For many years we’ve rightly bemoaned the widespread blight of too many shallow sermons. And, of course, that problem remains a problem. However, in many circles, especially perhaps in some Reformed churches, we may be in danger of over-complicating sermons.

By over-complicating sermons I mean:

Too much material: far too much content crammed into far too little space.

Too many words: just because someone can speak 200 words per minute without a breath, does not mean that we can hear and understand at that rate.

Too many long words: why use long words when there are perfectly adequate shorter substitutes? And why use any Latin/Greek/Hebrew words?

Too many long sentences: Readers may be able to follow four line sentences (and two line headings), but not hearers.

Too long arguments: If it takes you twenty minutes and twenty steps of logic to prove your point, you’ll be proving it to yourself alone.

Simply too long: There is surely a happy medium between 10-minute sermon strolls and 60+ minute marathons.

Too many headings: By the sixth sub-point of the fourth main point, I’m gone.

Too much logic, not enough likes: Just read the Gospels and ask yourself if you sound like picture-painting Jesus or like philosophical Plato. Yes, we need logic. But we also need “likes” (e.g. the kingdom of heaven is like…) and stories (e.g. there was a rich man…).

Too many quotations: The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is a great servant but a wearisome master. Take your preaching text and dig deep into it until you strike fresh water, rather than leave it behind to dig hundreds of dry one-inch scripture-reference holes all over the desert. And though I love quotes from Pastor Puritan, Pastor Spurgeon, and Pastor Lloyd-Jones, I really came to hear Pastor You.

Too much clutter: Is that paragraph/sentence necessary? I know it’s nice, but is it necessary.

Too much reading: If you were forced to speak without notes, or with only a one-page outline, you would have to simplify. Preaching from a full manuscript allows you to use much more complex arguments and sentences. Makes you look better. But makes hearers fall asleep. If you must write everything out in full, then write in an oral style to avoid sermons becoming lectures.

Too much doctrine: Systematic theology is wonderful. Biblical theology is great. But simply explaining the text is better than both. Systematic and biblical theology help us to understand the text but they should not be imposed on a text. Perhaps try to imagine yourself explaining the text to a 12-year-old, then a 10-year-old, then… But please, please, please just explain the text.

It’s wonderful that many Reformed pulpits are being filled with well-studied and well-prepared sermons full of biblical truth. But I’m afraid that many of our hearers can’t swallow the great chunks of red meat that are being served from some pulpits. Our hearers need meat, but they need it marinated, tenderized, well-cooked, and even cut into mouth-size bites.  Some even need help with chewing! (I’ll stop there).

There are two ways to uncomplicate our sermons: the first is intellectual and the second is spiritual. The intellectual solution involves the strenuous mental power-lifting of ruthlessly simplifying our sermons. Any fool can preach like a genius, but it takes a genius to preach simply. And by genius, I don’t mean that some people have an innate ability to make the profound simple. Genius is usually the end-result of extremely hard work. There is a massive difference (about ten hours difference) between preparing simple sermons and preparing simplistic sermons.

Most of my sermons are preachable after about 8 hours of work. But if I want the maximum number of my hearers to have maximum understanding, I must tie myself to the desk and push my brain to prune, shorten, clarify, illustrate, etc for at least another two hours. Apart from studying how some of the best preachers manage to communicate deep truth without drowning their hearers, the best resource I’ve come across is William Zinser’s book On Writing Well. Read and re-read (and re-read) pages 7 to 23. And give sustained study to pages 10 to11 where Zinser takes a knife to a manuscript. Then sharpen your own knife.

Old Princeton professor, J W Alexander wrote: “It is an interesting observation that some of the greatest sermons are deceptively simple in design and development. Simplicity in design, organisation and development is the mark of a great communicator. Complexity confounds – simplicity satisfies.”

The spiritual solution is a love for souls. That old-fashioned phrase must become a modern day reality in our pulpits. If we love our hearers and want to see them live better here, and also prepare for life hereafter, we will do everything to simplify our sermons for their benefit. If we keep the spiritual welfare and eternal destiny of our hearers in front of us at all times, making ourselves understood will become a life-or-death matter.

It’s wonderful that God is calling preachers with huge brains into the ministry of the Word. But huge brains need huge hearts if they are to lovingly and sympathetically serve God’s less gifted (but maybe more-graced?) children.

In Truth Applied Jay Adams relates how Martin Luther initially used churchy academic jargon when he preached to nuns in a convent chapel. But, when he became Pastor of the town church at Wittenberg, he realized that he had to work at making himself understood. He used children for his standard of intelligibility. “I preach to little Hans and Elisabeth,” he said. If they could understand, others could too. He refused to play up to the educated in his congregation. “When I preach here at Wittenberg, I descend to the lowest level. I do not look at the doctors or masters, of whom about forty are present, but at the hundred or thousand young people. To them I preach…If the others do not want to listen – the door is open.”

May it be said of us as it was of eventually said of Luther, “It was impossible to misunderstand him.”

  • dickmyerscough

    I wonder if you’d also add ‘too much explanation, not enough application’ to that list – I sometimes wonder in my own ministry if more decent application would help to make the whole hang together more coherently.

  • Steve Hall

    Thank you for this post. Good points, and good reminders. I think it is so important to know the people to whom you preach. Knowing them enables you to know where they are at spiritually (biblical knowledge and sanctification), and directs the application of your message with much greater force. Maybe another point then is to not only study the text, but study the hearts (know the condition of your flock) of the people entrusted to your pastoral care. And, in so doing, we are able to do personal, house-to-house instruction. Oh, who is sufficient for such a task? Grateful for His enablement!

  • Bernard Howard

    This is very helpful indeed – thank you. What you say fits in well with these exceptional Tim Keller talks on ‘preaching to the heart’ given at Oak Hill College in London: (free to download).

  • Robert Turner

    I teach 3rd through 5th graders on Wednesday night as part of our youth program. I have 20 minutes max to get a point across. Keeping it simple is my only choice. Thank you for this excellent encouragement. This is something I needed to hear, and so timely.

  • James

    I can appreciate Mr Murray’s appeal to pastors. Is is the pastor’s responsibility to preach what the spirit has led him to that week or do we need to make sure the congregation isn’t bored? too many churches have a nice convinient 16 minute messae that is just enough, doesn’t challenge and keeps the “MTV Generation” amused. I tend to disagree that the pastor is losing the attendee. Opening your heart to hear God’s word and wanting to hear Him speak is way more important in my opinion.

  • Andrew Manwarren

    When you say most of your sermons are preachable after 8 hours of work does that include study time or do you just mean making all of your study content preachable? I only ask because it is rare that I can have a sermon done in 8 hrs (including study and formulation) but then again the Spirit has blessed others in remarkable ways! Perhaps in the future you could post about how you do sermon prep or provide a bibliography of hermeneutics?

  • Andrew Manwarren

    …I forgot to say “thank you” for this post. I really do appreciate it. Also, I do not mean for my previous comment to sound condescending at all. I simply desire to be a better preacher and like to hear what others are doing that I might grow and learn thereby!

  • Greg Gibson

    Amen! Remember, the smartest man who ever lived was able to explain deep doctrinal truths so that uneducated farmers and fishermen could understand. One of the best cures for “scholarism” is to teach children’s Bible study. If you can explain God’s Word to kiids, you can explain it to anyone.

  • Bob Gonzales

    Dr. Murray,Excellent advice! I’d love to have our seminary students read it. May I have permission to post the content and link on our seminary blog? (giving you a “hat tip,’ of course).Bob Gonzales, DeanReformed Baptist Seminary

  • David Murray

    Sure, Bob, feel free to use as you see fit.

  • David Murray

    Thanks Andrew: Sermon prep time varies of course. And 8 hours of prep time comes on top of 18 years of preparing sermons! So my 8 hours today assumes a lot of previous study and practice. Maybe some of my hearers will read this “8 hours” and think: “Hmmm. That explains a lot.” :) I’m hoping to post more on sermon prep quite soon.

  • Fred Jonkman

    Great post!! This should be sent to all preachers. Such helpful and practical advice as I have to preach at times also. Thanks, David! May I have your permission to translate this into Spanish so that I may hand this out to friends I know?

  • David Murray

    Sure Fred. Anything on the blog can be used in that way.

  • Erik

    Excellent post David. I’ve bookmarked this and will return to it when I need reminder of simplicity in preaching.

  • Simon Smallwood

    Enjoyed your 12 point homily!!!! :)The issue that faces the busy preacher/pastor is that achieving simplicity requires a lot more work; I would say a whole extra stage in the process of preparation.

  • Aaron Cooper

    Dr. Murray,Would it be possible to meet with you sometime soon? I am a student at CU right across from PRTS…I have made friends with Dr. Gerald Bilkes at PRTS and meet with him regularly. He has told me about you…there is a topic I would crave your insight on.

  • Kendall

    Linked in from Challies. This is a great post. A great reminder to anyone who teaches or preaches. Very rich.

  • Chris Kleyn

    Thank you. well said. simply stated:)

  • Bob

    An important post. All too often we mistake the complicated for the profound. “Simplicity is truth’s most becoming garb.”