In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul encourages his young protege to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” Over the next couple weeks I’ll devote a series of posts to preaching, both theory & practice. This semester I really devoted time to my interns to the task of preaching/teaching, working with them through the process of preaching.
“Yeah… But what is your point?”
Those words stick out from the first time I preached our mid-week student ministry service at my home church. I was a first-year seminary student and one of my godly mentors, Jeff, was allowing me to fill in for him. He offered to help with the preparation of the message and then would critique my delivery. I had picked a text that I thought would really speak to the students, then proceeded to spend most of my preparation time trying to come up with clever things to say to keep them amused. But Jeff’s words hit me like a ton of bricks. I hadn’t sought to make a point, just to speak.
Having an opportunity to stand before people, whether it’s a nursing home, student ministry, small group, or before the entire church, is a rare opportunity. At that time, you are the only one given that opportunity. Why? Because you have been given a charge to preach and you have something to preach on. Within that lies Jeff’s question – what is your point? People will sit, they will listen, maybe even a few take notes. So what are you going to do with their time, your voice, and the Word? The capacity for memory in a single setting is relatively small, for proof what did your pastor preach on 3 weeks ago?
In other words, you need to have one single, driving, overarching idea that sums up everything you’ll say in 20-40 minutes in one sentence (maybe two, but don’t push it). Call it whatever you want: your thesis, the Big Main Idea, the Sermon in a Sentence, the Summary, the Takeaway, whatever. Just have it. I had a preaching professor share it like this: “If someone woke you up at 3am on Sunday morning and asked you what your sermon was about, could you answer it?”
Too often I fear we say too much without really saying anything at all. Andy Stanley, in his book Communicating for a Change, provides a great solution to the problem of saying too much. He says (in summary) “if you have too much to say, guess what… Sunday will be there the following week!” We have a limited window of opportunity to speak truth into people’s lives, and that opportunity must be properly cared for and managed well.
How do you arrive at “The Point?” It sounds mildly cliche, but let the Bible tell you what the point is. Here are a few steps to take to develop “The Point” for your message. It applies to a Sunday school lesson, devotional, sermon, or lesson delivery. Regardless of the setting, at the core is the same thing: You are teaching the Bible to people in the hopes they grasp the concepts (Head), love & cherish their Savior and one another more (Heart), and will apply what you’re talking about to their lives (Hands).
- Select a Text – I’ll write more later about topical vs. expository preaching. You arrive at a text by a variety of means: you are continuing a series through a book of the Bible, you are continuing a theme, or you feel the impression of the Spirit. A less-spiritual and slightly more risky idea is to randomly choose a passage, I would discourage that because occasionally God has a sense of humor and you’ll end up teaching high schoolers on Deuteronomy 23:12-14. It can be helpful to use the paragraph divisions in your translation to build the parameters for the text you’ll be working with. Literary style matters too – if it’s a narrative/story, use the whole story; if it’s proverbs, a smaller sample is OK; if it’s an epistle, use good judgment and don’t cover too much (trust me, I’ve tried tackling Ephesians 2 in one setting, not easy!).
- Read, read, and read some more – Start in the text itself and read it until you can feel the flow. Read different translations (I primarily teach from the ESV but will read the NIV, NASB, Holman, and sometimes the Message, NKJV, and NLT) to see how different committees have translated the same passage. Highlight key points, look for verbs, look for the thread of the story. Then read commentaries [some helpful ones I use are the Holman, Tyndale, NIV Application, the MacArthur series, and New Testament Commentary]. I also consult blogs and good ministry sites like The Resurgence, The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, Project TGM, Kairos Journal, and others. I like to see what smarter people have concluded, but only after I’ve done the leg-work. Remember, it’s your message, not Piper’s. Books are the pastor’s tool for his craft, so build a good library you can draw from. Don’t waste time with bad books [see Ecclesiastes 12:12], and build your library as you teach through books & subjects.
- Network – Have your friends taught on this? Has a pastor with a podcast preached on this passage? What do your friends and colleagues think? I love to bounce sermon ideas, outlines, and purposes off my colleagues. They may have resources, help, feedback, or other insight. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says that a cord of three is not easily broken, your networking with other teachers goes far beyond producing good sermons/lessons.
- Identify “The Point” – At this stage you should have a grasp of what the author of the text has in mind. You’ve read it, possibly memorized it, consulted books & commentaries, listened to podcasts, and discussed it with your friends. You should be able to sum it up in one sentence. Carefully craft this sentence, really weigh it out and work hard on it. Make sure that “The Point” incorporates Head, Heart, and Hands [Knowledge, Conviction, and Application]. It shouldn’t be wooden, awkward, forced, or alliterated (I’m Baptist, but I hate alliteration). This is the hard part, but work on this and the outline will flow from this one key statement.
- All of this is of course, saturated in prayer. It’s one thing to make a thesis statement, it’s another to work with the sacred text to discern what the Spirit of God would have you say to God’s people for the sake of Christ’s glory.
Would you add anything? How have you as a regular teacher/preacher sought to establish your “main point” in your messages?