No one wants to look stupid. According to studies, the way to look smart is, ironically, to be simple. Studies show that authors who write in simple terms are perceived as more intelligent by the readers.
We know instinctively that there are two kinds of simplicity: one on this side of complexity, and one on the other.
Unfortunately, many preachers step into the pulpit without reaching the simplicity on the other side.
Simple preaching (or, as the Puritans would say, “plain preaching”), believe it or not, is the number one key to holding a congregation’s attention. Once something becomes too complex, research shows, people start to tune out.
Keep it simple, keep it engaging.
That being said, here are some simple ways to keep it simple:
1. Use simple words, define complex words.
If you’re a pastor, you’ve been in the church for a long time, which means you know a lot of complicated words most people don’t.
Even words we perceive as simple, such as “the trinity,” “covenant” or “communion” are road signs that, if left undefined, tell visitors: “You’re not going to understand anything I say.” Listen to your last sermon and see if you used any “Christianese” without helping a brother out.
I know this will hurt my fellow literary friends, but in spoken communication, the vocabulary needs to be understood by an eighth grader!
2. Clarify the roadmap.
If you want to keep things simple, tell people where you’re going, then go there.
The most effective way of doing this, according to the research of Chip and Dan Heath, is through the use of questions. Guide people through a series of questions and they’ll know how to categorize the information you present and see the careful sequencing of your logic.
3. Be conversational.
Rather than giving a sermon as a “presentation,” slow down.
Talk to people, like you’re having a conversation in the living room. Don’t be afraid to pause and think about how to say what you’re going to say next (pauses, in fact, are an integral part of riveting communication).
Speedy communication is a sign of nervousness, and it complicates things for the listeners. Rather than pack lots of information into a short amount of time, slow down and communicate what is necessary in a thoughtful manner.
4. Find the core idea.
The roadmap you present needs to be going somewhere—not in six different directions. Congregations feel much safer when they are confident they’re being led in a specific direction.
By finding the “core idea” of your message, you’re able to whittle out the extras and give your sermon a feeling of purpose and simplicity.
Simply manuscripting a sermon, though helpful, can actually work against you if you don’t take the next step of practicing the sermon vocally.
Writing is a different form of communication than preaching.
Writing can be complex—people can stop, reread, look ahead, see the flow. Good writing does not, I repeat, does NOT translate into good preaching!
Verbal communication is a much simpler medium. It’s important to run through a sermon vocally, because this helps you to “hear” the sermon and recognize what doesn’t translate from a manuscript to real life.
Here’s the process I use:
1. Outline the sermon.
2. Manuscript the sermon.
3. Re-outline the sermon.
4. Practice the sermon vocally a few times. (I try not to “memorize” a sermon—that always comes off stale. Practicing aloud simply helps me to hear the different directions I could go, and it almost always forces me to reshape the sermon in a way more appropriate to a live audience of listeners.)
5. Re-outline the sermon.
This process helps me to whittle my sermon down to the essentials and prepare for the real medium of preaching come Sunday morning.
If you’d like more on the research behind simple communication or methods for simple presentations, check out these helpful links: