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Preaching and ‘The One Thing’

6 November, 2010

Here’s a question primarily asked to Bible Teachers (Preachers); but, by all means, others’ comments are welcome.

I was asked recently, ‘Don’t you think all sermons should essentially have one main thing to walk away with?’

(Don’t be a pedant like me and rush to correct the dangling preposition!  Few understand the correction and even fewer appreciate the correction)

Almost immediately, I answered ‘yes’; but, in my characteristically annoying fashion, added, ‘Well, yes, more or less, er, but with some qualifications…why do you ask?’

When I started off over 30 years ago in what I consider the best but most humbling job — Bible teaching– I was trained according to a model forwarded by Perry Miller.  Miller claimed the preacher is an expositor (so I wasn’t misled into thinking a sermon is to be a devotional chat, systematic theology lecturer, mystical message or Garrison Keillor-wannabe ramble).  Let the text, in its context, drive and shape the sermon.  Summarise your message in one ‘thesis statement’.  Whatever subordinate points you employ they should ONLY exist to further your thesis statement.  By they way, Miller strongly insisted that application should never wait to the end of the sermon but run throughout the entire sermon.

Many years later, when I returned to teach at a US Anglican theological college (US = seminary) students were using the expression ‘Big Idea’ which comes from the excellent work by Haddon Robinson.  As I listened to the method in practice (and one of the finest, clearest Anglican preachers in the States I knew at the time was Peter C Moore), it seemed eminently correct.

But here’s my question: on what grounds do we accept this assumption?  Stay with me here, please.

First, is this assumption largely a matter of rhetoric?  Is it largely a late-modernist device (Yikes! I hate using this cliche because some people love to blame everything on the Enlightenment and celebrate everything postmodern).  But for the sake of conversation, how much should the genre of the text suggest the rhetoric or homiletic?

Second, while a thesis statement/big idea is clearly helpful, do ALL Biblical genre lend themselves to this method?  For example, does narrative, poetry, apocalyptic or parable?  I want to be clear (although most people who hear me would privately tell you I am not) I think clarity is vital.  But is it possible that in my laudable desire for clarity I end up delivering a kind of reductionism — reducing the text to simple propositions which, in turn, could become either moralisms or trite cliche?

Third, what do people mean by the expression ‘one thing’?  Is it a thing to do?  A thing not to do?  A thing to think?  A thing to feel?  If the original question is a poorly phrased request for more application, fair enough.  On the other hand, and I don’t wish to be controversial here, could it be that sometimes, some people, want me to do their thinking/reading/reflecting and tell them ‘here is this week’s one thing’?  They don’t want irony, complexity, or, er, hard work.

So, what do others of you think?  Let me know…

  1. Thanks Gavin

    I resonate with the question and the reason for it!

    For sure, Haddon Robinson is very helpful on this one.

    I do still think that having ONE homiletical thread arising out of the exegetical flow of the text is a great assistance for preachers and congregations – particularly when the student is starting out … it is learning the basic pattern: to think clearly enough to be able to summarise succintly.

    I guess the mistake you are alluding too is when this model is misapplied without sensitivity to genre … story, narrative, parable, apocalyptic require us to wrap up the message in a different guise, sometimes leaving questions hanging and unanswered, or provoking new ones (after all, Jesus seemed to prefer this method).

    But, many new preachers need to be convinced that their job is not to try to say everything in the passage (ie, it needs synthesising into a central thesis) and that there is more to preaching that “teaching the bible” (it also includes the range of bible words from conversation to exhortation, to persuasion, to proclamation). For that reason, moving from exegetical to homiletical theme is an important basic concept and may well be the mainstay of much preaching.

    Will read other follow up with interest, thanks for the conversation starter!
    Simon Vibert

  2. Philip Wainwright permalink

    Hi Gavin–

    It seems to me the preacher’s job is to draw people’s attention to the text in the way that most helps them acknowledge its power. Many texts have more than one thing to say, and the preacher has to be careful not to leave people with the impression that they’ve ‘done’ that one, and have now heard all that there is to say about it.

    Having said that, though, there certainly are times in the life of any Christian community where one thing above all needs to be said. I suppose the best way of coping with that is to come back to the same passage before too long, showing that there is more to be heard than the vitally important point we recently made!

  3. good food for thought, Gavin.
    thanks for sharing.


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