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#PreacherProblems Part 1: “Precision vs. Simplicity”

This is the start of a short blog series from me and a few of my friends. Since many preachers spend Monday mornings replaying their sermons– figuratively or literally–I figured this would be a good time to reflect on the weighty and complex task we’ve agreed to undertake each Sunday. None of us preach perfectly. Furthermore, I would argue that preaching involves embracing so many different angles and tensions that one may never be quite certain what the mark is when evaluating whether or not our sermons have hit it. I think we can all learn from one another, perhaps by wrestling out loud together…to gather round a common coffee table on a Monday morning and reflect together on what this strange and wonderful endeavor called preaching is all about. So, pull up a chair.


In hindsight, I should never have taken it as a compliment. ‘Your sermon reminded me of by Bible College days’, he said warmly. I glowed. It was my first sermon at New Life Church, a little more than 10 years ago now. I took it as praise, but it should have been a clue– a clue that I had tried to say too much in too short of a space. A friend gently noted that he had wished I would’ve given the people a chance to get to know me, my story.

What was my sermon? It was essentially my senior paper– a thesis on the Christo-centric dimension of Trinitarian worship– shoehorned into a 30-minute talk, attractively titled, “It’s All About Jesus”.

It’s taken me several years to learn the difference between a sermon and a lecture. I’ve been greatly helped by books like “Communicating For A Change” and “Made To Stick”, and went through a stretch where my sermon really was about only one thing. These days, there are more ‘points’, but I try to make the sermon feel like several ‘movements’ and less like a list.

But as I’ve preached weekly now for 5 1/2 years– not all that long, I know– I’m still struggling with the tension.

It seems to me that the most precise way of saying a thing is not often the simplest; and the simplest way of saying a thing is not often the most precise.

How then should we preach?

I know that many preachers opt for the simplest way of saying a thing in order to be great communicators or because, for them, it’s all about getting the Gospel heard. But simplicity has a way of becoming reductionistic and can lead to a host of other questions: What do they mean by ‘the Gospel’? Is it a ‘salvation plan’, a ‘decision moment’? Will ‘putting truth on the bottom shelf’ result in churches being full of people with an imprecise understanding of faith and of the Scripture? Is simplicity plus style the formula for making more popular preachers but fewer learners?

On the other hand, I’ve read far too many academic books that are chock full of jargon and stocked with qualifiers at every turn, that it’s nearly impossible to ascertain the point that the author is trying to make (or even if there is one, since, after all, in academic work, who could be so arrogant as to say anything with confidence and certainty?).

So it seems that precision and simplicity lie at opposite ends of a spectrum, and we are left to flit about between them.

There may not be a way to eliminate this tension, nor might we want to. But there could be a way to live within it. It has to do with language.

I think preachers must aim not just to say things simply, but to teach people how to think, and therefore to be more precise. And if we are going to be more precise, we must employ words from another world. This means teaching people a new language, giving them a new lexicon with words like Gospel, Kingdom, covenantal, and more. The preacher, then, is not simply a ‘communicator‘ or even a ‘translator‘ (of theology into the ‘language of our day’)…but a language instructor in the vocabulary of faith.

The parables of Jesus are an example of this. Jesus told stories not as illustrations but as invitations— invitations into a new world, a world where God is truly King. The parables didn’t offer clarity; if anything, they left people scratching their heads. But that’s just it: it made them think. It made them want to hear more, ask more, pray more. Why would a father run out of his house to greet his wayward son? Why would a shepherd leave 99 of his sheep in search of one? Why would a Samaritan stop and help a beaten and bloodied Jew? True, in some ways the parables were neither precise nor simple. But they are a way of using words that invite us into a more nuanced way of seeing both the world and ourselves. (For example, in the story of the prodigal son: We are the older brother and the younger brother, and yet we are called to grow up to be like the Father.)

Paradigm shifts, I suspect, don’t come from lectures or from clever soundbites. But if we can teach people a new language, then maybe, just maybe, we can invite them to explore a new reality.

Here’s one of my favorite clips from one of my favorite shows, The West Wing, on why ’10 Word Answers’ may be a trick on the political circuit but bankrupt for dealing with real issues. Set aside the politics (if you can), and listen. “Complexity”, as press secretary CJ Craig says, “is not a vice.”


Read Part 2 HERE.

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