Pastor, Aim to Preach Simple Sermons

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AndyE's picture

Summary -- your congregation is composed of simpletons so don't bother their pretty little brains with anything too complex.  It's a wonder any of them can read, let alone hold down a job that requires any sort of analytical thinking.  And whatever you do, don't moralize because the last thing we want is for anyone to think there are imperatives in the Bible they have to worry about.  Goodness, they won't even know what the word "imperative" means. Too many syllables.

TylerR's picture

Editor

From the article, a modern application of Haddon Robinson's "big idea:"

Pastor, are you able to summarize every sermon in a sentence (or, if you prefer, a “tweet”)? If not, then you might not yet understand the text you’re preaching.

I think the author is basically saying: "Know your people, preach on their level, and make sure you have a clear point."

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?

David R. Brumbelow's picture

One of the best compliments I’ve had was when a man told me, “I can’t read or write, but when you preach, I can understand everything you say.”  If people don’t understand what you’re preaching, what’s the point?  

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

Editor

David, I agree. I had a young couple inb my last church. The husband had a bad high school education, worked a minimum-wage job, and had done time in prison for drugs. The wife hadn't been to prison, but she'd had a rough life. This is rural Illinois, no education beyond high school, and they lived in a trailer. They'll probably live in a trailer for a while. You get the picture.

But, somehow, I was able to preach in a clear and accurate way to those folks. I'm not sure how I did it, because my perpetual fear is that I'm not being clear enough. I also fear that I keep things too high-brow" for my audience. Those are my two main worries every single Sunday. But, somehow, this guy came up to me almost every Sunday and was thankful that he could understand what I was saying, and how it flowed from the text. That's when I knew that I was probably doing ok. Lots of stuff to improve, to be sure, but I knew I could at least communicate clearly to them. That's good to know.  

I don't to say that to say I'm a great preacher. I don't think I am. But, if we can always keep in mind that (1) we must know what our point is, (2) we must know our audience so we can communicate it clearly, and (3) we must preach to their level, then we're probably on the right track.  

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?

Bert Perry's picture

....of a Spurgeon sermon read by Charles Koelsch (of BJU I believe) where Spurgeon discussed the great languages and commended the rough "Anglo-Saxon", by which he of course meant English and not the "curse" words of today (I'm admitting I don't know the name of the sermon or his text--it was on SermonAudio ten years back or so).  It also reminds me of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, that the Word is written so that a person of modest intellectual ability could learn enough to be saved and sanctified.  Why then would we believe that a good sermon ought to be otherwise?

That noted, a lot of what comes to mind in terms of needless complexity occurs when people try to shoehorn their theological systems into the text instead of simply noting what it says.  Yes, there are paradoxes, occasions to mention and contrast major theological principles, but a lot of that complexity is the old "if you can't blind them with brilliance, you can baffle them with baloney." proverb.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

How do you preach the miracle at Cana, Wally; especially Jn 2:10!? Heh, heh ...

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?

TylerR's picture

Editor

That was just me trying to be friendly ... hopefully my comment is understood in a good-natured way.

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?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't really disagree w/the main idea, but I want to nuance it a bit. I learned in school teaching, SS teaching, and more than a decade of pastoral pulpit work (and small group work), that your audience has several overlapping bell curves. If you always aim for the lowest level of sophistication, you're going to have no insights for your more mature and intelligent listeners.... and they'll be bored, and rightfully so. On the other hand, if you aim for your mature, complex thinkers, you're going to leave the others befuddled and bored. If you aim for the middle of the bell curve, you'll (assuming you're successful at reaching your goal) be helpful to the majority, but your strongest and your weakest will be left out.

So what do you do? There are a few strategies, none of them perfect. One is, try to have something for everybody in every message and enough for each level that you can move from one to another frequently enough to keep everyone engaged. It's not impossible, but I quite often fail to pull it off.

Another strategy is to sometimes aim mainly for your complex, sophisticated listeners, and sometimes aim for the other end, and always mix in a good bit in the middle.

Fortunately, there are mitigating factors. Spiritually mature, well-informed, complex-thinking believers can often feed themselves pretty well by taking parts of what you've said and thinking them over at length while you move on. Sometimes you'll see the wheels turning by the looks on their faces and then they're off looking up other passages in their Bibles. I've learned to see that as a good thing. Meanwhile, I've moved on with the rest of the listeners (minus a few who are always too tired to stay connected for long... I'd say "too apathetic," but I don't think that's it. They keep coming!)

So this is the art of teaching, whether it's Scripture or basket weaving. Everybody's at a different place and you have to try to help all of them at least a little.

The other huge mitigating factor is that believers are Spirit-indwelled and God has a unique agenda for each. He can and does take them to places my teaching fails to take them!

Rob Fall's picture

I remember reading a comment on Churchill's style. He didn't use a French or Latin word when there was a good Anglo-Saxon word to be used.

Bert Perry wrote:

....of a Spurgeon sermon read by Charles Koelsch (of BJU I believe) where Spurgeon discussed the great languages and commended the rough "Anglo-Saxon", by which he, of course, meant English and not the "curse" words of today (I'm admitting I don't know the name of the sermon or his text--it was on SermonAudio ten years back or so).  It also reminds me of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, that the Word is written so that a person of modest intellectual ability could learn enough to be saved and sanctified.  Why then would we believe that a good sermon ought to be otherwise? SNIP

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Bert Perry's picture

One big thing to watch out for among those who are, or even just think they are, sophisticated is that it's often important to bring them back to first principles.  Intellectual heavyweights--or those who merely think they are--can come up with amazing superstructures of thought that are often contradicted by those first principles.  And in the same way, those of "less intellectual horsepower" are often captured by those same amazing superstructures the "heavyweights" construct.  So we might find more uniformity in what the congregation needs than we'd guess when reading Charles Murray's The Bell Curve.

This is especially the case when i consider that a great number of intellectual heavyweights--doctors, lawyers, even many/most professors--earn their living interacting with those of "lower intellectual horsepower".  If they were to get grouchy about an idea not being on their plane, they'd have trouble doing their jobs.  It's not a perfect rule, but by and large, those who get grumpy about things being on a lower intellectual level are not the heavyweights, but the wannabees.

(or put really bluntly, logic works just as well at 5mph with 5hp as it does at 500mph with 5000hp....sometimes better, really)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

Sometimes I sense that preachers preach to preachers. I hear sermons that are the product of meaningful academic preparation, are doctrinally sound, and appeal to my personal love for and enjoyment in the deep study of theology. Sadly there's little if any meaningful application to the lives of the average person in the pew. 

My unsolicited advice to preachers is to gather a diverse group to criticize (in the positive sense) their sermons. My group includes an older retired pastor, a person who is a new believer, an unsaved friend and co-worker, and my family.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Simplicity is great—to a point!

I guess I am far more concerned about the dumbing down of the church than I am about preachers preaching at too high or sophisticated of a level. Frankly, it is a problem that I have not often encountered.

I do remember, however, the example of Dr. D. James Kennedy, who inserted a word into every sermon—the meaning of which no one would know, except from the context. By that means, people not only increased their vocabulary, but also learned how to think in the process.

As in all things, balance is the key.

Church Ministries Representative for the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry

TOvermiller's picture

A pastor should certainly not make the Bible more difficult to understand. Sometimes that happens. A pastor should also certainly preach and teach in such a way that the congregation as a whole (and all the members in particular) will understand the Word more clearly. We need to labor and pray diligently to this end. Still, some things that the Bible says are hard to understand. That's what Peter said about some of Paul's writings (2 Pet 3:16). So, with that in mind, and I need to be careful that my preaching doesn't oversimplify a difficult doctrine.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

G. N. Barkman's picture

Think about the one room school houses of days gone by.  I understand that those in the lower levels benefited greatly by being exposed to material slated for the older children.  No, it wasn't on their level, and they were not required to master it, or even listen to it if they chose not to.  Yet somehow most did listen, learn, and advanced much more quickly than those in graded classrooms.

Do you suppose there is an application here for church congregations and sermons?  I recently saw a cartoon where the pastor said, "Will those who have been complaining that my sermons are too complex please come forward for the children's sermon?"  Some Christians are mentally lazy and used to being pampered.  Time to grow up. leaving the simple things behind and pressing toward the meatier doctrines of God's Word.

G. N. Barkman

Ron Bean's picture

Greg does bring up a good point. My father grew up in a one room school and would talk about how the older kids would often help teach the younger ones. In the days before Sunday School and Junior Church families sat together for the sermon and later the parents retaught the sermon to their children. There are some churches today that are using the "no junior church/family together worship" model with success.

I have also know some brilliant preachers who had the gift of "putting the cookies" on the lower shelf. I know one who could successfully explain justification by faith and imputation to lower elementary kids.

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

Carl Trueman likes to tell the story about how, somewhere in his famous book on pastors, Richard Baxter advised preachers to always say at least one thing in a sermon that's totally incomprehensible, so people will think you're smarter than them - and they'll keep you around. I need to find the quote, It's pretty funny.

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?