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 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!”

3D Sermon Matrix

by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches


I’m sure you’ve discovered for yourself that sermons come in different forms. To help you recognise the different types of sermons I’ve put together a three-dimensional sermon matrix. When you view a sermon through the matrix you will be able to determine its type.


The first dimension looks at whether a sermon is (1) topical, (2) textual or (3) narrative. A topical sermon is centred around a subject matter such as Integrity, The End Times, or a Bible character like Abraham. The topic then determines the Bible texts to be used. They may be taken from any part of Scripture as long as they are relevant to the subject. On the other hand, a textual sermon starts with the Bible text. The text may be a verse, a passage or even a whole book, which then determines the contents of the sermon.

The narrative sermon is not so easily defined as there are varied views about what it is. One important view is that the narrative sermon is not just a sermon based on a Bible story. For that matter, it may not even have any stories in it. Rather, what the narrative sermon employs are the elements found in stories; such as tension, resolution, and plot, which shape the sermon.

You may have noticed that I’ve not included “expository” in the list. I believe all sermons should be expository. By “expository” I mean the message must be derived from and be faithful to the Bible text. In other words, a topical sermon must be no less faithful to the Bible texts that it is based on as much as a textual sermon. A topical or narrative sermon is to be just as expository as a textual sermon.


The second dimension is about whether a sermon is (1) deductive, or (2) inductive. In plain terms, a deductive sermon begins with a thesis or a proposition. The rest of the sermon is an elaboration of the thesis or a presentation of the points that support the proposition. The inductive sermon is the exact opposite. The preacher takes the listener with him (or her) along the journey of detection until both arrive at the conclusion or message together. Simply put, the deductive sermon is declarative while the inductive sermon is discovery.


The third dimension concerns how the speaker perceives his role in the pulpit. Does he see himself as a (1) teacher, (2) preacher, (3) evangelist, or (4) counsellor? A speaker can assume any one of the four role-types depending on his gifting and his philosophy of preaching, which might be modified depending on the crowd he is addressing and the purpose of the sermon.

What I’m going to say next is certainly an oversimplification, but it will give you an idea of how a speaker might present his sermon if he were inclined to be one of the above types. A teacher would spend more time explaining the Bible text so that his listeners understand the truth of the Scripture he is addressing. A preacher would be more focussed on bringing home the sermon’s message and moving the people to act on it. An evangelist’s prime objective is get the Gospel message to the unbelievers in the crowd. While a counsellor is concerned about giving good biblical and Christian counsel through his sermon to help and encourage his listeners.

viewing through the 3D sermon matrix

A sermon then, can be a combination of any of the elements from the three dimensions. Some elements come together much more naturally. For example, teachers tend to be more textual and deductive. A narrative sermon by definition would be inductive. On the other hand, a topical or evangelistic sermon may be approached deductively or inductively.

I appreciate that many sermons may not be so easily classified as one type or another. Nonetheless, analysing sermon types using this 3D sermon matrix is helpful to understand a preacher’s approach to his sermon presentation. And if you are a preacher, the matrix will help you understand your default mode of sermon presentation. Maybe, now that you’ve learnt something from the 3D sermon matrix it will help you venture to try out other types of sermon presentations.

Seeking God (Part 3): Prayer Posture

(For Part 1 click here)

(For Part 2 click here)

In this third and last of my three-part post on seeking God I want to elaborate on what Jeremiah 29:13-14 says about our prayer posture as we seek God.

Firstly, the Lord EXPECTS us to seek Him. In the verse the Lord says, “You will seek me.” It is not If you want to, or Should you want to, or I hope you will—it is, you will. God expects us to seek Him. Truth be told, God commands it. For what purpose? Primarily that we may know Him. And when we know Him we will know His will, and desire to align ourselves to Him and do His will.

Secondly, we are to seek God EXCLUSIVELY. That is to say, it is God and God alone who we are to seek. For new and young believers, especially those who have come out from other religions and hence, who have previously worshipped other gods, what this means is that there is no place for syncretism. Jesus is not one of the many gods that we worship. He is the only God whom we are to worship and seek. The problem of the Israelites during Jeremiah’s time was that they added the gods of the surrounding nations into their worship, and as a result they were led away from God. That was the principal reason the Lord judged the nation of Israel and sent the people into exile.

For those of us who have been Christians a little longer this may not be a problem. However, there may be a subtle and even greater danger—that we go seeking for counsel and help from elsewhere instead of seeking God first. Or we may run from one church to another or one conference to another—hoping to find some magic formula to lift our lives. The Lord says, “You will seek me.” Prayer must be the first, last and also undergird everything we do.

Thirdly, the Lord says, “seek me with all your heart.” That is, with the ENTIRETY of your heart, or wholeheartedly. Seeking God calls for effort and discipline. It is an effort of the heart—of wanting God, waiting upon Him, desiring to hear from Him and realigning ourselves to Him and His agenda.

A classic example in the Bible is Nehemiah. When we read his story and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem we often think of Nehemiah as action man. He was always doing something: evaluating, planning, strategising, giving instructions, even physically helping to rebuild the walls, contending with the opposition and dealing with rebellious people. If that is all we thought of Nehemiah—as action man—we have gotten him very wrong.

What was the very first thing that Nehemiah did when his brother told him of the sorry state of Jerusalem? Nehemiah 1:4 tells us, “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” Nehemiah’s first response to the news was prayer and fasting. And when you eavesdrop into his prayer you can hear the depth of his feelings; how he sought the Lord with all his heart. It was during this four months of seeking God (four months had passed between Chapter 1:1 and 2:1) that he understood the heart of the Lord for Jerusalem. It was in his time of prayer when the Lord told Nehemiah what He wanted him to do.

This dovetails into the fourth element we find in Jeremiah 29:13-14. The Lord says, “I will be found by you.” That’s God’s promise, or the result of what happens when we seek the Lord with all our hearts. From another perspective—this is where faith kicks in. Earlier on we learnt that the Lord expects us to seek Him. Now, here is His promise—that we can expect to find Him, to hear from Him and to encounter Him. That is to say, pray EXPECTANTLY—pray with faith, believing we will see the Lord and hear from Him.

Lim Soon Hock Empowering Churches

Seeking God (Part 2): Importance of Alignment

(For Part 1 click here)

In the previous post I said that in order for us to do the God-thing, we need to hear from the Lord, and in order for us to hear from the Lord we need to seek Him.

The classic Scripture that is often quoted in reference to this is Jeremiah 29:13, “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord….”

This was said in the context of a prophecy to the exiles about what they were to do while they were in Babylon and coupled with a promise that the Lord would bring them back to Israel (Jer 29:1, 4-9, 10-14). After the Lord had made known His plans to the exiles He then told them to “seek me.”

This whole scenario begs a question: why seek the Lord when He has already made His plans known to the exiles? It’s like knocking on your boss’s door when he had just told you what he wants you to do. If you did that you’d probably get an earful!

In the context of Jeremiah 29:13, obviously seeking God is not simply about hearing what the Lord has to say—they had just heard from Him. Seeking God in this case was about the exiles aligning themselves to Him and His purpose. It is one thing to know what the Lord wants—it is another thing to align ourselves to what He says.


Israel’s problem was not that they didn’t know what the Lord wanted. He had sent numerous prophets to bring them the “word of the Lord.” Israel’s problem was that she did not heed the word, and that was the reason for Jerusalem’s destruction and the Israelites taken into exile. The people were rebellious—they did not seek the Lord and align themselves to God and His purpose.

Patrick Morley (Man in the Mirror) says, “The turning point in our lives is when we stop seeking the god we want and start seeking the God who is.” An idol is precisely just that—a god we want, a god of our own making. And the Lord will not have us fashion Him after our own image.

“Seek Me” is still the word of the Spirit today no matter where you are in your spiritual journey. Whether you are a young believer or a mature Christian of many years. The same call also goes out to the corporate church—we must continually seek God so that we may not only hear what He has to say to us, but also that we may align ourselves to Him and His purpose.

Lim Soon Hock Empowering Churches

(For Part 3 click here)

Seeking God (Part 1): First Thing

It was my first Sunday at the new church; my first message to the congregation. What would I say? I think most pastors struggle. I did. Not that I don’t have anything to say. If you are a fairly seasoned pastor, you have, in fact, too many things to say; so many issues to address; so many things to do. But what should be the first thing on the agenda?

As I spoke, I said to the church, “I don’t know what your expectations are. But, then again, maybe I do. In a crowd like this the expectations are many and varied. You may have gone along on the same journey, but perceptions are different, interpretation of events are different, internalisation of the experiences are different. And depending on what you feel is important you will also expect those things to be addressed as quickly as possible. They are all valid and good. We are all good Christians who want no less than the good of the church. But good must give way to…?”

I stopped for a dramatic pause.  Not expecting any kind of verbal response from this fairly conservative middle class medium-size congregation. But an extrovert shot out, “Better!” I hesitated. Seeing that was not quite what I was looking for, she shouted out again, “Best! Good must give way to best!

I said, “That’s good, but it’s not good enough. Good must give way to?… God! And it’s more than just dropping an “o”. There is a huge gap between good and God. It is God we want, not just good. It is God that we want to glorify, not to showcase how good our church is. That means, we must want to do the God-thing, not just good things.”

In order for us to do the God-thing, we need to hear from the Lord—to hear what His agenda is for the church or our ministry, our life and our vocation. Sometimes we run ahead of God, doing things He never meant for us to do. More often than not, we lag way behind, failing to do what He says we are to do. However, I think, the reality is that we haven’t a clue what God is up to, because we have not been listening to what He’s been saying. To do the God-thing, it is imperative that we hear from the Lord. And in order to hear from the Lord, we need to seek Him. That’s the first thing on our agenda—to seek God for His agenda, whether it’s for our life or for the church.

Lim Soon Hock Empowering Churches

(For Part 2 click here)

Preaching the Same Sermon Again (…and again)

When I was pastoring a church I preached largely to the same people each Sunday. Obviously, it had to be a different sermon. That’s the challenge of a pastor: to bring a fresh message from the Word to the same faithfuls. The upside is that it keeps you studying and growing, besides stretching your creativity so that the faithful won’t find you boring.

Now that I am no longer a pastor of a church, I get to preach in different churches. The temptation for me is to choose my “better” sermons and recycle them. After all, as someone said, “If a sermon is not worth repeating, it is not worth preaching in the first place!” The downside is that it can make a preacher lazy; you don’t study as much anymore, so you don’t enlarge and grow. Furthermore, recycled sermons will not come out as fresh as when you first prepared and preached it to the original group.

I believe the same applies to seminars. Something that I am doing much more now than I used to when I was pastoring a church. Usually it will be a seminar from among my repertoire that you find listed in the website’s Seminar page ( But just as often I will be asked to do something that’s not in the list. My first reaction would be, “Oh boy, more work!” But, inevitably it will turn out to be better for everyone, including me.

It’s good for those at the receiving end because they get something fresh; not something that I just pull out from the files. It will be material that I have taken time to research and study, thought and worked through from almost ground zero. “Almost”, because I can only teach on areas that I am fairly well versed in; I will not teach on a subject that I have little understanding or experience.

Furthermore, as I am preparing to teach this new material I will inevitably be thinking of the people or the church, and the context of their experience. In other words, I tailor-make the content, structure and style of the seminar to them.

The bottom line for all of us preachers and teachers of the Word is that we need to keep ourselves spiritually fresh so that there is a freshness when we preach and teach, even if we might be reusing a sermon or seminar material. If a sermon or seminar doesn’t excite you anymore, even if has a proven track record, don’t preach or teach it. It won’t come-off in the same way—it won’t take off. We are short-changing the people who have come to listen to us.

If I were to repeat a sermon or seminar material I would rework it; throw out the not-so-useful stuff and add in new and better material. I would ask the Holy Spirit to tell me what I should emphasize for this particular group of people or church. I would try and tailor-make it for the people who have so graciously invited me to minister to them. Most of all I want to honour Jesus who called me to this awesome service!