Years ago I was trained under the renowned Bible-preaching teacher, Haddon Robinson. He taught an entire generation of preachers to focus on Big-idea preaching. That means that our goal is to communicate one main idea. During that time, it was common for many preachers to offer multiple opinions on a wide variety of topics, week in and week out.
Dr. Robinson pushed back against that trend as he encouraged preachers to develop their sermon around the main thought expressed in the text (or passage).
Robinson’s book, Biblical Preaching, continues to be a go-to for many of us today.
What is the Author Saying?
Not to over-simplify it, but you discover the main idea by developing a Subject and a Complement. I’d recommend this method (and his book) to anyone who delivers sermons, messages, or talks of any kind today! His book remains one of the most dog-eared books I have in my library and I’ve recommended it to numbers of people down through the years!
The Subject: what the author is saying.
The Complement: What the author is telling us about what he is saying.
For example, a friend and mentor sent me his main idea this week. His sermon for the week was lifted from passages that address the wisdom of God.
Subject: The wisdom of God.
Complement: is rooted in the mystery of the Gospel.
Main idea: The wisdom of God is rooted in the mystery of the gospel.
Why Is the Author Saying What the Author is Saying?
This way of developing a sermon was ground-breaking and foundational in my development as a speaker (the method can be applied to improving any talk on any number of subjects). Where Robinson excelled was reminding the preacher that it’s not as much about what the author is saying as it is why the author is saying what he/she is saying.
He often said, “If you can’t answer the ‘so what?‘ question, then your sermon isn’t ready!”
In his method, there are three basic so whats? (with multiple off-shoots) the preacher needs to discover.
- Explain. Often the reason for the sermon is merely to explain something that’s difficult to understand.
- Prove. Many times, the reason for the sermon is to provide proof or support for a stated fact or reason given in the passage. Many messages making a case for the Divinity of Christ fall into the “prove it” category!
- Inspire. Some sermons or messages or designed to inspire the hearer. The hope is that the hearer will leave with a resolution or commitment based on the address delivered.
Does My Sermon Answer the Questions that Matter Most?
Personal confession: I am not very good at any of those three. In fact, I am not sure I agree with the premise because I don’t believe passages of Scripture are designed to be wrapped up nicely and offered in a manageable “do this, believe this, behave in this way, or make this lasting (which rarely ever is) commitment,” format.
Yet, I know that Dr. Robinson is onto something important. How do I know that he is onto something vital?
Because the ‘so what?’ question gets after a host of deeper questions.
“Why am I here?”
“What’s my purpose?”
“Is there any meaning behind all this madness?”
“Can the gospel answer my questions and/or ease my pain?”
Questions like these are intimately tied to the ‘so what?‘ question. As such, they are always lurking beneath the surface of those who gather to listen week-in and week out.
The third thing Dr. Robinson taught me is that I need to be so familiar with what I am going to say that I don’t need notes, or a manuscript, to say it!
He didn’t encourage memorization as much as he encouraged us to internalize the message.
I have spent much of my life writing sermons and messages. In every message or sermon, these three
- Be vigilant to develop one main idea.
- Be crystal clear about your purpose.
- Work hard to internalize the message so you will not need to rely on notes.
have been the background noise in my head as I prepare during the week.
Last week, I spoke of the fact that I’ve undergone a cataclysmic shift in my preaching the past two years. It’s a shift from teaching with notes to just standing up and letting the sermon pour forth.
There Are Some Preaching Pitfalls to this Approach
I also noted a pitfall or two with this style of preaching. I want to address that here. First, you may be thinking that preaching without notes is not new for me. In a way, you are correct.
A truer way to describe the shift is this:
In the last two years, I’ve shifted my preparation and preaching style from one of internalizing the message to one of listening to the Spirit for the message (especially while I am preaching!).
And, yes, they can – and often are – mutually exclusive realities. In the former, I am more focused on interpreting the Word. In the latter, I am actively inviting the Word to interpret me.
The difference is clear.
Having said that, let me identify a pitfall of this more contemplative approach.
It could lead to laziness in your preparation. If you are new to preaching and have never developed your preaching around Robinson’s (or any other sound method of biblical preaching and interpretation), then that’s where you need to spend most of your time. Especially if you’re responsible for the awesome privilege of teaching God’s Word to His people.
But for most of us, our congregations are hungry to experience the living-activity the Word of God promises. The only way I know how to do that is to surrender to its activity in my own heart, soul, and mind first.
Then, on Sunday morning, I attempt to surrender to the Lord’s desires for His Word in the context of our community. That means that my fundamental preparation and posture MUST shift from interpreting and proclaiming to hearing, receiving, and obeying!
One small addition we’ve added at Pillar is a diaolgue or Q&A session after each message.
More about that next week!
Disrupting to Renew!