It takes more than a good story, good actors and good visual effects to make a hit movie. Think of a movie you particularly liked. In most cases, that movie could have been made in the form of a 10-minute featurette. It would have been a whole lot cheaper to make, but it never would have made any money. Why is that?
What is the difference between a 10-minute featurette and a full two-hour blockbuster? The answer is not padding. It is almost the opposite. It is careful development of characters and scenes, giving space for the audience to grow into the plot. But it is also numerous scenes cut and omitted to keep the flow from being too dense or too long. All padding is typically cut out, but room to breathe is carefully included.
The same is true of good preaching. You could take a decent sermon and hammer out the bottom line in a 10-minute sermonette. You could include the main idea, the outline, etc., but you’d be missing a lot. And the difference between that and a fuller version of the same sermon shouldn’t be 20-30 minutes of padding, nor should it be 20-30 minutes of dense information.
It is only the beginning preacher who wonders how they will fill the time. Experienced preachers know the real challenge is in what to leave out.
This week, I was speaking with a good friend who has trouble keeping his sermons from becoming overwhelming monsters of content—all good stuff, but too much to take in for the listener. We spoke of the main idea and its role in sermon development. And we also pondered the possibilities of having a three-step process: First, define the main idea; second, work out a 10-minute development of that idea; third, move up to the full length.
So, how to go from the 10-minute to the full message? The temptation here is to cram in the information. But when information is crammed in, there is a real problem for the listeners. Actually, there are several problems:
1. They will have to be selective in what they take in. It isn’t possible to grasp everything when there is too much. Do you want listeners to pick and choose, or to be gripped by the whole?
2. They may select elements as take-home material that was incidental in your eyes. For instance, the passing remark, the humorous illustration or the side point could all become their memorable take-home gem.
3. They may check out altogether if it is overwhelming. While some may selectively choose highlights, others will switch to something their mind is motivated to cope with: their plans for the afternoon, their challenges at work, etc.
4. Their hearts are unlikely to engage. This one suddenly takes us to a whole new level. Not only is the issue with their ability to mentally grasp information; there is an issue with their experience of that information.
When information is crammed in, it is not just information that will be lost. For example, I used to have a laptop that allowed me to watch DVDs in normal speed and 1.2x, 1.4x and 2x, and all without losing sound. This was great. It meant I could watch a 40-minute episode of some crime drama or other in less than 30 minutes. I saw everything. I heard everything. But something was different.
The faster transfer of information somehow meant that, while I could follow the story and get the details, I didn’t feel it. That tense moment when the detective entered the abandoned warehouse, gun drawn, eyes wide ... it wasn’t tense. That shocking moment when the body was found ... well, it wasn’t really shocking. All of the emotion seemed to be drained by amping up the content transfer density.
So back to preaching. What is our goal? Is it to transfer information as efficiently as possible? I was reading about Jonathan Edwards and his preaching style. He wasn’t flamboyant and flashy like his contemporary, George Whitefield. Edwards had a quiet intensity. His goal wasn’t just that people learn or even act on what they heard. He wanted them to feel the truth of the doctrine being presented.
But does the Bible intend to be felt? Or is it just information transfer? It seems to me every genre incarnates truth in the non-vacuum of reality. Narratives, poems, prophecies, letters, etc. are all theological truth wrapped up in human experience and story and description. It seems as if the Bible wasn’t given as an inspired collection of abstract truths but as theology in concrete.
So how do we preach sermons to be felt? This is a question worth pondering. Here are some suggestions:
1. Recognize that cramming in information squeezes out feeling. I am not reducing the value of information. Hopefully our exegetical work generates great information. But putting too much information in the sermon will not only make it harder for people to take any of it in. It will also mean they don’t feel the truth of it. We are not in a race to speak all truth as exhaustively and as rapidly as possible. We need to grow in our ability to be selective. Every time we preach, we will not be exhaustive. There will always be more good information that could be said. But there has to be a balancing of content density with other factors for maximum effectiveness.
2. Take the time to let images form. Whether you are explaining the context, making sense of the text, telling the story or even illustrating a point, let the images form. Imagine that inside your listeners, there is a screen. That screen is covered by smoke. Quick propositions and statements won’t register on that screen. It takes good description and a bit of time for the images to form there. But once those images form, once people can see what you are saying, then something powerful starts to happen. They empathize with characters. They experience the plot. They begin to feel. And once they feel, then the truth being preached is a truth experienced, a truth driven deep. It goes beyond cognition. Truth felt tends to lead to lives changed.
3. Develop the skill of painting with words. I mentioned this in passing, but it is worthy of its own point. We need to develop our ability to describe. Stories need to be effectively told, poems need to be carefully described, contexts of letters need to be engagingly presented. Wherever we are in the Bible, we need to keep growing in our ability to describe effectively, vividly and engagingly. Vocabulary matters. Pace matters. Expression matters. I can describe something with 100 percent accurate facts but leave you completely underwhelmed. A good preacher can describe something so you feel like you see it.
4. Find the balance between time/pace and content. This is the challenge. Every element of a message could potentially benefit from more time and slower pace. But there is a balance to be found. It is like the moviemaking situation we pondered earlier. Too much time, too slow a development, too drawn out a scene, and the momentum is lost. Too fast, too much information and too rapid a transition, and the viewers are left behind.
The difference between a summary and the real deal should not be padding, and it can’t be just information crammed in. There has to be careful planning to engage not only the heads of the listeners but also their hearts.