My grandfather loved to whittle.
I remember on many hot, Tennessee summer days, watching him fidget with his brown pocketknife in one hand and a crooked tree branch in the other. He would slowly, but deliberately, slide the sharpened blade of his knife across the knotty side of the branch, creating a fresh pile of wood shavings at his feet. He would eyeball any excess bark and carefully knick it off piece by piece. By the time he was done, he was holding what, to my childhood eyes, was a handcrafted work of art. As I watched and listened, I often heard him say, "Every young boy should learn how to whittle. It's a good skill to have."
I think the same could be said of preachers. Every young preacher (and every old one for that matter) should learn how to whittle their sermons. We preachers are masters at gathering sermon material. In studies across the globe, hours upon hours are spent each week in the pursuit of exegeting, diagramming, reading and writing for Sunday sermons.
Having amassed a vast collection of homiletical material by copying, pasting, scanning or typing, we click Print and assume our work is done. However, there is a critical step missing at the tail-end of this process, and that is the step of editing. We know how to dig, but we also should learn how to sift.
Chuck Swindoll has noted, "It has been my observation that we preachers say much too much." Most pastors can speak on the Trinity with great verbosity and on faithfulness with loquaciousness. This ability, however, is rarely to our credit.
The long-winded preacher is the stereotypical butt of church jokes. We have all heard the adage: "The mind can absorb no more than the seat can endure." What preacher hasn't heard the noon watch alarms begin to beep or seen the stirring of restless listeners packing up to go? It happens every Lord's Day.
If you have ever found this to be true, rest assured, sermon-whittling can help. However, sermon-whittling is not simply about getting the people out on time. It's about getting the most out of your time. It's not just about preaching a shorter sermon. It's about preaching a more substantive one.
Whether you preach for 20 minutes or 60, there is never enough time to say everything that God's Word deserves. This is why we must be able to distinguish between what could be said and what must be said. This is the work of sermon-whittling.
Several years ago, Al Mohler wrote a powerful article in which he called for "theological triage." In it, he challenged Christians to learn how to rank doctrinal issues based on their importance (i.e., primary, secondary and tertiary). His point was simple: All doctrine is important, but not all doctrine is equally important.
Similarly, I would argue that we need to develop a similar, preacher-specific kind of discernment. We might call it homiletical triage. We must learn how to classify our sermon material as either study-worthy or pulpit-worthy. Having an eye, ear and mind for this takes work, but it is work you can do.
Learning how to whittle your sermons will help you say more in the time you have and help you have more time to say what you need to say. (Who knows? You might surprise your people by getting done by noon on occasion? OK, maybe not.)
So, how can you do this? What is the trick to sermon-whittling? It's easy. Before you finalize Sunday's message, slide these razor-sharp questions across your sermon notes or manuscript. Whatever homiletical shavings hit the floor should be left there.
As you review your sermon material, ask yourself these four questions:
1. Have I made this point elsewhere in the sermon?
Repeatedly repeating yourself again and again is redundantly redundant and repetitively repetitive. (Get my drift?) Like a dog chasing its tail or a hamster running inside its wheel, the monotonous preacher exerts a lot of effort but makes little progress. Furthermore, those watching such a dog, hamster or preacher quickly become bored.
While watching TV with my family one evening, a strange event happened. For some reason, there was a broadcasting glitch at the local station. As a result, the same commercial played five times in a row! After the third or fourth time, I remember saying, "OK! I got it now! Can we please move on?" It's one thing to see a commercial five times in a week. It's quite another to see it five times in succession.
Such repetition does not reinforce the point. It often does the opposite. As the old proverb says, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Belaboring a point too long, repeating an idea too often or re-launching into a favorite hobby-horse topic causes the preacher to come across as a helpless kayaker caught in a swirling eddy. Our congregations may be having the same thought I did about that commercial, "OK! We got it. Can you please move on?"
Good preachers work hard at the sermon's outline. Great preachers work hard at the sermon's flow. The best among us know how to maintain a steady movement throughout the message. Such preachers can keep the audience's attention and interest as a result.
To do this, you must develop a sense of balance within the sermon. Be sure to maintain a constant progression and give appropriate time to explain, illustrate, argue and apply for each point or idea. Get bogged down in any one of these elements for too long and you will find it difficult to climb out of the sermonic quicksand. Avoid unnecessary repetition.
2. Can I explain this idea just as well with fewer words?
Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit, as is goodness. Despite what some preachers seem to think, though, wordiness is not a fruit of the Spirit. As Danny Akin has said, "What you say is not as important as how you say it, but how you say it has never been more important."
The twin sisters of clarity and brevity should be the preacher's closest companions. There are a few authors in the world, J.I. Packer among them, whom I admire for their careful economy of words. Each sentence Packer writes is as rich as cheesecake and deserves to be savored. He does not waste words or lack them. Learn to be deliberate with your wording.
Quite often, preachers waste a lot of words in their introduction or when telling stories. Because they have not rehearsed an illustration, they often find it tempting to throw in spur-of-the-moment information or marginal details that only serve as filler. The solution, however, is not getting rid of the story; it is learning how to become a better, more intentional storyteller.
A well-told story is as a well-cooked steak: The meat is juicy, and the fat is trimmed. Ask yourself in advance, "Why am I telling this story? Do I need this detail or that? Can anything be left out as I explain it?" Questions such as these will help.
How else can you learn to maximize your preaching vocabulary? Read a page in the dictionary from time to time. Browse a thesaurus occasionally. Notice how your favorite authors write their own sentences. Listen to good story-telling singers (such as my favorite: Johnny Cash) or spend time thinking about a well-written poem. Pay attention to how each one of these artists maximizes words.
A good locksmith will get you in and out in a timely manner. A good wordsmith should be able to do the same.
3. Is this tidbit merely interesting, or is it actually helpful?
As you study a passage of Scripture, you inevitably will unearth some fascinating cultural, linguistic, historical and theological nuggets of information. However, you have heard it said before: "All that glitters is not gold."
Interesting details about a passage are not necessarily helpful details for the sermon. Again, Chuck Swindoll has observed, "Zealous to be ultra-accurate, we unload so much trivia that [the listener often] loses the thread of thought, not to mention his patience."
The end result of this kind of preaching is what some have called dump-truck sermons. On Sunday morning, this preacher backs up to the congregation, pushes a button and unloads everything that has been learned in the past week, simultaneously burying the listeners beneath a pile of data, facts, quotes, cross-references and biblical information. It is no wonder their bewildered congregation struggles to make sense of it all.
Yes, all Scripture is profitable. I do not deny that—would never think of it—but that does not mean everything you and I can say about a passage necessarily is profitable. D.A. Carson has said, "There is a kind of preaching today that is not so much unbiblical as it is trivial." For instance, rather than taking time in your next sermon to parse a certain Greek verb as a "present-tense, active, indicative, first-person, singular," consider telling the people, "God wants you to make this a habit in your life." The first approach is interesting to the preacher, but the second one is more helpful to the listener.
Learn how to be selective with your material. Be willing to sacrifice the novel bits for the beneficial ones. As my seminary professor used to say, "It is better to leave the people longing for more than loathing for less."
4. Does this detail advance the passage's overall point?
No doubt, this is the most fundamental issue in sermon-whittling. Like individual creeks flowing into a much larger river, each point, statement and cross-reference in the sermon should serve to advance and support the overall idea of the message. Remember: Rabbit trails are for rabbits, not preachers.
In a behind-the-scenes segment from The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson told a poignant story about the difficult editing process he encountered. After the filming was complete, Jackson and his fellow producers were staring at more than 20 hours of footage. Even for the three full-length feature films, they knew this was far too much material. How could they decide what would make it on the big screen and what would end up on the editing room floor? After a frustrating deliberation, Jackson had a moment of clarity. He concluded that the central story of the entire trilogy is this: "Frodo takes the ring to Mordor." With that simple, main idea driving the editing process, the producers then easily could ask of each scene, "Does this part help Frodo get one step closer to Mordor?" If so, it stayed. If not, it was cut.
Once you have identified the passage's big idea (i.e., main idea, central idea, etc.), judge your support material accordingly. Ask yourself at each juncture whether each portion advances the overall idea of the text.
For instance, a lengthy, 25-minute excursus about the dimensions of Noah's ark most likely will detract from the big idea of Genesis 9 about God's judgment on the wicked and His gracious salvation of the righteous. Sure, you may need to devote a minute or two to help people imagine certain details, but try not to spend too much time on it if it is not essential. Keep the main thing the main thing.
At the end of the day, I am convinced the best preachers are actually just good editors. They dig up the same information the rest of us do, read the same commentaries and study the same background. So, why do they sound so much better? Often the difference is in the editing. These preachers are not only good with spades but are quite handy with scissors, too.
Let me encourage you before next Sunday arrives to get out your sermon notes and pocketknife and start whittling. As my grandfather used to say, "It's a good skill to have."