Preaching Articles

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.”

Working with Andy Stanley has helped me understand the power of message focus for sure. (What a huge understatement, right?) He has taught me to answer a few basic questions before I begin crafting a message. These questions may help you, as well.

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!

Gavin Adams is the Lead Pastor of Watermarke Church, a campus location of North Point Ministries, and a student of leadership, communication, church, and faith. 

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Chet Gladkowski

commented on Sep 4, 2014

Someone once said, "When you preach, you facing forward or backwards." Are you looking backwards towards those who have made a significant investment in your walk with Jesus, trying to communicate and please them? Or are you looking forward to those who need to be lead, encouraged, discipled and lead to Jesus?

Michael Winship

commented on Sep 4, 2014

I could not agree with you more... We need to be giving sermons that people remember. Too many preachers want to appear to be above their flock and the flock has no clue what he's trying to say or how to put it into practice. Keep it simple plain and simple

Jeff Strite

commented on Sep 4, 2014

I listened to Andy Stanley's lesson on how to preach... and I found it interesting, but not compelling. The "One Point" message is ok by me. But I got the impression that Stanley implied in that that lesson that using more than one point was not a good idea. Whenever I hear someone say or imply something with so much assurance my mind drifts back to Scripture. And the first place I thought of was the "Sermon on the Mount"... not a "one point" message. I'm not denigrating one point sermons, but they aren't the end all Stanley seems to imply

Steve Malson

commented on Sep 4, 2014

When I arrived at my present church, the worship design team and pastor had been laser focused on presenting one point clearly and distinctly with application . . . and they did it well. My teaching style provides more of one direction with points on line with it . . . During my first 2 years here, the most common compliment I received (I took it as a compliment) was that I didn't insult them by thinking they could only handle one thought each week . . . and not only that, there'd been many weeks that the one point didn't apply to them. I know that when I hear them, I'm a bit frustrated at the lack of nutrition in a one hit sermon.

Tim Johnson

commented on Sep 4, 2014

Thank you Gavin for the reminder. Stanley's "One Point" is my stated goal, but often the Holy Spirit leads me to "One Idea" with multiple points. Today, though, I needed to hear your message of simplicity. It came at just the right time to save my congregation from drowning in too-deep waters.

Pastor Jeff Haynes

commented on Sep 4, 2014

This is what's wrong with the church today. Heaven forbid we teach Scripture and lead people into a deep understanding of the Word. Keep it simple and relevant to their lives, don't worry too much about the life to come. I wonder why the Church looks and thinks like the world? 11 Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. Hebrews 5:11-14

Alexander Drysdale Lay Preacher Uca Australia

commented on Sep 16, 2014

Reading this article I am reminded on Rudyard Kipling's six friends. "I keep six honest serving men, They taught me all I knew. Their names and What and Why and When, And How and Where and Who. Use that rhyme to help your sermon preparation. It is a great help to me.

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