by David Cook
Interact Magazine 1990
Volume 1 Number 2
‘These three remain, faith, hope and charity,
but the greatest of these is clarity’
After leaving school I studied Economics at University, and the Reserve Bank employed me in its International Research branch. My job was to read the Wall Street Journal, the London Times and Financial Times and the Economist and to summarise important articles. All of this, I’m sure, contributed to my ability to summarise and structure preaching material. It’s encouraging to note how God uses our backgrounds to prepare us for future ministry.
In the first article in this series I stressed the need to be expository, to respect the Bible. Now I want to stress the need to respect the congregation, by being clear.
In Colossians 4:4 Paul sees clarity as his obligation: ‘Pray that I may proclaim it (the mystery of Christ) clearly, as I should.‘
A woman went to hear Spurgeon and commented, ‘It was the most superficial grocer’s back verandah view of Calvanistic Christianity. His popularity is proof of the low mental pitch of society.’ Spurgeon responded, ‘I shall feel much at fault if the children in the congregation cannot understand what I teach.’
Listen again to him: ‘Christ said feed my lambs – some preachers put the food so high that the lambs can’t reach it. They have read the text to be, ‘Feed my giraffes’.’
In Preaching and Preachers, Lloyd Jones says that some of the first advice given to him as a preacher was that only 1 in 12 of his congregation was really intelligent and that he was overtaxing people too much with the volume of his material.
Our background in Theological and Bible Colleges may make us insensitive at this point. We may well be overtaxing our people, giving them far too much to cope with.
Six Hints on How to Develop Clarity and Simplicity
1. Learn to isolate the one dominant thought of the Bible Passage.
Haddon Robinson calls this getting the ‘Big Idea.’ Get yourself into the habit of summarising the big idea in one sentence. This is the truth you wish to see embedded in the congregation’s mind.
When you read the newspaper, notice how the editors have done this for you with their headlining.
2. Work hard on structuring your material.
Too often we preach for 20 minutes or so, and whilst people listen to the good material, it is not memorable because it is unstructured. It is like a body of flesh without a skeleton.
Get used to writing things down in point form. Two or three points are usually the easiest to remember.
Some people give the points of their structure alliterated titles. I avoid it because it often gives the impression that structure has been imposed on the passage.
3. Be dialogical – Anticipate questions in the minds of your hearers.
See how Paul does this in Rom.3:1, 6:1,15 and 7:7,13. One of the features of Billy Graham’s preaching is to hear his say, ‘But Billy, you may ask …’
4. Clarity is not served by quotations – beware of quoting commentators.
I have a rule that unless I can memorise the quote (that means it needs to be short) I don’t use it. To many quotes take away from your authority and the authority of God’s Word and often only muddy the water.
5. Watch the words you use.
There is a temptation for all of us to parade our learning by using words like ‘a priori argument,’ ‘presuppositionalism,’ ‘Shekinah glory’ etc., subtly indicating that we know Hebrew or Greek. A common example I have heard is the reference to Israel as ‘Hisrael.’ Beware of parading your learning. In my experience, the best intellects are able to present their message in the simplest way without being simplistic.
Always go for the straightforward, concrete word. On the other hand, beware of slang – Kylie Mole might be funny on TV, but not in the pulpit.
6. Read the Sermons of Bishop J C Ryle.
Marcus Loane in his biography of Ryle said, ‘His style achieved one main purpose – he kept the farmers awake on a mid summer afternoon and they could not mistake his meaning.’ Read his address ‘Simplicity in Preaching’ published by Banner of Truth in the book The Upper Room. Not only is his material excellent, but the way he shapes it is a model for the man seeking to be clear.
Ryle was known as the working man’s Bishop. He said, ‘To attain simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance, but it is no easy matter.’
Respect the word – be a faithful expositor.
Respect the congregation – be a clear expositor.
Rev David Cook, a Presbyterian Minister, served in several churches before becoming Principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College.
© David Cook (1 July 1990)