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Somebody asked me a good question recently. “When you listen to sermons or read sermons, if you see things that need improving, what is usually the top concern that needs to be addressed?” In some ways this is not an easy question to answer. As my colleague John Rottman once noted, sermons can go wrong in so many different ways. It’s downright interesting, in fact, how many things can go wrong, which is testament to the fact that the art of preaching is difficult.
I well remember the high school senior who made profession of faith at the congregation in which I was the main preaching pastor at the time. An elder asked him what led him to make his profession and he mentioned a high school religion class assignment to write a sermon. He said doing that really helped him think more about his faith. But then, looking straight at me, he observed, “Turns out it’s really hard to write a sermon. I thought you got up on Sunday mornings and just talked!”
Would t’were it were that easy! There is an art and a craft to making a sermon, and were it not for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, none of us who aspire to preach would succeed. (Not to mention the fact that the Spirit has a way of winging sermons into people’s hearts in ways the preacher could never have imagined.)
But back to the question: if I could identify a common problem with sermons I read, what might it be? The answer is that lots of sermons are quite simply over-stuffed with information, with too many competing ideas and images. The preacher simply tries to do too much. Maybe it’s trying to include every last jot and tittle of the Bible passage on which the sermon is based. Maybe it’s taking too many rabbit trails. But as the authors of the very good book Made to Stick once noted: in a speech (or I would add in a sermon) if you say three things, you have said nothing. Try to say just one thing.
Those of us familiar with the comedy movie City Slickers may remember Curly, the grizzled and mysterious cowboy played by actor Jack Palance. In a conversation about life with the city slicker played by Billy Crystal who met Curly while on a two-week excursion on a dude ranch, Curly held up his gloved hand to say that the secret to life was just “one thing.” We never actually find out what Curly’s “one thing” is but it definitely pointed in the direction of simplicity as opposed to all the ways we complicate our lives.
The same goes for sermons: the secret to a good sermon is just one thing. One main idea with an accompanying singular image. The one thing needs to emerge from the Bible passage on which the sermon is based, of course. And while it is true that most preaching passages from Scripture contain within them multiple “things” and ideas and angles—which is a blessed thing when you are preaching on Luke 2 at Christmas for the 13th time in your ministry—for any one sermon just go with one idea and leave the others for the next time you preach on that same passage.
Trying to stuff in too much just confuses listeners. And anyway, if you preach on the whole kingdom of God in one sermon, what’s left to say the next week? Because the fastest lesson a new preacher learns once she gets into regular parish ministry is that the moment you finish a sermon, you are only six days and twenty-three hours away from needing to preach another new message.
As usual, Jesus is our best exemplar for this. Pick any parable you want that Jesus told and you discover that it’s mostly about just one thing. Jesus had a lot to say about the kingdom of God but he generally spread things out such that one parable is about how important forgiveness is in the kingdom and then another parable is about how quiet the kingdom grows and yet another parable is about the need to pray constantly and not give up.
This is probably also why Jesus never explained his own parables. It was not too difficult to pick up on his main point.
Years ago I watched a video of a sermon of a pastor whose church had asked me to evaluate his sermons as part of a continuing education course he was taking. It was an Easter sermon and by the time the 28-minute sermon was finished, I had made a list of 23 discrete themes, ideas, or doctrines that had gotten jammed into the message. Not only was the sermon impossible to follow, unsurprisingly the joy of the Good News of Easter somehow never quite came through either.
Twenty-three topics is extreme but it’s not a whole lot better if it’s even just five or six. Or three. In preaching as in the parables of Jesus, less is more. But this is a good thing because the truths of Scripture are so rich and so deep that preaching just one of them on a Sunday morning is a wonderful thing. As the Puritans used to say, enough is as good as a feast. And because of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit I mentioned earlier, even a sermon with one central idea and image will end up meaning many things to many different people. Preachers are usually the last people to know what all the Spirit can do with any given sermon. That’s why preachers often get thanked for things they never said.
But the Spirit said it and that’s enough. It’s also why “just one thing” is a homiletical feast on any given Sunday.