Bullet, Not Buckshot
by Doug Green
Haddon Robinson, after hearing a sermon as a young boy, thought,He preached for an hour, and it seemed like 20 minutes; others preach for 20 minutes and it seems like an hour. I wonder what the difference is? Great question.
What makes the difference? Alongside the work of the Holy Spirit, it has a lot to do with knowing what you are trying to say, and, of course, the source of the ideas you are saying.
If a sermon is archery, you want the arrow to hit the bull’s-eye. If golf, you want to hit it straight down the fairway, onto the green, and near the pin. A good sermon hits the mark.
A good sermon has a big idea. Robinson was fond of saying, “A mist in the pulpit creates a fog in the pew.”
Every good communication has a central idea. Movies do. Poems, songs, and plays do. Every well-written piece of literature is trying to communicate some specific idea. Good sermons are no exception.
A good sermon simply unfolds the big ideas of Scripture, for every scriptural passage is saying something specific. When Paul writes a letter, he is communicating ideas. David’s Psalms, the Gospel witnesses, and the Israelite prophets do the same. Biblical writers wrote every unique part of Scripture with a big idea in mind.
Bible-based preaching discovers these biblical big ideas and uses the sermon to deliver them. As a biblical preacher, you do not preach your ideas, but ideas straightfrom the biblical text. When you hear a great biblical sermon, the preacher is inviting youinside and guiding you through a biblical text. Years later, it is okay if you forgot the name of the preacher as long as you remember (and live) the idea of the text.
Before we discuss the big ideas of the scriptural text, let me discuss the nature of ideas and how we form them in daily life. Everyday ideas follow four steps:
1. Everybody starts with a topic. The topic is usually a one-word concept. Your mind starts with a concept. It is a broad concept you will want to shape into a concise statement.
Let’s say your topic is “airplane.” Airplane is not an idea; it is a topic that will help you form an idea. If you say “airplane” to me, I will be confused because you have not communicated anything about the airplane; you have just given me a lone topic. You need more information to form an idea.
2. Pick the subject.To begin shaping your topic into a subject, you must decide how you want to talk about that topic. What kind of questions are you asking about the topic? What aspect of the topic do you want to talk about? You turn a topic into a subject by deciding how you are going to talk about it.
If “airplane” is your subject, what can you ask about it? What about the topic do you want to know? For example: What kind of airplane is it? Who owns the airplane? How is it used? Where is it located?
You get the idea: Ask several questions about the topic to determine a subject. Each of these questions, when answered, will help produce a unique independent idea.
3. Add the complement. The subject demands a complement in the same way a question demands an answer. Together, they are complete. We call it a complement because it completes the subject. A subject is half of an idea; a subject completed by a complement is a whole idea.
Let me complete the questions we asked about airplane: What kind of airplane is it? (Cessna) Who owns the airplane? (Pastor Jim from Tulare) How does he use it? (crop dusting) Where is it located? (behind the church).
4. Bring together the subject and complement, forming the big idea.If you join the subject/question with the complement/answer, you will have a complete independent idea.
Using our airplane example, we can state four independent big ideas: (1) The airplane is a Cessna. (2) Pastor Jim from Tulare owns the airplane. (3) He uses the airplane to dust crops. (4) He stores the airplane behind the church.
Got it? Start with a topic. Find the subject. Complement the subject. Form the big idea.
How do you find the big idea of a biblical text? Use the same principles discussed above, except you are not choosing the nature of the ideas, just interpreting what the original author and the Holy Spirit already wrote. Here are the same four steps, with an additional prestep.
Steps in Forming the Sermon
Prestep: Select the preaching portion (the passage). In proper literary context, select a portion of text (X number of verses) consistent with the logic and structure of the biblical writer’s intention, seeking to find a reasonably coherent unit of thought. This can be one verse, one paragraph, one chapter, or, even at times, one book. The issue is not the size of the passage; the issue is of its unity and coherence.
I will choose 1 Corinthians 13, a familiar passage of Scripture. Although it is in the greater context of chapters 12–14 and a discussion regarding spiritual gifts, it has a clear beginning and ending and represents a logical preaching portion with a clear big idea.
1. Determine the topic of the passage. Remember, the topic of the passage is not the big idea but the one-word concept of the passage.
In 1 Corinthians 13, the topic is obvious — love. Although “love” is pretty special, it is not an idea. It is a topic –– a concept that the expositor needs to shape into an idea.
2. Determine the subject of the passage.Every biblical writer is writing with a question in mind. This is how humans write. Obvious or not, we answer questions when we form ideas. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit guided the ancient questions of the author, and He will help you find them in the text. As you study your preaching portion, and understand the original author’s intent, you will seek to find the question propelling the text.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is asking and answering a question. In the midst of a discussion about spiritual gifts (chapters 12 and 14), Paul is wrestling with the highest priorities in the kingdom of God. The Corinthians have made spiritual gifts, especially speaking in tongues, the highest priority of their expression of faith. Paul takes a whole chapter (13) to refute these religious actions. Looking at the Christian life and what we are called to do, Paul is asking: What kind of life do you have without love?
3. Determine the complement of the passage. After identifying the subject (the overall question of the author), complete it with the complement (the answer the author provides). Remember, just as a question demands an answer, a subject demands a complement.
If the subject (question) is: What kind of life do you have without love?The complement (answer): A life without meaning.
4. Bring the subject and complement together, forming the big idea. If you join the biblical author’s subject/question with his complement/answer, you will have the big idea of the preaching portion (passage). This is what you preach. This becomes the unifying idea of your sermon. Every part of your sermon from beginning to end is about this idea, for this idea is the point of the passage. Preachers do not create a biblical sermon’s big idea, they extracte it from the biblical text.
Subject: What kind of life do you have without love? Complement: A life without meaning. Big idea: Life without love is a life without meaning.Everything Paul says in every verse of chapter 13 supports this big idea. It represents the whole and it represents the parts. This is what you preach because this is what the Bible is saying. All your illustrations, main points — even your introduction and conclusion — will derive from and will be congruent with this big idea.
The Bible was written as a collection of ideas. Biblical sermons are not opportunities for preachers to create their own ideas (that would be a speech or something else), but the honored privilege of sharing the Bible’s unique and specific big ideas, inspired by the Holy Spirit, written by an ancient author, studied by a modern preacher, and delivered to a congregation needing to hear from God.
The simple strategy to good biblical preaching is to discover and preach the big ideas of the Bible. Think about the freedom that gives you as a preacher! Next Sunday you do not have to figure out what to say, you just have to say what the text is already saying. Say one thing. Say it well. Say it based in the authority of God’s Word.
In so doing, not only will your sermons be rooted in Holy Scripture, but your hour will seem like 20 minutes, and even better, your half hour will seem like 5.