Preaching: Simple, not Simplistic
“Preparing a sermon is like cooking a meal. You need pots and pans and utensils, but you don’t bring them out to the table where people are eating.” – Derek Thomas
The task of a preacher is to read the text, explain the text, and apply the text – simply. A temptation for seminary graduates like myself, and preachers generally (especially in the Reformed tradition) is to preach what should remain in the study.
Did you know, according to Steve Lawson’s chapter in a recent book on John Calvin [aff. link], Calvin never mentioned an original Greek or Hebrew word in a sermon?
The kind of sermon that falls to this temptation, says Derek Thomas in Feed My Sheep [aff. link], “sounds like a lecture because it is a lecture. It titillates the intellect, but fails to minister to the affections.”
The difficulty, the art, the skill of preaching, is the ability to take the serious and thorough study of the original languages, time spent in prayer, commentaries, journals, etc., and prepare an edible spiritual meal for hungry sheep.
Leave the pots and pans in the kitchen.
“For preachers, clarity is a moral matter. It is not merely a question of rhetoric, but a matter of life and death.” – Haddon W. Robinson
In his book Biblical Preaching [aff. link], Haddon W. Robinson discusses the issue of clarity and simplicity. He reminds preachers that “a sermon is not deep because it is muddy.” He then shares a quote I’ve shared before on the blog, and a quote that echoes often in my mind when I’m preparing a sermon:
“No man knows anything about higher mathematics until he can explain it clearly to the man on the street.” – Jules Henri Poincaré (French Mathematician)
If you’ve truly understood something, you should be able to explain it simply and clearly.
Remember, it’s easy when addressing especially difficult subjects to do so in an obscure way, making use of unclear words. It’s easy because then most people won’t have a clue if you actually know what you’re talking about. Let’s leave that to public intellectuals.
We’re preachers. We speak to people (not faculty members of a seminary). We should desire to be simple and clear, and by God’s grace, those who hear the Word of God preached will know and believe it too.
Don’t Be Simplistic
The call to simple preaching is not a call to simplistic preaching. The word of God still needs to be expounded, deep truths revealed, theology taught, and solid and deep foundations laid. With skill, all of this can be achieved simply.
In R.C. Sproul’s book The Hunger for Significance [aff. link], he warns against the error of oversimplification as he tells the story of the learned theologian and the distinguished professor of astronomy:
The astronomer was disdainful of religion, poking fun at the theologian for making simple matters so complicated. He said, “You theologians merely confuse people with your complex theories of supralapsarianism, eschatology, ubiquity, and forensic justification. To me religion is simple; it’s the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.'”
“I think I understand what you mean,” replied the theologian. “I have a similar frustration with astronomers. You fellows confuse me with your theories of expanding universes, galactical perturbations and exploding novae. For me astronomy is very simple, it’s ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star….'”
If we expect a Doctor to be clear and simple when explaining a treatment and the directions for taking his prescription, how much more should we expect this of preachers whom the Puritans often called “physicians of the soul”.
If you’re not a preacher, consider this an area you can pray for your pastor in, and may it be a reminder of the enormous task they have each week.