thinking man

The Big Question

One of the finest preachers I have heard is Haddon Robinson, who was the Harold J. Ockenga, Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon Cornwell Theological Seminary, in the United States.

Haddon Robinson visited SMBC for two Preachers’  Conferences in 1995 and 1999 and his preaching had a great impact on us.

His book on preaching, ‘Biblical Preaching’, continues to be very influential in the world of expository preaching.

The central thesis of the book is that preaching preparation ought to lead the preacher to reduce his text to one big idea, a single sentence which encapsulates the content of the  Bible passage. Indeed the Wikipedia entry on Dr Robinson lists his notable ideas as: ‘The big idea, Biblical Preaching’.

Many of us battle with engaging our congregations in the sermon, too often our preaching may sound like a lecture and feel like a knowledge dump, with little practical relevance to contemporary life.

Even if we successfully isolate the text’s big idea, this problem may not be solved.

However, to take a giant leap forward in solving this problem, it is actually just a very short step beyond the big idea.

The big idea is always a statement, it is a single sentence. The next short step, which leads to a giant stride in terms of our communicative outcome, is to isolate the big question which the big idea is answering.

Rudyard Kipling wrote, ‘I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew) their names are what and why and when and how and where and who’.

Your  big question will probably begin with one of these interrogative pronouns.

When I prepare I try to give myself a few options. For me, I think my fallback pronoun is ‘How’, but too much ‘How’ preaching without a good foundation of ‘Why’, will lead to shallow discipleship. It is the ‘Why’ pronoun which more directly addresses the mind.

Here is my process:

Text: Ephesians 2: 8 to 10.

Subject: (what is the writer talking about in 1, 2 or 3 words) Salvation.
Complement: (what is the writer saying about what he is talking about) Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, this faith is God’s gift and is not a result of our works but results in works, which God has prepared for us to do.

Combine the subject and the complement to get the big idea: ‘salvation is by grace through faith, this faith is a gift of God not a reward for our works, but rather, faith results in good works’.

The various big questions may be: where can salvation be found?  What is the core of the Christian message?  Can I work my way to heaven?  Why is being good, not good enough?

I then focus on one question, in this case: What is the core of the Christian message?

Once I have my big question I will then concentrate on how I will market the question.

Recently I noticed a question on a  church noticeboard:  ‘Why did Luke write Acts?’ That may be a good question for a New Testament exam, but, will it get me out of bed with expectation, on a Sunday morning?  A more marketable question may be, if the preacher was preaching on Luke1:1-4 and Acts1:1-2, ‘ Where can certainty be found?

The Billy Graham pattern.

Billy Graham was mightily used of God and was both a clear and engaging preacher, I heard him preach at each of his Crusade meetings in 1968. He usually preached for 45 minutes, in roughly 3 parts.

Part 1, he would set and market his big question. I remember the night he spoke about, ‘Youth and the drug problem’, that was not my problem, yet by the end of the first 10 minutes or so of introduction,  I was thoroughly engaged.

Part 2, the answer to the question was explained from his text in the Bible. This was always true to the text and cross focused.

Part 3, how to respond, in Dr Graham‘s case here was the evangelistic appeal.

Marketing the big question.

What is the core of the Christian message?

What is God’s Executive Summary?

Ephesians 2:8-10,  I may market it something like this:
Life is so busy that we look for executive summaries, we want to get to the heart of a report without having to read through the whole report. My newsagent tells me that every year he sells fewer newspapers than the year before. People are accessing the news by way of summaries on their devices.

They say that if you put three economists in one room, you’ll end up with nine different opinions,  is it the same for Christians,  you put three in a room and ask them what is the executive summary of the Christian message and will you get a variety of answers?

There used to be a journalist in Sydney by the name of Eric Baume, each day he would give a news  comment and the comment was called,  ‘This I believe’.

Here is God’s core message through the Apostle Paul, his, ‘This I Believe’!
In three brief verses, Paul uses four words which stand out as the core of the Christian message.

The first is salvation or rescue.
Second, grace, God’s generous undeserved favour.
Third, faith in Christ, trust, or dependence, such faith is a gift, not an award.
Fourth, works, good works are the fruit of faith, what faith produces.
As Christian people we are part of  God’s creative workmanship,  being good as a result of our salvation, being part of the new creation.

To be speaking God’s message or trusting God’s gospel message, these are the words we need to clearly understand: Salvation; Grace; Faith in Christ; Works.

Why not take Sunday‘s sermon, you probably have a big idea, now take the next step and turn the big idea into a big question and think about how to market that question. I believe your level of engagement will be improved!

David Cook.