What’s Your Point? 5 Suggestions for Clearer Sermons

Article
06.09.2015

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:3-4)

When it comes to his way of declaring the word—or what the rhetoricians called style in oratory—it seems that clarity was a high priority for Paul.[1] And whether or not he intended that statement to be prescriptive for our preaching, there is something to be learned here.[2]

It’s something I need to learn. To be sure, clarity is one of the things I have struggled with the most in my own preaching. But, it also seems to me that this is one of the things that a lot preachers find challenging. Clarity is hard. And it’s hard for a lot of reasons. But one key aspect of preaching on which clarity often depends is the articulation of a single main idea or proposition. Of course, expositional preaching need not always be propositional in a technical sense. But exposition will always attempt to locate and communicate the point of the biblical passage.

Is this what you are trying to do in your preparation for your sermon each week?

Or might your preaching be pointless?

A PRACTICAL CONCERN FOR CLARITY

There is a serious lack of clarity that comes from having no stated big idea, no point. And it’s widespread. This pointless preaching may be the result of the influence of the so-called New Homiletic, or the apparent success of many preachers with narrative preaching, or the desire of preachers to be creative or build suspense into their sermons, or a much baser desire to simply entertain, or the increasingly shorter attention spans of our people, or any number of other influences. It’s easy to get caught up in a good story or want to emphasize the emotion of a text or the beauty of some secondary element. Whatever the cause(s), some of us seem to have moved to a kind of preaching that bypasses the statement of a main idea, whether deductively or inductively. There’s often no coherence of thought that makes a single, memorable point. And our people, sadly, often walk away with no idea what they were supposed to have learned.

It is understandable, in our postmodern age of reader-response approaches to texts and our age’s unwavering commitments to self-realization, that the sermon should become a buffet of thoughts from the mind of the preacher—three or four observations from the text, possibly one or two tangents, a few vaguely related applications, a couple good stories or quotations, maybe a nod to the opening illustration to wrap it all up—wherein the congregation simply picks out what sounds good to them and feasts away on that.

As preachers, we think that simply making a single argument and then defending it from the text comes across as too rudimentary, too formulaic, or even possibly too legalistic. So, we try to avoid telling our people what we think the main point of the text is. We avoid structuring our sermons as multi-part proofs. We avoid the focus of a single emphasis because we are afraid that we might get it wrong, which would accidentally disclose that we don’t know everything. Or worse, we are afraid that our preaching will come across as too preachy.

And while there may be some value in avoiding the formulaic (as our people will undoubtedly find the same structure each week tiresome), this haphazard and pointless approach to preaching might be doing our people a disservice. In our being too busy (or lazy?) to arrive at a single point or by trying to conceal it in artistry, by failing to state a clear structure for our sermon, our people—tired, busy, and distracted as they are—will almost always miss the point. Or, more likely, they might simply realize that we did not have a main point in the first place.

CLARITY: UNITY & POINT

The clarity that comes with making a well reasoned argument, culminating in a single proposition, is a key characteristic of ancient rhetoric.[3] This premise is captured in Robert Lewis Dabney’s late 19th century lectures on Sacred Rhetoric, which offer meditations on the relationship between ancient oratory and preaching. Importantly, two of Dabney’s seven cardinal requisites of the sermon focus on this idea of making a single main point.

First, while carefully avoiding reductionism, he suggests that the unity of the sermon (his second requisite) results from the combination of all the diverse parts of the sermon, leading to an overall impression for the hearer. As such, the preacher must “have one main subject of discourse, to which he adheres with supreme reference throughout” and he must propose “one definite impression on the hearer’s soul, to the making of which everything in the sermon is bent.”[4]

This second requirement, the making of “one definite impression,” seems to be expanded in Dabney’s sixth requisite: point. “There must be, in order to this, first, a chief truth, practical and important, distinctly apprehended by the speaker in its relation to the action of the soul which he would excite. And the whole matter of the discourse must be so arranged as to make this proposition salient.”[5] Dabney hypothesizes that sermons deficient in point either have no valuable Truths within them, or these Truths “are not made to stand out to the apprehension of the hearers.”[6]

SO WHAT? FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR FINDING CLARITY

If you also struggle with clarity, you might consider a few practical things as you prepare:

1. Have a point.

Expositional preaching is not simply commentary on the text. It is conveying the Truth of the text.[7] As such, it is very much worth arriving in your own mind at a clear, short statement of the big idea of your sermon (which, of course, is going to be derived from the big idea of the text), and then actually saying it at some point in the sermon. As Bryan Chapell so clearly notes in his Christ-Centered Preaching: “Listeners quickly tire of chasing ideas and anecdotes across the theological landscape in an effort to discover where their pastor is going.”[8]

2. Show how the point is grounded in the text.

Good exegesis and good theological reflection will reveal to you a clear emphasis in the text. This, if you’ve worked hard at it, will have given you the big idea for your sermon. But you must clearly show it in the text. Of course, you want your people to have confidence in you, but even more, you want them to have their confidence in the Truth of what you are saying from God’s Word. You don’t need to be a guru or an expositional magician. The best sermons will be the ones where the people feel like you’ve simply pointed out what is in the text and let that have its effect on their hearts and minds.

3. Restrain yourself: edit for clarity.

Don’t be afraid to trim liberally from your work. One of the fastest ways to achieve clarity in your main theme is to trim away everything that doesn’t support it in your presentation. This can be very difficult if you’ve put a lot of work into your exegesis. You will have learned a lot about your text over the last week and might be quite eloquent on secondary matters. Nevertheless, if you’ve done the work of narrowing yourself down to a main idea, then don’t confuse or distract people with other things, no matter how clever they seem.

4. Restrain yourself: edit for simplicity.

Don’t take your people on an exegetical scavenger hunt. The instinct to point your people to the text and to enjoy that moment when they all turn their attention to the Scriptures in front of them is good. But more is not always better. The printers of our Bibles have given us thousands of cross-references. Your people don’t need to see them all. Don’t confuse a multitude of connections with actual support for your argument. If there is a key text, of course have them turn to it. But more than likely, it will be only one or maybe two passages in a sermon. Turn to more than that and you’ll likely be in the realm of biblical theology (which can be helpful), but also very possibly at the expense of the point of your passage.

5. Restrain yourself: edit for pithiness.

Preach shorter sermons. Most people are not 50-minute preachers. Even fewer are 60-minute preachers. I’ve probably never met you, but I feel relatively confident (statistically anyway) in saying that your average sermon length is probably a bit longer than it should be. And even if I am wrong, I am quite confident in saying that your average sermon length is longer than your congregation wants it to be. It takes time and finesse and incredible self-discipline to grow a congregation that enjoys a lengthy, well-reasoned discourse. If you haven’t inherited such a congregation or put the years (really decades) into developing one, think about shortening your sermon. At the very least, the act of shortening your sermon will force you to greater clarity and, ideally, a simple and succinct statement of the big idea.

*****

[1] “In regard to style, one of its chief merits may be defined as perspicuity. This is shown by the fact that the speech, if it does not make the meaning clear, will not perform its proper function.” Aristotle, Rhet. 1404b (LCL, Freese). When ancient rhetoricians considered clarity, or perspicuity, they seem to have mainly focused on the choice of words and whether they would be confusing to the audience. See also Quintilian, Inst. 8.1.1-7. This may very well be what Paul had in view in 1 Cor 1:17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” For Cicero, clarity also extends to the arrangement of material in support of a primary argument. “An arrangement of the subjects to be mentioned in an argument, when properly made, renders the whole oration clear and intelligible.” See Cicero, Inv. 1.22. This translation comes from Cicero, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Volume 4 (trans. C.D. Yonge; London: G. Bell & Sons, 1913), 241-306.

[2] While much of the point of this article is not precisely arguable as prescription from the New Testament, it’s worth noting that much of what I am going to suggest about clarity and making a single, identifiable point with a clear rhetorical structure is observable in the preaching of the Apostles in Acts and the written “preaching” of Paul in his epistles.

[3] It would be easy to start with Aristotle in the 4th century BCE and his definition of rhetoric as “the real and apparent means of persuasion.” Aristotle, Rhet. 1.1.14 (LCL, Freese). We could consider the rhetorical handbooks by Cicero and Quintilian, both of which seem to build on the assumption that oratory is persuasion. As such, if we are to assume this basic premise of rhetoric for our preaching, then the work of the preacher, indeed the responsibility of the preacher, is to persuade. The clarity that leads to persuasion, for example, requires a particular kind of structure in the speech. And the basic structure of oratory always includes the statement of a single main proposition at the beginning. See [Cicero] Rhet. Her. 1.8.11-1.9.16 and Quintilian, Inst. 4.4. Oratorical structure also typically includes a restatement of the main point as a peroration at the end. See Cicero, Inv. 1.52-56. “What pleasure can an orator hope to produce, or what impression even of the most moderate learning, unless he knows how to fix one point in the minds of the audience by repetition, and another by dwelling on it, how to digress from and return to his theme, to divert the blame from himself and transfer it to another, or to decide what points to omit and what to ignore as negligible? It is qualities such as these that give life and vigour to oratory; without them it lies torpid like a body lacking the breath to stir its limbs.” Quintilian, Inst. 9.2.4 (LCL, Butler).

[4] Robert Lewis Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric (New York: Anson D.F. Randolph & Co., 1870), 109. Here, Dabney cites Cicero, De or. 2.114.

[5] Robert Lewis Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric (New York: Anson D.F. Randolph & Co., 1870), 126.

[6] Robert Lewis Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric (New York: Anson D.F. Randolph & Co., 1870), 127.

[7] Consider, for example, the definitions of expositional preaching offered by Mark Dever (‘a sermon which takes the point of the text as the point of the sermon’) or Mike Bullmore (‘preaching in which the content and intent of the passage shapes the content and intent of the message’). Exposition, then, isn’t merely the content or main point of the text (derived by exegesis and theological reflection). Exposition also demands the simplicity and clarity of presenting the point of the text.

[8] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 44.

By:
Robert Kinney

Robert Kinney is the Director of Ministries at the Simeon Trust, a ministry for training preachers.