Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Preaching & 'The Big Idea'?

Should Bible teaching and preaching be focused around a single central point, or 'big idea'? Well, I must admit I was very much inculcated with the 'single central point' idea. And I agree with it. (How well I do it is another question ;-) Here are some of the reasons I think it is a good approach:
  • Bible teaching and preaching should be more persuasion and proclamation than just academic. Having the single idea focus adds momentum and purpose which is helpful to these ends.
  • Unless I have randomly selected the verses I will expound, presumably there is something which makes those verses a unit, something (one thing) which unifies them (UNI=one). It seems consistent then that this reason I picked that textual unit (or even collection of texts) will also be at the heart of the message I preach. So I think it is treating the bible as well as I am in picking my text :-)
  • We commonly understand the Bible to speak with this kind of purpose (with points, sub-points etc), and usually search for this purpose (meta-narrative if you like) in understanding the Scriptures. It again seems consistent that our preaching should follow that same model.
  • If I don't know what I want to get across, how will my listeners know either?
So whatever Bible teaching I do (not just in preaching), I prefer by far to have a clear single focus. I suppose at times we can have multiple foci, but if there is nothing that really unites them, then I guess they are really each separate talks or units.

While I'm at it, here are a few more of my random thoughts about preaching...
  • I think APPLICATION is really important in a sermon. But by 'application' I don't just mean things we tell people to do physically. Application can be something like 'appreciate what it means for Jesus to be the Christ'. Although application can I suppose be just knowledge (eg 'intellectually understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ'), I think application should be more emotional and/or volitional. I prefer to see intellectual understanding as the means rather than the end. In fact, I would think that some of the best sermon applications are those that inform our heart, our worldview, and as a result powerfully change our lives, rather than those that merely and superficially tell us what to do, or just put some more third-person knowledge into our heads. So I think our 'big idea' of the sermon should answer questions like 'What response to hope to see in my hearers?'
  • Having said that, I think most people need lots of nudges to move from abstract to real-life, either by way of concrete explanatory illustrations or by examples as to how non-action applications will translate into day-to-day living. Too often we are not reflective or thoughtful enough to do it ourselves after the sermon has finished.
  • I also suspect that the rather formal and polished form and delivery of sermons that is usually expected today, was probably not how they did it in the apostolic church. Maybe it is my problem, but I just can't really imagine them sticking to a tight 25min shedule, making sure everything is word-perfect, writing out everything in full and practicing beforehand, making sure there is a really good introduction and conclusion etc. As for PowerPoint presentations...
  • Theory is easier than practice. Do as I say, not as I do ;-)


  1. So, this "big idea" ,is it an idea just for the particular
    > sermon or for all sermons? If it is for the single sermon,
    > how do we come up with it? I imagine that it is easier for
    > topical sermons (ala Spurgeon) rather expository series.
    > Rod

  2. The 'big idea' is terminology from books on preaching. I think especially associated with Haddon Robinson, though maybe I'm not using it 100% faithfully to his meaning. It's been a long time since I read any of his stuff!

    It is the one main unifying point of a sermon. Each sermon has its own 'big idea'.

    So for a topical sermon, you just make it up to be what you want :-)

    For an expository sermon, I think the purists would say you should pick your text (ie where passage begins and ends, whether few or many verses) based on some unifying idea in the text, where a natural unit of text is evident from the flow of the text etc. Then whatever it is that unifies the text should be the basis of your 'big idea'. You try to 'boil out' from the text the main point of that particular text. What is the main idea governing the section of text you are preaching? What did the author originally intend in originally writing that section? From that you can develop a 'big idea' which is faithful to the text and relevant to your audience.

    The less pure might pick out one significant theme from the text, which may not necessarily be the main idea, and construct the 'big idea' out of that theme instead of the main idea. IMO you could probably still call this an expository sermon, but it is getting a little more towards topical because your emphasis will be different from the emphasis of the text as originally communicated.

    I hope that makes some sense to you! There are whole books written about this kind of stuff. Basically with expository series, it means trying to work out what the text was originally intended to communicate, and basing your main point on that.

    For example, there are times when I thought I would preach or lead a study, with a certain main point, from a certain text. Then after studying the text in more detail, I thought that wasn't really the main point of the text, and so I changed the emphasis of what I was teaching.

    Or a more concrete example would be Genesis 1. I could preach a sermon against evolution, or on 6x24 days, but that would more be a topical sermon. I think these would not really have been the original emphasis of the text. I would need to think about what the main thing Moses and the Israelites should have understood from that text if I wanted to preach an expository sermon on Genesis 1.