Seeking simplicity in your sermons

How clear are your sermons? Listening to an unclear sermon is like being on a road-trip with an unknown destination. Clarity is a key feature of effective communication. In this article, preaching Professor Dr. Matthew McKellar explains how you can bring clarity to your sermons for effective preaching.

The concept of simplicity, the quality of being easy to understand, is vitally important for those who preach. The word “clarity” is often cited as a synonym for simplicity. I’m pretty sure that you would affirm the need for clarity in your sermons. The challenging and practical question, then, is this: What can the preacher do to enhance the clarity of his sermons?

In preacher-like fashion, let me encourage you to consider three areas where a commitment to clarity may be applied.

Linguistically

Aim for clarity in the language you use in your sermon. This means that you need to be a wordsmith. Some have pushed back against this requirement, appealing to Paul’s disavowal of lofty speech in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2. I would counter that the same Paul writes of seeking to persuade in 2 Corinthians 5:11. Certainly, you should not place your ultimate confidence in the concise and correct language of your sermon. Only the Holy Spirit, using the words you speak, can fuel the fire that brings lasting change in the lives of those to whom you preach. That being understood, since you are conveying the most precious and powerful message any could receive, clarity is indeed a worthy goal.

This clarity is enhanced through what one of my preaching professors, Dr. Scott Tatum, referred to as using an “economy of words.” In one class lecture, he pointed out that preachers often excel in saying the same thing in twenty-seven different ways! Clarity demands the removal of verbal filler and an intentional choice of words that carry weight. One of the best ways to achieve an economy of words is to commit yourself to the writing of a sermon manuscript. While I never recommend taking a manuscript into the pulpit, the value of writing out what one plans to say in the sermon is of inestimable value in terms of its contribution to the overall clarity of the sermon.

Another insight I would offer in the linguistic realm is the value of using plain and simple words. Cut the question of “Are you living in light of the anticipated eschaton?” and replace it with “Are you living in light of Christ’s return?” Resist the appeal of big words when small ones will convey meaning just as well. Avoid overloading sentences with adjectives. Aim to paint simple and descriptive pictures with the words you speak.

Thematically

Every sermon you preach should have an overarching theme. It is frequently called the thesis or main idea of the sermon. Essentially, after careful historical, contextual and grammatical study of a text, you should aim to summarize its primary thrust in a single, concise sentence of 15-20 words. Until you are able to do this, your sermon probably isn’t ready to preach. After all, if you aren’t clear about what the sermon is about, why should you expect hearers to gain a grasp of it?

I am convinced that a clear thesis statement is probably the single factor that contributes the most to a sermon’s clarity. This sentence statement has a distinct impact on the content and structure of the sermon. Agonizing over it for a bit is a challenging but productive exercise. 

To maximize the impact of the thesis, I encourage my students to think of it in terms of a sentence that includes both a subject (what is true) and a complement (what to do). I also stress that their thesis should be timeless and concise (no unnecessary words) statement that summarizes the sermon. With such a focus, a thesis for the account of Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 could look like this: Because God displays His strength against the backdrop of your weakness, you can rejoice in your unplucked thorn.

Structurally

Using the appropriate sermon structure has a decided impact on clarity. Old Testament Narratives and New Testament parables call for an inductive structure. This is because they are stories and the climactic parts of those stories usually come near their conclusions. Therefore, don’t slap a deductive three points and a poem structure on a narrative text. Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon. To enhance clarity in the inductive structure and to avoid giving the impression of simply offering a running commentary on the text, use a key phrase or sentence as a major point for each of the successive scenes or movements in the text. Then, only after working through the text, deliver the thesis.

When preaching decidedly deductive texts like most of the New Testament epistles, be sure to apply the deductive model. This means that your thesis will be presented in the introduction of the sermon and the explanation of the text will follow it. In the interest of maximized clarity, use a complete sentence rather than a word or phrase for each major point. Ideally, the major point should be a short declarative sentence that uses a strong, active verb. You should avoid “is,” “have” and “be” in major point expressions. The use of strong, active verbs can highlight the principle of application. “Avoid conformity to the world” has more force and appeal than “Don’t be conformed to the world.”

Let your words, thesis, and structure in the sermon bear the distinct marks of simplicity. The Lord will be honored and your hearers will be blessed!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I think that this is a great article making an often missed point among us preachers. I agree and after almost thirty years of full-time ministry I work hard to use the best words and the most appropriate words.
    I will disagree with one point, I take a full manuscript into the pulpit every Sunday, but I doubt if anyone of my listeners are aware of it. Having worked on crafting, changing and hopefully improving my sermon I know the sermon pretty well, and so I don’t need to read the sermon before me.

    1. Avatar

      Great Points Brian! Thank you for your faithfulness in preaching for almost 30 years…that is awesome!

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