A Plea for Profound Simplicity

For many years we’ve rightly bemoaned the widespread blight of too many shallow sermons. And, of course, that problem remains a problem. However, in many circles, especially perhaps in some Reformed churches, we may be in danger of over-complicating sermons.

By over-complicating sermons I mean:

Too much material: far too much content crammed into far too little space.

Too many words: just because someone can speak 200 words per minute without a breath does not mean that we can hear and understand at that rate.

Too many long words: why use long words when there are perfectly adequate shorter substitutes? And why use any Latin/Greek/Hebrew words?

Too many long sentences: Readers may be able to follow four-line sentences (and two-line headings), but not listeners.

Too long arguments: If it takes you twenty minutes and twenty steps of logic to prove your point, you will be proving it to yourself alone.

Simply too long: There is surely a happy medium between 10-minute sermon strolls and 60-minute marathons.

Too many headings: By the sixth sub-point of the fourth main point, I’m gone.

Too much logic, not enough likes: Just read the Gospels and ask yourself if you sound like picture-painting Jesus or like philosophical Plato. Yes, we need logic. But we also need “likes” (e.g., the kingdom of heaven is like . . .) and stories (e.g., there was a rich man . . .).

Too many quotations: The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is a great servant but a wearisome master. Take your preaching text and dig deep into it until you strike fresh water, rather than leave it behind to dig hundreds of dry one-inch scripture-reference holes all over the desert. And although I love Pastor Puritan and Pastor Piper, I really came to hear Pastor You.

Too much clutter: Is that paragraph/sentence necessary? I know it’s nice, but is it necessary?

Too much reading: If you were forced to speak without notes, or with only a one-page outline, you would have to simplify. Preaching from a full manuscript allows you to use much more complex arguments and sentences. Makes you look better. But it also makes hearers fall asleep. If you must write everything out in full, then write in an oral style to avoid sermons becoming lectures.

Too much doctrine: Systematic theology is wonderful. Biblical theology is great. But simply explaining the text is better than both. Systematic and biblical theology help us to understand the text but they should not be imposed upon a text. Perhaps try to imagine yourself explaining the text to a 12-year-old, then a 10-year-old, then . . . But please, please, please just explain the text.

It’s wonderful that many Reformed pulpits are being filled with well-studied and well-prepared sermons full of biblical truth. But I’m afraid that many of our hearers can’t swallow the great chunks of red meat that are being served from some pulpits. Our hearers need meat, but they need it marinated, tenderized, well cooked, and even cut into mouth-size bites. Some even need help with chewing! (I’ll stop the analogy there).

There are two ways to uncomplicate our sermons: the first is intellectual and the second is spiritual. The intellectual solution involves the strenuous mental power-lifting of ruthlessly simplifying our sermons. Any fool can preach like a genius, but it takes a genius to preach simply. And by genius, I don’t mean that some people have an innate ability to make the profound simple. Genius is usually the end-result of extremely hard work. There is a massive difference (about ten hours difference) between preparing simplistic sermons and preparing simple sermons.

Most of my sermons are preachable after about eight hours of work. But if I want the maximum number of my hearers to have maximum understanding, I must tie myself to the desk and push my brain to prune, shorten, clarify, illustrate, etc., for at least another two hours. Apart from studying how some of the best preachers manage to communicate deep truth without drowning their hearers, the best resource I’ve come across is William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well. Read and re-read (and re-read) pages 7 to 23. And give sustained study to pages 10 to11 where Zinsser takes a knife to a manuscript. Then sharpen your own knife.

An old Princeton professor, J. W. Alexander, wrote: “It is an interesting observation that some of the greatest sermons are deceptively simple in design and development. Simplicity in design, organisation and development is the mark of a great communicator. Complexity confounds -- simplicity satisfies.”

11/2/2010 4:00:00 AM
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  • David Murray
    About David Murray
    Dr. David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previously a pastor in Scotland for twelve years, Murray still preaches most Sundays. He blogs at Head, Heart, Hand, podcasts with Tim Challies on the Connected Kingdom, and contributes to TGC Reviews at The Gospel Coalition. Follow Dr. Murray via Facebook or Twitter, or see his book, Christians Get Depressed Too, and his DVD, “God's Technology.”