Are You Killing Your Sermons With Points?

Posted: August 15, 2010 in Blogroll, church, homiletics, leadership, Missional Church, preaching

One of the great dangers in preaching is making a point! This seems counterintuitive for those who speak publicly, and perhaps it is for some, but it shouldn’t be for preachers. People who preach often ruin their sermons by making a point. Or worse, they make three of them, ruining the sermon by the same factor. Making matters worse, each little point rest in the pitiful, play yard pool of pathetic alliteration. It’s enough to make me need and avalanche of Advil! Which is why I think missionaries, preachers, pastors, teachers, communicators, cultural architects, lead visionaries, communal arbiters and other contemporary silliness titles should be careful about making points.

Why?

Because making points (which I’m about to do) performs at least 3 bad acts on every homily.

Points Break Form. Scripture doesn’t come to us in points, it comes in narrative; it comes as stories. Do stories have points? Yes. But no one stops in the middle of telling a story about what their 5-year-old did to make sure you get the point. The point is embedded in the story. What’s more, Jesus tells stories both to reveal His message and conceal it.  Those without ears could not hear it, and our Lord didn’t change His preaching style to make sure they did. Sometimes Jesus wanted people to get the point, other times, He didn’t. There is something – and we may never know what – that is divine about storytelling. To reach people the way Jesus did, we might consider following His form, we should embody His method. Points, graphs, charts, and projectors come from the business world. Stories belong to the church.

Points Dictate. We don’t mean for them too, but they do. Having 3 points on a distributed outline or jazzed up in your PowerPoint actually INCREASES the distance between the listener and the text. The preacher has given himself or herself the elevated position of telling the hearers what’s most important in the text. A good Bible student knows that s/he might find three things this week and three more things next week from the same text. Yet, the average church goer – especially in a context like mine, wherein so many people are adults converts – doesn’t know that there is more to be mined in the text than a 30-minute homily can cover. They think what the preacher said is all, or close to all, that can be said. Points collapse the text by telling people what’s most important, while other means of communication (or just leaving points out) expand the text and, over time, the Biblical imagination of the listener.

Points Tune People Out. When you have 3 points on an overheard, you should simply stand up, read the text, give them the three points and go home. Why? Because that’s all that people KNOW they need to pay attention to. The rest is just filler. I wish I could find it, but I recently saw a survey that said audiences were generally excited before a speaking session and that same excitement drastically reduced once the speaker began his/her PowerPoint. The way most preachers use points is akin to turning to the back of the math book for the answers to the odd numbered questions. People, pressed for time and short on discipline, flip to the “answers” jot it down and move along. They don’t care how to get there on their own and therefore are unprepared when life’s hardships and reversals come their way. They don’t know God because they never had to engage Him or discern His ways and will.

Preaching should be about expanding who we are and the human experience, not reducing it. It should be concerned with communal discernment rather than pseudo-apostolic directives, it should call listeners to engage God, not merely look for the quick and easy, short and quick, hope-to-God it’s painless mire of points!

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Comments
  1. Dana says:

    Ahhh YES! Great post!

  2. Jeff Brooks says:

    As Reesian Theology informed us, good preaching makes one point. Thanks for your insight, encouragement, and indictment. They are both welcomed and necessary.

  3. WesWoodell says:

    Fred Craddock gives this post a thumbs up.

    The apostle Paul gives this post a thumbs down.

    In my opinion, each style of preaching contains a mixture of merit and folly.

    Are you writing this because your elders are still making you produce those fill-in-the-blank thingies for Sunday bulletins? :p

    Love you bro,
    Wes

  4. Sean says:

    Wes,

    I think you might have a point about Craddock. As a devotee, I am honored that he might give this post a thumbs up. About Paul, however, I think the apostle is typically misread as doctrine centered, when I see him as narrative centered. Paul teaches narratively. Unlike the parables Jesus told, Paul instructs by reiterating the story of Israel. It is the constant thread through all his epistles. The story if there.

    You can’t properly understand Paul without knowing his narrative and the narrative he’s working from – Israel’s story. Plus, we also want to look at Paul’s sermons – see the book of Acts, and not just his letters. His sermons are narrative in structure. The question then is whether or not epistles are supposed to function as sermons or something else. Even so, text like the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2 carry a narrative structure.

    At least that’s my take. I have been shaped by James Thompson’s book, “Preaching Like Paul.” I was amazed to discover how narrative Paul was.

    BTW, I do produce notes every week, but I think I’ve discovered a way to do it that honors the hearer’s individual stories and abilities to discern. My greater concern is the reduction I see happening in a great deal of preaching that abandons the nature and structure of scripture, gives too much power to the speaker, acts as if the hearers are stupid and assumes that the goal of Biblical teaching is information transfer.

  5. The narrative shape of the sermon is crucial for the life of the Church. You articulate the dangers well, and the one I think is most concerning is the abiltiy for preached points to end the discussion or reduce the text.

    In the face of a nation that wants to reduce everything to as little as 140 characters, the church needs the imagination Jesus and Paul invite us into. The preacher has a role to help the story come alive for all people.

  6. Can we also be a little pragmatic and say that multiple points often create a canceling effect — rendering the listener unable to remember what they just heard. Perhaps this is why the majority of Christians have already forgotten yesterday morning’s sermon. They may remember a funny story or one good line, but they probably can’t tell you all three points — even if they all started with the same letter!

    Furthermore, just about every preacher I’ve ever heard do multiple points always hammers the first point, goes a little softer on the second one and has to rush through the last one b/c they’ve run out of time.

    As a preacher, I prefer to do a three-part series rather than a three-part sermon. Cuts down workload. Allows me to take my time. Makes things easier to remember for everyone involved!

  7. Dean Smith says:

    Great wisdom here, Sean. Makes me want to hear you preach. I certainly agree with the saturation (and boredom) that increasing numbers of people are feeling about Power Point sermons (especially business people that have to endure such presentations almost daily). The narrative presentation of the gospel not only honors the nature of scripture, but our human nature as well. However, I’m reminded of the professor that was asked, “How many points should a sermon have?” and he wisely replied, “At least one.”

  8. […] 29, 2010 2:59 PM People question my insistence that preachers should ditch their points. Points, I have argued, are planted and buried with story, whispers and the inspiring word. People […]

  9. Brandon Sidle says:

    How would this advice apply to the epistles? How would you tell a story from a straight fire command like you find in the letters of the bible?

  10. Sean says:

    Brandon,

    Your question is very closely related to Wes’ comment about Paul. This is typically what people struggle with or something like what Jesus is doing on the Sermon on The Mount. I think the concern about this may be much ado about very little. Here’s why:

    Each “straight fire command” has a purpose. It’s not a command for a command sake, it’s rooted in the history of God’s people and the ultimate aims of God — all which unfold in the story. Thou Shalt Not Kill, for instance, is rooted in the narrative of Genesis and the oppression of the Israelites under the Egyptians. There is a story there.

    The Jews saw the “commands” as halakah, but before the commands are given, they are given the “hagadah,” the story.

    It’s certainly easier to give commands, but, as we see every day, without grounding in a narrative that unfurls the purposes of God, the commands don’t stick. Our children are philosophically normal when the ask parents “why?” they should clean their room.

    If one were to look at 2 Corinthians, for example, they would be tempted to turn the book into a series of bumper stickers. However, knowing the story of Paul’s life enlivens the book and gives integrated meaning to the whole.

    It is therefore the preacher’s God to (1) know the story, (2) tell the story, and (3) explain how the story deepens the meaning of the command. Lazy preachers will not be able to do this, but ones that disciple their congregation through the ministry of the Word, cannot avoid narrative; because that’s how the Bible comes.

  11. Brandon Sidle says:

    So how would you preach a passage for example, since we are talking about Paul like Romans 12:9-21, narratively speaking of course? If you would like to give me a private answer, send it to my email, otherwise, i’ll wait for your reply on your site.

  12. Sean says:

    Brandon,

    I’ll try to respond via e-mail in the next few days. No need to bore everyone in the comments section.

  13. Deanna Love says:

    I’m sorry you are too young to remember an Abilene minister in the 50’s who told the congregation, “I have 14 (always more than 12) points today.” That made us count them and snooze through the first 10, hoping we were almost at the end. The incredible thing about him was that he never used a note from which to speak. His sermons were memorized and very polished. I like your style better — of course, Bill was a great believer in THE STORY.

  14. K. Rex Butts says:

    I tend to agree with much of the narrative approach to preaching. However, my experience with small churches has made me realize that sometime what is needed instead of preaching is teaching, or a sermon that teaches/instructs. I don’t think such teaching/instructing necessitates chopping the sermon into a bunch of points but I’m not always sure that narrative is the best approach for this. Instead, I opt for an inductive (as I really dislike the deductive approach). Having said that, most of my sermons are still in narrative form.

    Great post!

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