In this excerpt from his classic text, Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson explains his view of the “big idea” of biblical preaching:1
I do not appreciate opera; what is worse, I have several friends who do. Being around them makes me feel as if I exist in a cultural desert, so I have taken several steps to change my condition. On occasion I have actually attended an opera. Like a sinner shamed into attending church, I have made my way to the music hall to let culture have its way in me. On most of these visits, however, I have returned home unresponsive to what the artists have tried to do.
I understand enough about opera, of course, to know that a story is being acted out with the actors singing rather than speaking their parts. Usually, though, the storyline stays as vague to me as the Italian lyrics, but the opera buffs tell me that the plot is incidental to the performance. Should someone bother to ask my evaluation of the opera, I would comment on the well-constructed sets, the brilliant costumes, or the heftiness of the soprano. I could render no reliable judgment on the interpretation of the music or even the dramatic impact of the performance. When I return from the music hall with a crumpled program and an assortment of random impressions, I actually do not know how to evaluate what has taken place.
When people attend church, they respond to the preacher like a novice at the opera. They have never been told what a sermon is supposed to do. Commonly many listeners react to the emotional highs. They enjoy the human interest stories, jot down a catchy sentence or two, and judge the sermon a success if the preacher quits on time. Important matters, such as the subject of the sermon, may escape them completely. Years ago, Calvin Coolidge returned home from church one Sunday and was asked by his wife what the minister had talked about. Coolidge replied, “Sin.” When his wife pressed him as to what the preacher said about sin, Coolidge responded, “I think he was against it.”
The truth is that many people in the pew would not score much higher than Coolidge if quizzed about the content of last Sunday’s sermon. To them, preachers preach about sin, salvation, prayer, or suffering all together or one at a time in thirty-five minutes. Judging from the uncomprehending way in which listeners talk about a sermon, it is hard to believe that they have listened to a message. Instead the responses indicate that they leave with a basketful of fragments but no adequate sense of the whole.
Unfortunately, some of us preach as we have listened. Preachers, like their audiences, may conceive of sermons as a collection of points that have little relationship to each other. Here textbooks designed to help speakers may actually hinder them. Discussions of outlining usually emphasize the place of Roman and Arabic numerals along with proper indentation, but these factors (important as they are) may ignore the obvious – an outline is the shape of a sermon idea, and the parts must all be related to the whole. Three or four ideas not related to a more inclusive idea do not make a message; they make three or four sermonettes all preached at one time. Reuel L. Howe listened to hundreds of taped sermons and held discussions with laypeople. He concluded that many people in the pew “complain almost unanimously that sermons often contain too many ideas.” That may not be an accurate observation. Sermons seldom fail because they have too many ideas; more often they fail because they deal with too many unrelated ideas.
Fragmentation poses a particular danger for the expository preacher. Some expository sermons offer little more than scattered comments based on words and phrases from a passage, making no attempt to show how the various thoughts fit together as a whole. At the outset the preacher may catch the congregation’s mind with some observation about life, or worse, jump into the text with no though at all about the present. As the sermons goes on, the preacher comments on the words or phrases in the passage with sub-themes and major themes and individual words all given equal emphasis. The conclusion, if there is one, often substitutes a vague exhortation for relevant application, because no single truth has emerged to apply. When the congregation goes back into the world, it has received no message by which to live because it has not occurred to the preacher to preach one.
A major affirmation of our definition of expository preaching, therefore, maintains that “expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept.” That affirms the obvious. A sermon should be a bullet, not a buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.
1 Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 33-35.