Preachers, have you ever noticed that some of your most well received messages are the ones for which you have studied the least? Don’t worry, I’m not advocating a lack of study. However, I think it is important to understand why this phenomenon occurs.
When an idea first enters your mind, it is simple to comprehend. Just consider the experience of reading Scripture and having a new insight, which revolutionizes your thinking. All of a sudden, you see everything through the lens of your new insight. At this stage, you don’t have a lot of information, which allows you to have amazing clarity. Let’s call this stage one.
Stage one preaching tends to flow brilliantly from your mouth because the insight is clear—there is no “extra information” to trip over in your presentation.
Of course, the beauty of stage one preaching is also the fault: lack of information. This leaves stage one preaching open to misleading statements, unbalanced presentation of Scripture and misapplication of the text.
Perhaps you have preached a stage one sermon and received wonderful compliments. Then, the next time you have an opportunity to preach to a different audience, you decide to share the same message. Excited for the opportunity to share a message that has been previously well received, you decide to study more and make it even better.
In the midst of your study, you chase a few rabbits, delve into original languages and become interested in the context of the text. Those are all strong marks of good sermon preparation.
The only problem is that your sermon notes are not as clear as before. They have become cluttered with insights that are great by themselves, yet seem unconnected on paper. Even worse, they are cluttering your mind. This is stage two.
You stand up to preach believing this version of the message will be more powerful than before because you have more ammunition. The only problem is that your shooting spree has no focus. In the end, everyone in the audience is a casualty.
You walk away wondering what happened. Why, if the first version of the sermon was so well received, wouldn’t a more researched version be even more effective? The answer is simple: The more information you have, the more challenging clarity becomes. That’s why I call stage two the “chaos stage.” Unfortunately, I have plenty of experience with stage two preaching.
But don’t be discouraged. The answer is not to quit studying. No, the answer is to move to stage three—editing.
I’ve heard that the most difficult part of filmmaking is editing. The editor takes all of the raw film and puts together the story line—leaving behind the parts that take away from communicating the message clearly. Most directors have to stay away from the editing room because it is too painful for them to see their favorite shots left on the cutting room floor. Yet, that is the price of clarity.
The same holds true in sermon preparation. Only, most of us preachers don’t have an editor to do the work for us. We must be courageous enough to cut the brilliant details of Greek word studies or the masterful illustrations if they don’t aid in the clarity of the main point. The most interesting description of a Shepherd’s staff or the High Priest’s garb—if distracting from the point of the text—is just that: a distraction. Many creative analogies, humorous stories and cultural denunciations have distracted men and women from the clear message of the text. As preachers, we hate to leave them on the cutting room floor because we have become emotionally attached. That’s why we have to keep the importance of clarity in mind at all times. The audience will never know what gets left on the cutting room floor. Alternatively, if you don’t put it on the floor, they might never know the main point of the sermon.
Does that mean the study from stage two isn’t worth the effort? No, but the value of stage two is not seen until the excess information is trimmed away. Like panning for gold, you must sift through large amounts of material in order to find the treasure.
Next, you must take the treasure and place it in the most effective order. Don’t disseminate it indiscriminately. Spend time contemplating how each piece of the puzzle is connected and how it should be presented. Will the information be presented chronologically (by timeline), progressively (growing in detail) or logically (building a case)? Different sermons call for different orders.
Once you have placed your material in order, make sure you know how to transition from point to point. I like to think of this as “greasing the joints.” Like a machine, each part benefits from smooth, friction-free movement where it connects to other parts.
Finally, once you have edited, ordered and polished your message, you are ready for stage three preaching. Stage three combines stage one’s clarity and stage two’s information for maximum effectiveness.
In graphical terms, the three stages make a curve that resembles the Nike swoosh in which clarity is measured top to bottom and information is measured left to right. Stage one is high on clarity but low on information. At stage two, the curve moves downward for lack of clarity while moving to the right for increased information. Notice this is the lowest stage—for both you and your audience. Finally, however, stage three moves sharply to the upper-right to indicate the greatest display of clarity and information.
So, don’t settle for stage one—and certainly don’t stop at stage two. Push on through the preaching curve to stage three. You’ll be glad you did—and so will your hearers!