One Sermon, One Message

by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches

What Preachers and Teachers of Homiletics Say

Many well-known preachers and teachers of homiletics believe that every sermon must have only one message. The following are just a few quotes.

Haddon Robinson, “Students of public speaking and preaching have argued for centuries that effective communication demands a single theme. Rhetoricians hold to this so strongly that virtually every textbook devotes some space to a treatment of the principle. Terminology may vary—central idea, proposition, theme, thesis statement, main thought—but the concept is the same: an effective speech centers on one specific thing, a central idea.”1

John Stott, “…there is a second reason why we should look for each text’s dominant thought, namely that one of the chief ways in which a sermon differs from a lecture is that it aims to convey only one major message.”2

Fred Craddock, “It is better to forget about points. The question is, “What is the point?”…Because the preacher can state his point in one simple sentence, he knows the destination of the trip that will be his sermon. He knows where he is going.”3

Andy Stanley, “Every time I stand to communicate I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and know what to do with it.”4

I’m a firm believer of the “one sermon, one message” homiletical principle. The diagram below is a useful visual to help preachers keep the main message the main focus in their sermons.

The Passage Determines the Message

The first thing a preacher needs to do before he maps out his (or her) sermon is to determine the message the Lord wants him to bring to his listeners. This must arise or be derived from the text(s) he is preaching from. In other words, the passage determines the message. The preacher would be unfaithful to Scripture (and to the Author of the Word) if he were to read something into the text that is not there.

This does not mean that a passage of Scripture cannot have a number of possible messages. The parable of the Lost Son, for example, may be used to preach different messages. The message depends on the preacher’s focus; is it on the prodigal son, the elder brother or the father? The message arising from a focus on the prodigal son may be about repentance, while that on the elder brother may be about self-righteousness, and the one on the father may be about unconditional love. The important factor that cannot be compromised is that the message must be faithful to sound exegesis of the passage.

The Message Drives the Sermon

Once the message has been determined the preacher needs to keep the message constantly in view throughout his preparation. It should be written down in a place where he can easily cast his eyes to help him keep the composition of the sermon on track with the message. He must ensure that the message is driving the sermon.

By this I don’t mean that the message has to be stated at the beginning of the sermon. The message can be stated at a much later part of the sermon. In this case, the earlier parts serve to move the sermon towards the message, or to unravel the message. This is now narrative sermons are often constructed, to create interest and to intrigue the listener.

Not only must the message drive the sermon; everything in the sermon must serve the main message. This includes the sub-points, illustrations or applications. When discipline is not exercised, the result is overcrowding. Too many are things said, too many diversion chasing after rabbit trails (one is too many). As a result the message is blurred and the impact is lost.

Preacher, let me encourage you to have only one message in your sermon. And everything else in your sermon serves the message. Your illustrations serve to help your listeners visualise the message. And your applications serve to help your listeners actualise the message.

As the saying goes, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!”

6 thoughts on “One Sermon, One Message

  1. I like these important statements that you wrote.
    “The preacher would be unfaithful to Scripture (and to the Author of the Word) if he were to read something into the text that is not there.” That would be eisegesis, not exegesis.
    “The important factor that cannot be compromised is that the message must be faithful to sound exegesis of the passage.” Is the message of the passage what the human (& divine) author wanted to convey?
    Thanks for the reminder and pointers!

    • Hi Mok, I appreciate your comments. In my opinion, a good sermon is both faithful to the Bible text and focussed. Having only one message that arises from the text goes a long way to fulfil the criteria.

  2. Dear Ps. Lim, when I listen to a message, one of the essential elements that I look forward to: Where is the Preacher in the sermon- as it shall show his originality and genuineness in application ( much better than cut and paste from others- of course understanding that he/ she might have little experience in relations to the message).

    • Hi Pr Charlie, thank you for your comment. I believe if a person is called to be a preacher then he (or she) should make good effort to continually develop his ministry of preaching. For starters, a preacher should always be mindful that he must be faithful to the Bible text(s) his preaching from. That should be a given. But unfortunately, it is not always the case. Then, I think the next most important matter is clarity. I believe preachers need to have a clear message in every sermon. And having a single message (big idea) is critical to an effective sermon. Then, creativity – to keep the listeners engaged and interested to hear more of the sermon. Of course, we should not forget our total dependence on the Holy Spirit throughout the whole process from preparation to presentation.

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