Haddon W. Robinson, PhD
Professor of Preaching
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
South Hamilton, Massachusetts
Summary: The author walks you through on how to prepare a written sermon so that you can help your audience to think clearly about what you are saying as well as understand what you are talking about.
When Napoleon sent out his messengers, he gave them three instructions: be clear, be clear, and be clear. There are several challenges facing preachers who desire to do just that.
First, there’s a tendency to roam through the whole Bible, bringing in all kinds of things to enhance what we’re saying. We end up saying too much and, as a result, communicating too little. We start out stalking bear, but are soon distracted by some rabbits we’d like to chase. Before long, we’re chasing this and adding that and missing the bear we started after at the outset. So less is more.
We also deal with the challenge of oral communication. Preachers have to work at clarity because the spoken word lacks some of the built-in aids inherent to writing. When you’re writing, you can utilize paragraph divisions, punctuation marks, section headings, and things in quotes. You can’t do that when you’re preaching. Also, if I don’t get what the preacher is saying the first time, I can’t go back and mentally review; if I try to, I won’t hear what he is saying now. The preacher has the responsibility of helping his congregation think clearly.
Someone who writes out his sermons in an effort to be clear can often cause the opposite effect because of the written style. If that’s the case, then how can we bridge the gap between clarity in our notes and clarity in our presentation?
Begin by being clear about your subject. When you’ve worked through your notes, you ought to be able to answer two questions. First, “What am I talking about?” You ought to be able to state in precise, definite terms what this sermon is about. For example, “Why should I be committed?” or, “Where do I serve Christ most effectively?” We call this the subject, but it’s really the answer to the question: “What am I talking about?”
Then, you should be able to answer the next question: “What am I saying about what I’m talking about? What are the major assertions I’m making about that question?” Clarity often fails because we haven’t nailed those two things down prior to arrival in the pulpit.
Expository preachers have to ask themselves an additional question: “What’s my purpose?” Topical preachers have the advantage of having a purpose, often embedded right in their title. An expository preacher, however, tends to start and end with the text, never answering “Why are you preaching this sermon this Sunday?” The fact that you’re supposed to fill the pulpit from 11:25 to 12:00 isn’t good enough.
A good outline always helps with clarity. You can use the outline to design the sermon as you would a conversation, so that each point is related to what goes before. For example, if you are preaching a sermon on forgiveness, the introduction might deal with why you’re bringing this up. Your first movement could say, “Forgiveness is necessary.” The second could be, “But even though forgiveness is necessary, we often find it difficult.” Likewise the third could follow, “But I have good news. As difficult as forgiveness might be, Christians can excel at it because we are followers of Jesus Christ.”
These major movements in the sermon can be read like a conversation rather than three bare statements. This enables you to have an outline, but it doesn’t stick out like a skeleton. It also acknowledges the fact that the “one-two-three things I have to say” type of outline seems to be less popular today. Sometimes that’s what you want if your purpose is to be clear. But if every sermon takes this form, it can lead to boredom.
Another way to add clarity to a sermon is, first, to clearly orient the audience to the body of the sermon right in the introduction. A preacher might say at the end of the introduction, “God sometimes keeps his promises by performing miracles or performing miracles in us.” But if that’s all he’s going to say, folks already have the sermon. If he asks, “Now what exactly does that mean, to say that God performs miracles or performs miracles in us?” he secures the chance to develop clarity, because the congregation has the whole idea, and the preacher has the opportunity to clarify that idea through the body of the sermon.
You can also add clarity by restating key ideas. Suppose you begin by saying, “We want to talk today about how to know the will of God.” Continue by restating this idea several times: “When we are confused about what God wants us to do, how we can determine his direction in our lives? Where would we turn to determine God’s will? How do we go about knowing the will of God?” It seems laborious when you’re preaching, but restating the subject several times in different ways makes it stand out in people’s minds.
In addition, avoid pronouns requiring the listener to remember the reference. For example, rather than saying, “A second thing we must do is consult the Bible,” include the subject it is referencing: “A second thing we have to do in trying to determine God’s will is to consult the Bible.” It may be clear to you what “second thing” refers to, but such vagueness requires a listener to recall a previous reference, possibly diminishing clarity.
You can also give the audience a map of where you’re going. Suppose you are preaching on Christians and government in Romans 13:1-7. You might say, “Christians are to be subject to the government. Christians are to obey what the government demands. I want to talk about the basis for this command. I want to talk about how we show submission to the government; what the implications are in daily life. Third, what exceptions, if any, are there to this command.” In beginning this way, you have given the people a road map of your sermon so they can track with you.
If the subject is interesting, people almost automatically begin developing questions. If you anticipate where you’re going in the map and promise that before you are through you will deal with that question, it puts that question to rest for awhile so your people can hear the rest of what you’re saying.
Visual preaching aids clarity. We use illustrations because they take an abstract concept and ground it in life. A good illustration paints a picture in people’s minds; it creates clarity and understanding. Weak preachers constantly say, “Well, in other words,” to clarify something that is unclear. Better preachers will substitute “For example,” “For instance,” or “Let me illustrate. “ Following an abstract statement with a “for instance” or an example increases its clarity.
It is also critical to use a story that really illustrates the point. Every preacher knows the temptation to follow a story because it is powerful. But if the story doesn’t shed light on the point, then it will reduce clarity, because it causes the audience to focus in the illustration’s connection to the sermon rather than on the point of the sermon.
Another practice that reduces clarity is the tendency to begin with text and follow with background. Imagine the following scenario. “Do you have secrets? Every single one of us comes to this auditorium with secrets. Some are difficult to carry. Some make you afraid. In Psalm 51, David has a secret. He goes to talk to God about it. He had sinned against a woman by the name of Bathsheba; he committed adultery with her. And he had tried to cover that sin by having her husband, Uriah, killed. As he tried to cover things up, he came to feel very guilty. His secret overwhelmed him. Now in this text he tells us how to handle our guilt.” That’s a long way of going about it, and it’s the wrong way of going about it.
A better approach is to give the background or setting before you announce the chapter and verse. “You have secrets. All of us have secrets. David had secrets. The sin he committed with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah were David’s secrets. He was overwhelmed by guilt because of it. But he had to deal with that guilt. Now, in Psalm 51, we see how David handled the guilt he had before God.”
When you refer to a passage, people start turning to it, and they expect you to deal with it right then. But if you’re going on and on, giving background about his guilt and how he’s going to handle it, and only then getting to the passage, it’s a confusing sequence for the listener. You are better off discussing contemporary matters, biblical background, and the subject first. Then announce the Scripture passage and deal with it immediately.
Transitions can be a challenging part of maintaining clarity in sermons. Transitions are difficult because if the message is clear to you, you will tend to not clarify it for the audience. The idea is so evident to you that you don’t think it’s important to build the bridge. A good transition, however, reviews what has already been said. It takes you back to the subject of the sermon and then anticipates what is coming. A good transition secures the point you’re going to make in people’s minds.
One way you can transition from one thought to another is by asking a question. Suppose in your first point you’ve been talking about picking up the cross and following Jesus. In transition, you might say, “Well, that’s pretty clear, isn’t it? It says we’re to pick up a cross and follow Jesus. What does this look like in life if you pick up the cross and follow Jesus? What does it look like in your business or your home to carry a cross?” Transitional questions can help you move into your next point with clarity.
What part can conclusions play in clarity? A strong conclusion brings your sermon to a burning focus. It can help you return to the question you raised in the introduction, giving the audience some satisfaction and closure.
It’s difficult, however, for a conclusion to salvage an unclear sermon. Conclusions can salvage sermons in the sense that they make the last five minutes clear, but they usually cannot create clarity in retrospect. It may drive home the point and illustrate it, but your hearers still may not understand what you talked about for the first twenty-five minutes.
Reprinted by permission of Zondervan © 2005 from The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson and Craig Larson.