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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.

Simple, see?

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.

5. Practice. 

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:

Always Simplify—Never Screenbean

Simplifying Content in Your Presentations

Presentation Simplicity

8 Studies Demonstrating the Power of Simplicity

Nicholas McDonald is husband to lovely Brenna, father to Owen and Caleb, M.Div student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and youth/assistant teaching pastor at Carlisle Congregational Church. He graduated with his Bachelors in Communication from Olivet Nazarene University, studied literature and creative writing at Oxford University, and has spoken internationally at camps, youth retreats, graduations, etc. He blogs about writing, preaching and the arts at www.Scribblepreach.com, which has been featured on The Gospel Coalition, Knowlovelive.org and Challies.com. He currently resides in South Hamilton, MA.

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Christian K

commented on Aug 23, 2013

a good message for calvinists i.e. John Piper etc who overly complicate the message of the Gospel

Dean Johnson

commented on Aug 23, 2013

Christian, I wonder if your point could have been made without attacking the work of a Christian brother.

John Layland

commented on Aug 23, 2013

Dean, I dont think Christian was making an attacking, I believe he is merely critiquing another preacher

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 25, 2013

Giving valid reasons for why believes John Piper "overly complicates the message of the Gospel" is critiquing another preacher. Simply making a blanket accusation, which is what Christian did, is an attack. And Dean is right, the point could've been made without attacking a brother in Christ.

Scott Wiens

commented on Aug 23, 2013

Thanks for the article. I'm a bit fan of telling the congregation where we are going to go, going there, and then telling them where we have been. A very simple principle that works very well. I do have a question about being 'overly structured' and not allowing the Holy Spirit to lead you to say some things that you may not have planned or even interrupt what you to go down a different path. Does too much structure hinder the preacher from allowing that? What has your experience been?

Rick Snyder

commented on Aug 23, 2013

With your permission I would like to speak to the question of structure. I preach three services each Sunday morning and they have to move quickly. I need the structure. I study the structure, practice the structure and study more. On Sunday morning I get myself prayed up and then let it all go. I don't take the structure, or even the sermon into the pulpit with me, but, knowing the structure, I turn loose the Holy Spirit and preach the word God has given to me.

Scott Wiens

commented on Aug 23, 2013

Great feedback Rick. I know that I will put together my notes and I also teach with a PowerPoint but in the end if the Holy Spirit wants to say something not in the script He does and sometimes I go totally off the notes. Love being lead that way.

Joseph William Rhoads

commented on Aug 23, 2013

I've have been using Dragon Software in creating manuscripts. It's voice recognition software. I talk, it types. It's not perfect by any means, but I have the benefit of a manuscript, but in vocal form. It helps me to review points that I may not have made clear.

Joseph William Rhoads

commented on Aug 23, 2013

But the author is correct. Early in my ministry, I almost exclusively preached from a manuscript. I was, and am, a good writer. But written form and speech form is different, unless you are one of those writers who writes just like they speak. A good exercise is to find novelists and read their books and then read aloud their books (to someone). You'll quietly find those writers whose books seem to be made to be read aloud. It's possible to learn something from them.

Kimberly Mcmichael

commented on Aug 24, 2013

I appreciate this discussion because it is constructive. It can be healthy to critique with the right motives of course. I have become frustrated with relying on a manuscript in the pulpit, although this is how i was trained (M.Div.). I am going to try something new this week. All of your comments have blessed me!

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