In a previous posting, I reviewed Philip Collins’ book, The Art of Speeches and Presentations – The secrets of making people remember what you say (Wiley 2012), in which he states that all speeches can be divided into at least one of three functions:
1. Information: a speech whose principal function is to leave an audience better informed than they were before you began.
2. Persuasion: a speech whose principal function is to persuade an audience of a case that, before you began, had either never occurred to them or to which they had been actively hostile.
3. Inspiration: a speech whose principal function is to inspire the audience to do something that they had previously not considered doing or had been refusing to do or, occasionally, to carry on doing something.
He points all out that while all speeches will have more than one function, one will be dominant; and he states that this function should be persuasion.
What is true of speeches is also true of sermons and, as I have listened to several hundred over these past four years – in churches and from the preachers I mentor – my observation is that the great majority major on information, at the expense of persuasion and inspiration. You can actually estimate this (as I do) by timing how much of the sermon (or how much of the preacher’s notes) are devoted to each function. In extreme cases, a sermon can be 99% explanation of the text with 1% application which can be summarised as, “Go and do likewise.”
Understanding the problem
This problem is perhaps understandable for those of us who take seriously the priority of the exposition of God’s Word and authorial intent (as opposed to using the text simply as a launching-pad for the worst kind of reader-response message). However, this can mean an accumulation of a huge amount of information from every possible source in the fear that we night miss something related to the text (however incidental). I was surprised to learn from one pastor I mentor that he had consulted 20-25 commentaries on the passage from which he was preaching.
There are at least three consequences of this approach:
1. Preparation time takes longer.
2. Sermons last longer
3. Application along with illustration is squeezed out.
A personal example
I am only too aware (as were my hearers!) that this has been always been a battle for me so let me share how I have been trying to address this problem of information overload in an attempt to preach sermons that are:
- sharper – focusing on the main point/”big idea” of the passage.
- simpler – I am aware that congregations today are less Biblically literate than they were when I started preaching 50 years ago.
- shorter – I now aim to preach for 30-35 minutes rather than 40-45 (and more!)
(please excuse the 3 alliterative points –old habits die hard!)
Let me suggest two pieces of arithmetic which may help to address the problem of information overload.
Edit your sermon by taking out information that is not essential. This information may be interesting and it should be accurate and orthodox, but if it does not relate directly to the main point of the sermon, leave it out.
Let me give you a couple of examples from of a recent sermon I preached at Niddrie Community Church where we now worship. The pastors are making their way through John’s Gospel and I was asked to preach on John 11:1-44: the raising of Lazarus. I had preached on this section on several occasions before – in particular, two sermons each lasting 45+ minutes in Charlotte Baptist Chapel, which has a long tradition of expository preaching with a large, mostly well-educated congregation. Niddrie, in contrast, is a mixture of some mature Christians with an increasing number of new converts. So my goal was to preach a sermon that was simpler and shorter.
This, therefore, meant editing out some of the material I had used before. In my notes (I use a full script) I had set the scene at Bethany as follows:
The words “Happy Family” have become abused and over-used. But in this case they are truly applicable. In the village of Bethany, some two miles down the road that led east out of the city of Jerusalem, lived a happy family in a spacious home – two sisters, Martha and Mary, and their brother, Lazarus, whose name is a contraction of the Hebrew “Eleazar” meaning, appropriately as it will turn out – “he whom God helped.”.
I edited out the explanation of the name of Lazarus – interesting but not essential (and not part of John’s purpose).
The story also raises the question as to where Jesus was at this time, for the sisters send an emergency message to him informing about the serious illness of their brother. We learn from John 10:40 Jesus had gone “back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days”. But where exactly was this and, more importantly for the action that follows, how far away was it from Bethany? The commentaries have much to say on the subject – as did I when I first preached on it. But now I simply said that we can’t be sure where Jesus was but it was some distance away and, by the time he arrived back in Bethany, Lazarus had been ”in the tomb for four days” (which is the main point of his “delay”).
Now, taking out this kind of information gives a sharper focus to the main point of the sermon (I entitled it, “Where there’s death, there hope”) so that the listeners are not having to absorb and process non-essential information. It also creates space to now take a second step in addressing information overload.
+ ADD +
For me, using a full script, 1000 words is equivalent to 10 minutes of speaking. (this will vary from speaker to speaker and whether you use full or outline notes, and how much you ad-lib). So, taking out non-essential information, I reduce my notes from 4000 words (40 minutes) to around 2500 (25 minutes). This leaves me space to add two things to the sermon:
1. Illustration. Illustrations serve two functions – one obvious and the other not so obvious. The obvious function is to provide a window to illuminate the point you are making, a story to illustrate the truth you are teaching. But there is a not so obvious function which is to provide some “mental breathing space”to the listener before you move to the next piece of information you want him or her to absorb. Think of a sermon as climbing a hill in which there are, for example, three stages (as in a sermon with three points). You climb to the end of point 1 and then immediately progress to point 2, followed by point 3 and the conclusion. If, however, you build in an illustration at the end of point 1, it illuminates the point you have made but also proves a plateau for the listener to absorb what has been taught (rather than immediately being given new information). The climber is then prepared for the next stage of the journey.
2. Application. I listen to many sermons in which the only application is in the conclusion, following a lengthy exegesis of the passage. But while the conclusion should reinforce and drive home the main point and application of the sermon, there should be application in other parts of the sermon, otherwise people can switch off because they cannot see the personal relevance of the information that is communicated. So, in the sermon on Lazarus, I traced the story (and read the text) in three stages: (and again apologies for those who hate alliteration!)
- Concerned (verses 1-4) – focusing on the sickness of Lazarus and the emotions it evoked and the action the sisters took.
- Confused (verses 5-21) – focusing on the reaction of the sisters (and observers) to the response of Jesus in staying where he was and arriving on the scene four days late.
- Convinced? (verses 22-37) – focusing on the purpose of the miracle: which evokes faith on the part of some and unbelief on the part of others.
After each of these major points, I applied them to the hearers. So, for example, I concluded point 2 –“Confused” as follows:
No doubt as the sisters had sat at the bedside of their dying brother, they had said again and again to each other, “If only Jesus was here” And maybe they had said to each other, “Perhaps he’ll come today.”
But he had failed to show up – until four days too late! So no wonder they were confused about Jesus. Either
- his word was unreliable – he couldn’t be trusted
- or his love was fickle – he wouldn’t help
- or his power was limited – he couldn’t help
Or all three. Very confusing. A personal tragedy has shaken their whole belief system in Jesus. That is what is so distressing. It is bad enough to face the sudden death of a loved one but even worse when the one person you believed could help and who promised to help, did not, could not, or would not. No wonder they are confused and hurt!
Then I applied it to the listeners:
I wonder if you have ever been confused like that? Maybe you are in a state of confusion at this very moment in your life. You are a Christian and a crisis has arisen in your life. It may be sickness, or sorrow or disappointment or whatever. And, as a child of God, you have instinctively sent off a telegram prayer on your own behalf or that of another: “Lord, the one you love is sick.”(or sad, lonely, unemployed, bankrupt, or whatever)
It is a prayer that says, “Lord, help! I know your power and love” –
and the answer comes back from God’s Word and seems to offer hope.
But then what you feared most happens. Worst of all, Jesus seems absent. You are thrown into confusion. Is Jesus who he claims to be? Is his word reliable? Is he powerless? Does he really love me? If so, why did he allow this to happen?
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
These are no easy matters and, if you think they are, you have yet to face such a situation when all that you hoped in and trusted in is shaken, and all that you prayed for is unanswered. It is one thing to theorise about this or to give words of advice to another in these circumstances. It is quite another to pass through it yourself.
And behind it all is our greatest fear: that life is without purpose and that death is the end of everything. The only thing that will bring reassurance and hope is the assurance that after all someone is in control – not just of life but also of death, that “Where there’s death, there’s hope.”
This then leads into the final point – “Convinced?” – focusing on the action of Jesus in raising Lazarus and the faith it should evoke – “Do you believe this?”
As I concluded this article, I looked at the website of Niddrie Community Church for my sermon on John 11 which you can find on: https://www.niddrie.org/series/johns-gospel/
To my horror, it is listed as lasting 45.51 minutes! So much for all I have written on shorter sermons (it did include a long reading!) You can judge for yourself on its simplicity and sharpness. For me, it is a salutary reminder of the strap-line of 2Timothy 4, the Trust I direct:
“Every preacher can become a better preacher”