Haddon Robinson and "Big Idea" Preaching

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.  

Notes

1 Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 33-35.  

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There are 18 Comments

josh p's picture

Thanks for posting this one. I think it would be interesting to poll the church after a sermon to see if they got the “big idea.” I know a lot of pastors prefer not to provide an outline to their message and I can understand why. Nevertheless, I think it helps people to focus on the gist of what is being said. I really like the way some churches use the Sunday evening service to answer questions and further explain the morning message. It seems like that would help people to be paying attention in the morning and also to be better prepared for the next week if the pastor is preaching through a book.

Donn R Arms's picture

Jay Adams and Haddon Robinson were friends who collaborated on several projects. Robinson's "Big Idea" is similar to Adams' "Telos" of the passage. The point of the passage should be the point of your sermon. Revolutionary.

Donn R Arms

Bert Perry's picture

Haddon Robinson indirectly addresses one of my pet peeves; teachers/preachers who use the text more or less as a starting point for what they really wanted to talk about.  Having taught a bit myself, I also must confess that sometimes it's hard to get to the big idea.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

I usually put the "big idea" of the sermon in the title of my message.

If someone asks, "What did t howard preach about?" The answer is the title of the sermon.

e.g. 1 Cor 4:1-5 - "How to evaluate your pastor"

Fred Moritz's picture

The "big idea" in preaching is a lot older than Dr. Robinson's book.  Charles Koller taught at Northern Baptist Seminary years ago and followed the same pattern.  Richard Clearwaters assigned the Koller text for our homiletics course at Central Seminary.  T. Austin Phelps (in The Theory of Preaching - 19th century) defined preaching as: "an oral address, to the popular mind, upon religious truth as contained in the Christian Scriptures, and elaborately treated with a view to persuasion." (Phelps wrote about 100 pages to develop that definition!) The heart of Koller's (and Robinson's) method is that in expository preaching, the student of Scripture seeks to learn what action the Scripture text at hand demands.  In preaching on a text, what is the preacher to persuade the hearer to do? In this process, 1) a subject is developed; 2) a proposition (big idea) defines the subject and also states the action to be taken; 3) main points then describe how, or why, or who, or when the action is to be taken.  The subject, "big idea," and main points each contain a "key word" that unites the structure.  That way the preacher doesn't preach about three (or however many points he has) ideas, but the "big idea" developed those ways.

I'm sure Koller's book is long out of print.  I read it in the Central Seminary library years ago.  RVC assigned us to outline the chapter on the proposition or "big idea."

I found Robinson's book quite helpful when I read it.  I'm glad I had Clearwaters for my homiletics prof.  

TylerR's picture

Editor

Thanks! I will look for and find the books you mentioned. They're undoubtedly digitized somewhere ...

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

Having read messages preached by Spurgeon and having heard messages preached by Robinson, I can understand why people hold these two men in high regard. Spurgeon is known as the "Prince of Preachers." Robinson is known as the "Champion of Biblical Preaching." Each of them provide us with helpful guidance on how to preach.

However, both of them also provide examples of how not to preach. Spurgeon took liberties with the biblical text, often allegorizing and sometimes twisting the passage to frame his sermon. Robinson was a master wordsmith, no doubt, but I came away from the sermons I heard often frustrated that he spent more time giving illustrations, anecdotes, and carefully crafted witticisms than he did in the actual text of Scripture. Further, there were times when I wasn't certain what the "big idea" was he was trying to communicate because his sermon seemed to meander around the text instead shooting a "bullet" that clearly communicated the biblical truth of the passage.

That being said, I recognize mine is the minority opinion. I also acknowledge I have LOTS to learn and improve upon when it comes to my own preaching. My own opinion is that the closer your sermon follows the text of Scripture, both in content and structure, the better off your preaching will be... whether that's one point or 3 points. This allows your people to see that your sermon comes directly from the text itself and gets its structure, argumentation, and flow from the text. It also teaches them how to read, understand, and interpret the text on their own.

Also, I tend not to use a lot of illustrations and anecdotes​​​​​​ when I preach because, while they can be helpful to "open the window" of understanding, the power and authority in preaching is ultimately God's Word, not my creativity. Before you object, yes, I've read articles like this one and this one. I know that Christ used illustrations.

Finally, while I love reading and studying the original languages, I do not refer to Greek and Hebrew words, verb tenses, or specific grammatical constructions in my sermons. There may be four people in my congregation who are knowledgeable about Greek or Hebrew (beyond a Strong's Concordance knowledge). Consequently, including these elements in a sermon can communicate that, "only I really know what the text says because I know the original languages." That is not what I desire to communicate to my congregation.

TylerR's picture

Editor

THoward wrote: "My own opinion is that the closer your sermon follows the text of Scripture, both in content and structure, the better off your preaching will be... whether that's one point or 3 points."

Totally agree.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Fred Moritz's picture

You said: "My own opinion is that the closer your sermon follows the text of Scripture, both in content and structure, the better off your preaching will be... whether that's one point or 3 points."

And Amen!  And one shouldn't preach the poetry of Psalms, the history of the OT passages the same way he preaches the teaching and exhortation of Paul or Peter.  We must follow the sense of the text as you say.  I spend a fair amount of time studying the languages in preparation, but seldom refer to them in the pulpit.  I believe you are "right on" there.  

On illustrations: I would only comment that Jesus used them frequently as he taught in parables.  Proverbs is full of them, and other biblical writers use them also.  They can be useful windows on the text, if used properly. 

Our preaching should follow the examples of Nehemiah 8:8; 2 Timothy 4:2.  I should seek to speak "precept upon precept. . .line upon line. . .here a little, and there a little" with my "stammering lips" (Is 28:10, 11).

Don Johnson's picture

I agree in general that sermons should follow the text on which they are based, but if one were to adhere to that rigidly, really all you would need to do is read the Bible, then sit down.

A sermon is not the same thing as the text itself. It shouldn't contradict the text, it should expound on the text. Yes, men err in sermons, but that is their fault,  not the fault of the sermon as a form of communication.

Having said that, my own sermons tend to follow the text pretty closely, albeit usually very slowly!

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

T Howard's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

I agree in general that sermons should follow the text on which they are based, but if one were to adhere to that rigidly, really all you would need to do is read the Bible, then sit down.

I've heard some sermons that so abused the text that it would have been better for those listening had the preacher read the text and sat down!

Instead, the preacher waxed eloquent on some "golden nugget" he discovered in the passage or spiritualized the text to such a degree that the literal, historical, grammatical meaning of the text was completely lost. Consequently, the sermon was based on the preachers creativity instead of the text of Scripture.

You're right. At the end of the day, a sermon should explicate the text (i.e. "give the sense") and exhort the listeners to trust and obey it (i.e. application). The rest, as Tyler would say, is white noise.

JSwaim's picture

Abraham Kuruvilla of Dallas Seminary has a pretty severe critique of "Big Idea" preaching at his website Homiletix.com.  In his books, A Vision for Preaching and Privilege The Text, he provides a compelling alternative as well.  In the article, near the end, he does allow that a discernable big idea is a good idea for the preacher to possess, but the big idea should not be the basis for the structure of the sermon.  It's worth checking out if you are interested in such things.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think Kuruvilla is the same guy who just published an article in JETS, saying the same thing. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

JSwaim's picture

Yes. That's the article linked at his website that I was referring to.

Bert Perry's picture

....to his paper.  It more or less boils down to the notion that a lot of texts are not propositional, and hence a lot is lost in the distillation down to the "Big Idea."   In doing so, much of the mystery is lost, and one tends to boil it down to....something that it may not be.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

I agree with the article. You miss a lot of the details of Scripture if you reduce everything down to one propositional statement for each passage you preach. That was why I responded negatively to Tyler's comment (in a different thread) that everything but the main idea of his passage was "white noise." No, not at all.

Again, you should allow the passage you're preaching to shape your sermon both in content and structure. When you preach, your people should be able to see the direct correlation between your sermon and the passage under consideration. If no one but you could find the points of your message in the passage, then you're not following the text. Also, if you reduce everything in the passage to one point, when the passage clearly is communicating more, you've robbed the text of its structure and content and the author of what he was trying to communicate.

The closer your sermon follows the text of Scripture, both in content and structure, the better off your preaching will be.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I first read Kuravilla in his Text to Praxis five or so years ago so I am familiar with his "world in front of the text." I read this article quickly, but it in that quick reading, it seems to me that he isn't reacting against Big Idea preaching so much as he is reacting to a straw man of it, or perhaps Big Idea preaching done wrong. 

I fully agree that if people skip the text and preach the Big Idea, they are wrong. Or if they preach the Big Idea and omit parts of the text, they are wrong (though no message can say every possible thing about a text). Or if they preach a narrative like an epistle or an epistle like a prophet they are wrong since genre matters and the genre of the sermon should track with the genre of the text. Of course you want to know what the author is doing with the text as well as how he does it and that must drive our preaching. It is not just the words that are inspired in some sort of naked way, but the words in a particular genre that are inspired. But overall, it is hard for me to see that he is actually addressing Big Idea preaching rather than some distortion of it.

It is also seems odd to assert that no two biblical pericopes can ever have the same thrust or force. I can't imagine what the support for that is.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Also, if you reduce everything in the passage to one point, when the passage clearly is communicating more, you've robbed the text of its structure and content and the author of what he was trying to communicate.

I think the response of "Big Idea" preaching to this is that this type of message has confused the support for the Big Idea with a second or different big idea. BI preaching is not really reducing it to one point per se; it still recognizes movement in and through a text. But in such a case as you describe, it might be that the "more" is actually something different, which should be another message; or that it supports a bigger idea than has been identified. 

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