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 how 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, and applications. When discipline is not exercised, the result is overcrowding. Too many things are said, too many diversions 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!”