Why do we tend to over-complicate everything?
It’s not just you. I do it, too. In fact, I do it constantly.
Nowhere more than when I am writing a message. As a communicator and preacher, there’s something in me (and I bet I’m not alone) that intuitively believes a message is only good if it’s deep, layered and rich. If we were baking a cake, that would be true. But this is a message. The reality is a deep, layered and rich sermon might impress an audience or a seminary professor, but it typically doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Worse, it’s not memorable or easily applicable.
I have trouble seeing this in my own messages at times, but as is often the case, what’s difficult to see in the mirror is clear through a window. Recently I was helping a friend write a message. He had a GREAT idea. Very personal. Very helpful. And it was beautifully simple. But there was something in us both that wanted to complicate the content. We wanted to cover every angle and answer every issue.
Luckily, before he and his message hit the stage, we both remembered this basic preaching truth: Simple is better, because simple is digestible and applicable. Again, if you are trying to impress a crowd, go deep, layered and rich. But if you want people to understand and apply the truth you spent hours and hours studying and preparing, throw out the cake and work toward simplicity.
Here are a few steps I take when searching for message simplicity:
1. Find focus.
What is the idea you are attempting to communicate? I like to start with a one-sentence description and build everything from there. Starting with one clear idea allows me to stay focused on one clear idea. I know this is common sense, but too often is feels uncommon. We could call this “beginning with the end in mind.”
a. What do they need to know?
b. Why do they need to know it?
c. What do they need to do?
d. Why do they need to do it?
e. How can I help them remember?
Again, these questions provide the clarity I need to remain focused as I write a message. As a rule, I will not begin writing a message until I’ve answered these questions.
2. Cut your darlings.
I first heard this within the context of writing. Often an author must cut their favorite section or sentence to find the desired simplicity. When it comes to crafting messages, the same principle holds true.
I can’t even count how many times I went into a message with an illustration, story or idea that I loved, yet discovered later it wasn’t a good fit. It’s painful to trim, but it’s worth it. The good news is that what’s on the cutting room floor provides great material for another message.
3. Make ONE point.
In conjunction with focusing on one idea, leverage this one idea to make one point of application.
Here’s a personal example:
When I was in seminary, I took a preaching class. We all recorded and submitted a video of us preaching for our final grade. My message was built around ONE IDEA and ONE POINT. While I received an A on the message, the professor was displeased with the number of points and scripture references.
I allowed a week to pass. Then I asked him two questions. “Do you remember the message I preached and my point? Do you remember messages from my peers?” And my point was made. The professor immediately recited my bottom line idea and my point of application. (One Idea: The most effective way to change behavior is to change the heart. Bottom Line: Christianity is not about behaving, it’s about believing.) He couldn’t recall any of the “three-point expository blah, blah, blah” that he taught us to preach.
4. Marinate your message.
Like a good piece of meat, the longer you allow a message to marinate, the better it will taste. When you study, prepare and write a message weeks in advance, you allow the Holy Spirit time to marinate the content in your soul, heart and mind. I’m not saying God can’t work miracles in a Saturday night special, but my experience has been the more time between writing and preaching, the more powerful and focused the message.
Also, the marinating process provides time for other ideas, illustrations and stories to surface. It’s amazing how many things I stumble across the weeks between writing and delivery. So build in time for your message to marinate. Your church will love the taste.
Ironically, simplicity is more difficult than complexity. Anyone can stand on a stage with Greek words and 15 scriptures. It takes more work to take the complex and make it simple, but it’s in this work where our audience reaps the reward.
The Gospel is not complicated. So let’s commit to making following the Gospel less complicated, as well.
Am I the only one? Are you tempted to fall prey to complexity over simplicity? Which is harder for you—fighting complexity of discovering simplicity? I’d love to know!