Have you ever sat through a sermon you couldn’t follow? You know the kind I’m talking about? Where the pastor is making a lot of, possibly interesting, points and observations, but you’re exactly sure how they all fit together? Now, it may be the case that you simply have a poor attention span and the listening skills of a junior higher. OR, it may be that the sermon lacked what the quality of ‘unity’, of actually having a singular, cohesive point that the preacher was aiming to communicate. When it’s not there, it’s pretty hard to find.
Preachers, especially young ones fresh out of seminary, you must struggle with the task of presenting to your people an actual message from the text, instead of a bunch of rambling observations, or disjointed exegetical insights. As interesting or complex as a passage or story might be, it’s okay to honor the text by acknowledging the inherent of it’s actual message (especially since its author probably had one in mind when they penned it.)
Speaking to the issue of unity in his book Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (pp. 46-47), Bryan Chapell gives would-be preachers two basic, but key steps to ascertaining the unifying theme of a text:
- Read the text with an eye towards finding the main idea the writer is communicating in the text, or a sub-theme with enough exegetical support from the text to be the point of an entire message.
- Boil that down into a simple sentence.
Sounds simple enough in theory, right? The problem is that many of us can’t really force ourselves to do that. If you’re fresh out of seminary, you’re too tempted to write out some complex thesis statement with 15 modifiers, sub-clauses, and so forth, because, hey, that’s what your profs liked in your exegesis class. This was one thing my old boss Jay always emphasized with me during my internship, because I tended to think in paragraphs, not pithy sentences.
Knowing this difficulty, Chapell gives a helpful (and challenging) test for preachers to determine whether or not their sermon has the unity of focus that it requires for their hearers:
You will have unity when you can demonstrate that the elements of the passage support the theme of your message and you can pass the “3 a.m. test.” The 3:00 am test requires you to imagine a spouse, a roommate, or parishioner waking you from your slumber with this simple question: “What’s the sermon about today, Preacher?” If you cannot give a crisp answer, the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3:00 a.m. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:00 a.m. (ibid., pg. 47)
So what does would that look like? Chapell gives two examples, one of the sort that’s a good seminary thesis, but fails for a sermon:
When the sinful nation of Israel went into exile, its messianic hope and vision were mistakenly and faithlessly diminished because pre-Ezran and pre-Nehemiac proofs of God’s sovereign plan, purpose, and intentions for his people were obscured in Babylonian circumstances of incarceration and oppression that would not be relieved until the Persian emancipation and further covenantal revelation in advancing redemptive history.
And one that you could actually preach:
God remains faithful to his people.
Seeing it put that starkly, some pastors, especially the younger, bookish, ultra-academic ones, might chafe at this sort of abridgement. I know because part of me still does as well. That said, after 2 1/2 years of preaching to college students, I can attest that Chapell’s 3 a.m. test, while seeming a bit stringent, is probably a good rule of thumb.
Realize, Chapell is not advocating for simplistic exposition of the text, or avoiding delving into historical complexities, or even using words like ‘messianic.’ The point is that having a clear, concise, thesis statement gives you a base upon which you can organize all of those complexities in a coherent framework for your people to follow. Whether you state it up front, or weave it subtly throughout, simply having it will focus your sermon construction and keep it from becoming a rambling mess that the Spirit has to work despite, not through. And that’s a good thing, right? Right.
So, pastors, if you’re looking to preach in a fashion that your people actually understand the point you’re driving at, don’t forget the 3:00 a.m. test.
Soli Deo Gloria