I recently had the privilege to observe a couple dozen sermons in a preaching class. I was encouraged by their faithfulness to God’s Word, but as I listened, I began to realize that my feedback was the same for each preacher. They needed to focus their sermon on one main idea and then build their entire sermon around that main idea.1 In other words, these aspiring preachers needed to work on preaching clear and focused sermons.
How do you write (and preach) clear and focused sermons? Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side.” In other words, simplicity (or clarity) is rich in value once it has gone through the hard work of being forged out of complexity. The sermons I evaluated presented numerous complex and minute details from the text, but they were missing the forest for the trees. They were unpacking each detail but weren’t pressing the most important truth of the text on the heart of their listeners. In a desire to be faithful and say everything the text said, they were unclear and unfocused. Without focus, the sermon is less likely to hit the mark intended by the preacher and the text. As Haddon Robinson famously said, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.” Most of these sermons were quite foggy.
Put in the Hard Work
What was my advice to those preachers? Put in the hard work to push through complexity until you reach clarity in your sermons. The reality is that these preachers have all the skills and training to wade through complexity to clarity. They just needed to put in the hard work to get there. I’m not implying they are lazy, no. I’m pointing out that they put in hard work up until a certain point. Many new preachers put in so much hard work to interpret the text that they are tempted to shortchange the sermon writing stage, leaving their sermons unclear and unfocused. Determining what to say and determining how to say it aren’t the same thing.2 Therefore, once you have put in the hard work to determine what is the main idea of the text, then you must continue the hard work of determining how to say the main idea in a clear and focused manner.
“Aspiring preachers need to work on preaching clear and focused sermons.”—Jonathan Nason
What I mean by hard work is putting in the necessary quantitative and qualitative time to reach clarity of thought. Then, you must write that main idea into a focused sermon. Quantitative time concerns how much time you put into sermon prep. Qualitative time has to do with how you utilize that quantitative time.
Hard Work through Quantity of Time
What is a sufficient quantity of time for the entire sermon prep process? That is different for each preacher, but it is likely seven or more hours. If you are prepping less than that, you are likely shortcutting the sermon prep process somewhere. Some of you may need ten or fifteen hours. I can hear the objection now, “there is no way I can give that much time to sermon prep.” Maybe not, and you will have to determine your personal priorities, but Acts 6:1–7 sets the precedent of preaching as a foundational priority. Therefore, determine what amount of time is sufficient and then put in the hard work. For those preaching students I listened to, most of them needed a few more hours devoted to writing their sermons. It wasn’t a question of competency. They were gifted communicators. It was a question of clarity, and clarity comes through hard work. Putting in the hard work to journey through the complexity of ideas and truths leads the preacher towards a clarity of thought that penetrates the hearts and minds of their listeners. Don’t shortchange your prep. Protect that time and give enough time to writing your sermons.
Hard Work through Quality of Time
Qualitative time has to do with how the quantitative time is divided throughout the week. Simply put, there is a difference in ten hours of prep, all on the same day, versus ten hours spread out over five days (i.e., two hours a day). Although it is the same amount of time, breaking up the time allows for greater creativity because it allows you to capitalize on downtime to meditate and process your sermon. For example, if you know what you want to say in your sermon early in the week, then you can think about creative ways to illustrate that truth while driving to work, waiting in the doctor’s office, sitting in the grocery line, or while you’re mowing the lawn. This time can be spent watching the world through the lens of your sermon. You will be amazed at the things you see, and the thoughts you have that connect to your sermon. If you want to preach clearly and creatively, then divide your sermon prep time throughout the week to capitalize on random moments that might foster creativity. Some of your most fruitful thoughts might come at the unlikeliest times. Mine is often while sitting on the bus or train, but those moments can only happen if I already know what I want to say in the sermon. If I don’t know what I want to say, then I can’t begin thinking creatively about how to say it.
Cumulative Preaching Preparation
Let me illustrate it this way. Let’s say you are trying to get into physical shape. Maybe you want to lose a few pounds or tone up. Would you accomplish that goal if you only worked out one day a week for a couple of hours? No, that would be an insufficient quantity of time. What if you worked out for ten hours but all in one day? That wouldn’t work either because your body can’t get a quality workout the whole time. The best plan would be to work out five days a week for two hours daily. This would be a sufficient quantity and quality of time.
Similarly, our best results in sermon prep will come with a good combination of quantity and quality time. The missing element for preachers to preach clear and focused sermons is not more exegetical skills, although that may be true for some, but more hard work given to pressing through complexity to clarity. Preacher, your prep is not done until you have reached the other side of complexity, arriving at a clear main idea for your sermon. Then, you must focus your entire sermon around that central idea. As Will Mancini has noted, “Clarity isn’t everything, but it changes everything,”3 including your sermons.
- Haddon Robinson calls this the Big Idea. Tony Merida calls this the Main Point of the Sermon. ↩
- Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 84. ↩
- Will Mancini, personal notes. See Will Mancini, Church Unique: How Missional Leaders Cast Vision, Capture Culture, and Create Movement. 1st ed. (London: Jossey-Bass, 2010). ↩