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.”