“How many points should a sermon have?” is the setup for an old ministerial joke: “At least one,” is the traditional reply. But the sad truth is that many preachers and their listeners are unable to articulate the basic message of the sermon. I certainly have heard many sermons—including some in recent days by seasoned ministers—whose main point I could not identify. More tellingly, I have preached my fair share of sermons that brought this puzzled query from my family: “What exactly were you getting at today?” Most of these times I failed to clarify in my own mind and on my sermon notes the one, simple point I was trying to make with the sermon.
One clear point is such an elementary rule of public speaking that it almost goes without saying. The recent popularity of the TED Talks has helped remind all public speakers of this simple rule. Coaches tell TED speakers to focus the Talk on the One Big Idea at the center of the 18-minute presentation. Preachers would do well to have such assistance in the preparation of a sermon. Methodist preacher and professor Alyce McKenzie tells of receiving a compliment at the conclusion of a sermon: “Thank you! You only talked about one thing.”
To address this idea of simplicity and clarity, many handbooks of preaching require young practitioners to write, often at the top of the sermon manuscript, a thesis or subject sentence. When preachers struggle to identify that sentence, it means two things: first, the preacher is not prepared to preach, or second, the people who hear the sermon will be as confused about its meaning and purpose as the preacher is! It is an injustice to the congregation—and an affront to the gospel itself—for the preacher to be confused about the point and purpose of the sermon.
I recently received a late night phone call from a ministry student. “I have this text,” he said, “but the longer I study the more confused and anxious I get.” To assist him, I asked: “What is the central idea of your sermon?” He was silent. Then I asked: “What appeal do you want to make?” Again, silence. “Start with these two questions,” I recommended; he did, and they proved a way forward in preparing a sermon for the next day!
To this end, it is best to avoid those texts or themes that are complicated or touch on several subjects or send the preacher in many directions. Good preachers use rifles rather than shotguns to hit their gospel targets. Preachers like myself, especially, that tend in the ADHD direction, need to be aware of this temptation to speak in too many directions and develop strategies to focus, focus, focus. Some of these strategies might be:
An excellent learning tool is to invite listeners to write or record what they heard as the essential message of the sermon and to compare these with what the preacher intended. Both preacher and people might learn much!
The use of the sermon thesis statement (or appeal statement) is a terrific discipline to develop early. In recent days, I have asked the question of my students, “Can you Tweet the sermon? Can you put the message you want to preach in 144 characters or, now, 280 characters?
Most sermonic themes can be written as either a declaration or as an exhortation:
These are all examples of simple, biblical points that are worthy of sermons on a regular basis. Or if you prefer the appeal or exhortation:
One, clear point is the first rule of preaching and even experienced preachers need to be reminded of this rule once in a while. It is too easy to get too complicated with a sermon theme.