Pastor, Aim to Preach Simple Sermons
Not long ago, a fellow pastor recommended Simplicity in Preaching by J.C. Ryle. The practical benefit of Ryle’s essay on my preaching and congregation cannot be exaggerated. In fact, a quote from Ryle even serves as the screen saver for my desktop monitor: “Unless you are simple in your sermons, you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you.”
Relative to the amount of time preachers spend in critical study of a text, how much attention is given to attaining simplicity in preaching? I’ve come to believe that faithful preaching is marked by simplicity. And simple preaching best serves others by communicating the point of the passage in a clear and Christ-centered way.
EXPOSE THE POINT OF THE PASSAGE
The late Dr. Haddon Robinson repeatedly exhorted, “A sermon should be a bullet, not a buckshot.” Rather than spray every idea from a passage onto a congregation, a sermon should contain one “big” idea in a simple, clear, and concise manner. In other words, the main point of the passage should be the main point of the message.
Our church was recently blessed by a guest preacher who modeled this well. His sermon was from 1 Kings 18 in which Elijah confronted Ahab and the prophets of Baal in the presence of sinning Israel. Rather than a “buckshot,” he fired this single bullet at our church: “There is one true God. You must follow the Lord and abandon your idols, because your idols will fail you.”
Pastor, are you able to summarize every sermon in a sentence (or, if you prefer, a “tweet”)? If not, then you might not yet understand the text you’re preaching. And if there’s a mist in pulpit, you can be assured there will be fog in the pews. Ryle again:
Mind, then, when your text is chosen, that you understand it and see right through it; that you know precisely what you want to prove, what you want to teach, what you want to establish, and what you want people’s minds to carry away. If you yourself begin in a fog . . . you will leave your people in darkness.
Simple preaching that is useful to souls begins with clearly and concisely exposing the point of the passage.
EMPLOY SIMPLE LANGUAGE
In addition to exposing the big idea of a passage, the preacher must labor to clearly explain and apply it to his own context and congregation in language they can understand. What might this look like practically?
First, avoid using “dictionary” words. Do the hard work of translating academic language from your study into the common language of your congregation. In the rare instances that a passage demands the use of such words (e.g. “propitiation” in 1 John 2), take time to slowly and simply define them. Generally speaking, however, be mindful to use words that can be understood at the moment of hearing.
Second avoid complex sentences. When possible, limit the use of commas, and eliminate colons, semi-colons, and dashes. J.C. Ryle vividly exhorted, “Write as if you were asthmatic or short of breath.” Short sentences and full stops will allow your congregation to thoughtfully keep up with your sermon.
Third, kill your pride. Resist the sinful desire to be praised as profound. Resist the prideful delusion that your effectiveness relies on your cleverness rather than your faithfulness. To every pride-prone preacher (including this one!), Martyn Lloyd-Jones offers the following exhortation:
Avoid cleverness and smartness. The people will detect this, and they will get the impression that you are more interested in yourself and your cleverness than in the truth of God and their souls.
Fourth, know your congregation. Don’t preach in language of the congregation you wish you had. Preach in the language of the congregation God gave you. Spend time with them. Over time, the language of your sermons should be shaped more by conversations with your church members than your favorite preachers, professors, and scholars.
Sermons that are simply and shaped by context demonstrate the self-denying, familiar love of a shepherd for his flock.
The New Testament describes only three things as being “the power of God”—“the gospel” (Rom. 1:16), “the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18), and “Christ” (1 Cor. 1:24). Notice that attaining simplicity in preaching isn’t on the list. Thus, we should understand simplicity in preaching not as an end in itself but as a means to an end.
Simple sermons that are useful to souls always aim to clearly proclaim “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:24). Ryle comments,
All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If ‘Christ crucified’ has not his rightful place in your sermons, and ‘sin’ is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they out to believe, and be, and do—your preaching is of no use.
Pastor, your aim in preaching simple sermons isn’t that your congregation would just obey God better and know their Bibles more. Surely, these are good things. But when divorced from the grace of Christ, knowledge and obedience regress into wearisome moralism. Such preaching, as Ryle points out, is “of no use.”
Simply put, the primary goal in preaching simple sermons—in exposing the point of a passage and employing simple language—is for God’s people to see Christ more clearly and to love him more dearly.
Simple sermons aim to exalt Christ more than anything else.