is rooted in the sacred text but contextualized to a specific audience.”
If one is faithfully to exegete and to exposit a biblical passage in order to communicate the “big idea,” he or she must pay particular attention to the form of the biblical passage. Within each Testament there are differing subsets of biblical forms in use. The realization that redactors have skillfully woven together many different sources in telling the biblical story, confirms the importance of “big idea” preaching. The model of the writers of the biblical text helps preachers see how differing strands can come together to communicate a single “big idea.”
Paul Borden provides helpful insights into how to apply a “big idea” emphasis to narrative preaching. Operating with distinct exegetical and homiletical processes, he sets forth a “dramatic” methodology in which the point of the story is discerned. The homiletical formula Borden develops moves from need to remedy. The Biblical narrative is indicative of some similar need in the lives of contemporary listeners. The narrative becomes illustrative of how God’s people have dealt, either successfully or unsuccessfully with the dilemma from God’s perspective.
Terry Mattingly demonstrates how contemporary culture can provide insight for preaching to the real needs of people. Bruce Shelley provides an anchor point in helping preachers to realize that there is a big idea in the Bible itself, of which the sermon’s “big idea” is one facet. In preaching the multi-faceted big idea of the Bible, Shelley maintains that the big idea must be developed as a personal truth. As Robinson defines the preacher’s task as restating, explaining, proving, and applying the truth, Shelley takes it a step further and says that the preacher must feel the truth as well. This is not to subjectivize the truth into a sloppy sentimentality. Rather, it means that truth communicated most effectively and powerfully will bring with it emotional impact.
The final section of the book gives guidance in assembling a sermon that presents the big idea of Scripture. The ability to discern the “big idea” of Scripture is not enough. One must be able to communicate that idea effectively. One of the first strategic decisions one must make is whether to attempt an inductive or deductive approach to the communication of the message. Donald Sunujkian offers a means of synthesizing each approach and a discussion of how to think through that process. John Reed maintains that illus-tration is the key to transmission of the “big idea” and uses Dwight L. Moody as an example of one who was a master of sermon illustration. In conclusion, Scott Gibson shows the adaptability of big idea preaching.
Big idea preaching is not wedded to any one form. Evangelical preachers are indebted to Haddon Robinson for his life and contributions to the field of evangelical preaching. This festschrift in his honor will be helpful to those who have an appreciation for his life and ministry. It will remind you, “What’s the big idea?”
Sweet, Leonard; Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millenium Culture: 10 Life Rings for You and Your Church, Grand Rapids:, Zondervan, 1999
I have become a big fan of Leonard Sweet. I had seen his name in promotional materials for conferences but knew little about him other than that he was affiliated with Drew University in Madison, NJ. Now that I have read his last two books, I can see “what all the fuss is about.” In 1998, he released Eleven Genetic Gateways for Spiritual Awakening in which he seeks to trans-culturate the best of his Wesleyan heritage into principles that churches today can use for greater effectiveness in their mission. In Soul Tsunami, as the title would indicate, he is writing to prepare churches for the seismic changes in culture and society which are now underway as we make the transition to a postmodern culture.
Sweet, whose title is Dean of the Theological School and Vice President of Drew University, does not give a “how to” on dealing with changing culture and society. As the reader will realize, there may not be any way to write a “how to” book which guides the reader through a series of easy steps on “How to Do Ministry in the New Millenium.” Instead, Sweet delineates 10 “Life Rings” — seeming paradoxes — in which apparently opposing trends are taking place at the same time. With each chapter is a small group discussion guide which could prove to be very useful in helping the local church come to terms with the changes which are taking place in our society. In addition to the discussion guides are internet resources which will enable the reader to “experience” what Sweet is writing about.
Throughout Sweet’s extensive analysis of the shift from a modern to a post-modern culture, he makes several observations that are significant for preachers. In his first chapter, Sweet asserts, “Postmodern preachers don’t populate the pews; they connect people to the living Christ. Postmodern evangelism doesn’t say to the world, ‘Come to church.’ Rather it says to the church, ‘Go to the world.'” Further, Sweet says, “Postmodern evangelism is recognizing that God is already at work in people’s lives … and that our role is helping people to see how God is present and active in their lives, calling them home.” Sounds a lot like Henry Blackaby’s popular Experiencing God to me.
Preachers can no longer assume that lost and unchurched people will come flocking to the church house to hear them preach. The implication, more than ever before, is that the church must engage in servant ministries in order to gain a hearing for one who would presume to be a spokesperson for God, whether in public or in a one-to-one setting.
Sweet also asserts, “Nothing pushes postmoderns’ nausea button quicker than sermons that are pure didactic cardboard or psychological mush.” Postmoderns live in a world where they are inundated with information. They resist the kind of preaching that says follow these three easy steps and you will be happy. They are open to sound teaching which is not offered as dogma but allows them to draw their own conclusions, according to Sweet.
Those who preach in a post-modern world must be men and women of strong ethos. In spite of the fact that the world around us seems to be in a moral meltdown at times, there will be a hunger for people of authenticity. Those who are able to be artistic rather than simply rationalistic will gain a greater hearing by postmoderns.
A rule of thumb for churches in the postmodern era, according to Sweet, is “to figure out how to do what you’re already doing, except better and on a smaller scale.” This sentiment is akin to “eating the elephant one bite at a time.” It will require developing niche ministries and a good bit of “de-construction.” Perhaps worship will need to be de-constructed so as to allow for God’s Spirit to move in a spontaneous way. Perhaps errant notions of what a Christian is and what a Christian does will need to give way to more authentic expressions of discipleship.
If ministry to postmoderns must be creative, it follows then that preaching must be as well. There’s nothing new in that statement. Interesting and engaging preaching always has an element of creativity about it. What is new is the understanding of creativity that is needed. I once heard renowned urban missiologist Raymond Bakke describe the experience of “exegeting the local grocery store.” He lamented that the grocery story — operating without the Spirit of God — seemed much more in tune with what was in the neighborhood than the church that was operating with the Spirit of God. The point is that creativity is a function of being in tune with the Spirit of God who is continually working to bring postmoderns to Himself.
A major shift in preaching will need to be away from the merely intellectual to the experiential. People will not be coming to church to learn “4 Truths about God’s Love” as they will be coming to have an experience of God. Sweet says, “Preaching must cease to be the “big-jug/little-mugs” presentation of points of view or the representation of arguments that can be verbalized; rather it must become a rushing mighty wind that blows through the congregation and makes it glow with an incandescence that cannot be ignored.”
Another trend cited by Sweet as significant — also cited in 11 Genetic Gateways to Spiritual Awakening — is the emphasis on church health as over against church growth. There is a realization that numbers, though significant, aren’t everything. A healthy church will bear fruit. Christian Schwarz, head of the German Institute for Church Development says, “Our aim should not be be to ‘make’ the church grow, but to release the growth hormones through which God builds the church.”
There are several other aspects of ministry that Sweet highlights as significant in the new millenium. “Please God” should be viewed not as a petition, but as a declaration. The trend will move away from “gift based” service to an ethic of obedience. Likewise churches must be mission-driven rather than ministry-driven. Sweet defines ministry as service to me and mission as service through me.
The book goes far beyond just preaching to post-moderns but encompasses a shifting perspective toward church life and ministry. Jesus’ words assure us that His church will survive. He doesn’t promise that my church will survive. Leonard Sweet’s words bear deliberative consideration if you want your church to survive.
Wogaman, Philip J.; Speaking the Truth in Love: Prophetic Preaching in a Broken World. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press. 1998. 209 pp. ISBN 0-664-25744-7. $12.99.
I have long been of the conviction that the crying need of the hour is for true prophetic preaching. As soon as one makes that statement, however, any number of questions arise. Of course, the first is, “What is prophetic preaching?” Some folks would argue that prophetic preaching includes throwing in a topical sermon on a divisive but pressing social issue once in a while. Others would adopt the stance that preaching prophetically means “going against the grain” of the congregation so regularly that one cannot be said to be preaching unless the congregation is about ready to fire him or her. Do either of these understandings adequately name the task of the preacher who would preach prophetically today?
Philip Wogaman, Pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC attempts to answer these concerns in Speaking the Truth in Love: Prophetic Preaching in a Broken World. Foundry is the church attended by President and Mrs. Clinton and was attended by Senator and Mrs. Dole for a time. Given its setting in Washington, and its powerful and influential constituency, Foundry would provide a workshop for “speaking truth to power.” Foundry would identify itself with the “religious left.” Wogaman served many years as a professor of Christian ethics before assuming the pastorate of Foundry.
Wogaman maintains simply, “A prophet is one who speaks for God.” Thus he defuses the conception that a prophet is one who merely foretells future events or “vents his spleen” regarding the social issues of the day. It may involve confrontation, as in Jesus’ scathing denunciation of the sin and hypocrisy of the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day. But it also includes the instruction of God as when Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Wogaman asserts correctly that every pastor is called to be pastor and evangelist as well as prophet.
In the first half of the book, Wogaman establishes a rationale as well as principles to remember in preaching prophetically. In the second half, he provides model sermons preached in the pulpit of Foundry Church. He states much of what one would expect about the balance between the pastoral and the prophetic, the context of worship and the importance of theological rootedness in preaching prophetically. There is debate in homiletical circles about how specific one may be in making application. Application should be specific enough to show how the gospel applies to the issues of the day without proposing a particular course of action as “the” Christian response. Wogaman’s suggestions for preaching more prophetically are helpful even to one who does not share his particular theological or political stance.
The sermons presented were actually preached by Wogaman to his congregation at Foundry. Many resources seem to offer “sugar stick” sermons that a preacher preaches “on the road.” They do not help a pastor preach to his or her own congregation as well as contextualized sermons. In the sermons he preaches truth to power over a broad array of topics. Some may argue that the sermons he chooses should be classified as more pastoral than prophetic. For instance, he includes a sermon preached after his predecessor, a man who had served the church for over 20 years, disclosed that he had been involved in inappropriate relationships with members of the congregation. Other sermons include sermons addressed for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Sunday after the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the sermon preached on the Sunday after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke.
In the sermons, he illustrates that preaching prophetically does not mean preaching a prophetic sermon this Sunday, a pastoral sermon the next Sunday and an evangelistic sermon on the Sunday after that. All of these elements are a part of the same cloth of truly pastoral preaching. Although I would not identify with Wogaman, either politically or theologically, I gleaned many insights from him on how to preach more prophetically.

Share This On: