Seven years ago this time I was getting ready to study preaching under Haddon Robinson. I still remember sitting in the airport cramming on a final assignment: to study a number of passages, and to write a one-sentence summary of the overarching idea of that passage.
Looking back, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I had been preaching for more than 13 years and had studied Haddon’s book
in seminary, but I hadn’t developed the discipline of big-idea preaching. I didn’t see its value, and I didn’t realize how hard it is. I’m convinced that many preachers don’t get the big idea either, and they don’t know what they’re missing.
Why The Big Idea is Important
Haddon isn’t alone in arguing for the importance of a big idea in preaching. Check out this list, found in the excellent new book When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search
by Chris Brauns:
A sermon should be a bullet, not a buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture. (Haddon Robinson)
I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study. To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness – this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon. (J.H. Jowett)
Make sure every expository message so that it is crystal clear so that your people know exactly what you are saying, how you have supported it, and how it is applied to their lives. (John MacArthur)
The approach we are developing throughout this book assumes that a communicator has a destination in mind; a single idea they want to communicate; a specific thing he or she wants to accomplish. And once that point, that idea, that destination is clear, then the goal is to bend everything in the message towards that one thing. (Andy Stanley)
The 3 a.m. test requires you to imagine [someone] awakening you from your deepest slumber with this simple question: “What’s the sermon today about, Pastor?” If you cannot give a crisp answer, you know the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3 a.m are not likely to be caught by others at 11 a.m. (Bryan Chapell)
Worried that this is an idea that’s foreign to Scripture? Keith Willhite makes the case in The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching
that this approach is not only ideal from the perspective of communications, but also from the perspective of exegesis and hermeneutics based on a high view of Scripture.
Why don’t preachers do this? I can only reflect on why I didn’t. First, I didn’t see the value. Second, this is hard work. Third, I didn’t have a lot of good models. There are probably other reasons that we need to address, because we need more of this kind of preaching.
But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of wrestling with a text until you get the big idea. It’s such an important part of preaching. I’m finding that many students don’t get this. It’s fun to watch the lights come on as they struggle and then experience the clarity that comes from this approach to reading and preaching Scripture.
Haddon’s book Biblical Preaching
is a valuable guide to learning what an idea is and how to form it. Trust me, it’s harder than it seems. But it’s worth it.
The Big Idea in the Rest of Life
That’s enough, but there’s actually more. A writer interviewed Haddon when he was in town. She told me after that she found the big idea concept useful in writing. The power of this approach is that it helps with thinking in general.
If you want to think critically, then you really need to be able to discern the big idea of what you read and consume. You know, for instance, that movies communicate messages. It’s really helpful to watch a movie and then to try to discern the big idea that they’re trying to communicate.
The big idea is not just useful for preaching. It actually makes you a better thinker, which is useful for all of life.