My best sermons are hallways. My worst are houses.
I discovered long ago something unexpected about sermon preparation. Often, when I am coming to a sermon topic that has produced intense interest and so was given a much greater than usual amount of preparation, something ironic happens. What comes out of this much more than normal pre-sermon ends up being a much less than normal sermon. In fact, describing these sermons as just sub-normal might be overly kind. These are sermons I suddenly find myself thinking while speaking, "Just stop. Stop right now. Stop and apologize. Send them home." And, I know in my heart they'd all be grateful.
Many fairly obvious things can cause a sermon to fizzle, crash, bomb, flop, die, and decompose in front of you congregations glazed-over faces. You didn't prepare. You, shall we say borrowed it off SermonCentral. You're emotionally distracted. I'd like to say that hiding sin in your life causes bad sermons, except I've been blown away by how many really good preachers end up being caught in long-term scandals.
But, the most surprising cause, however, is that a high amount of thought and preparation and planning can kill a sermon as easily as too little preparation.
An over-prepared sermon is like a big house. As we read and think and write, there are so many important rooms we discover. Nuances and word studies and great stories that invite us to open doors and explore the rooms. Rooms, of course, sometimes lead to other rooms. The house was even bigger than it looked on the outside. This is great stuff. We could head for an exist. But, this new room over here is really gorgeous. And its really important. And people need to come into this room and see what I say. And, that room over there is just too important to skip. And so is that one. And so forth.
A good sermon is more like a long hallway. From the very start, I can see the exit door at the end of the hall. It's a number of steps away. But, I know where I'm supposed to go. There may be side doors. These may be important. I might pause a moment and glance in one, but never step out of the hall way.
Years ago, I used to think the only hallways worth walking through simply had to have clear progressive steps. I believed that three steps were always best. Sometimes what I called steps were actually more like long detours into side rooms. Before long, I found I was meandering through a big house again.
In those moments, my sweet wife developed a subtle form of body language to suggest I needed to re-focus direction. She'd repeatedly point at her watch with one hand and draw the index finger of her other across her throat. As an expert in the subtle signals of female communication, after noticing this for five or ten minutes I would figure out it might be time to skip the next six points and wind it up.
I now know that steps are not the issue. A good sermon can have ten points or three points or be entirely pointless -- well, in one sense. A good sermon is moving down a clear (in the preacher's mind) hallway of communication. Starting with where the church always is at the start of a sermon (sort of interest, but not sitting on the edge of the seats waiting for the next sentence), this movement one-third leading and two-thirds thinking with the congregation. The difference between those two is, when you are thinking with the congregation, they can see the next step before you get to it. This doesn't make people bored, it holds their interest. In the best sermons, the congregation starts to see the door before you even get there. A sermon where no one saw where you were going until you finally got there usually means you arrived alone.
This is hardly a new insight. In his understandably well-known bestseller, Communicating for a Change, Andy Stanley writes, "Once you discover the one thing, the next step is to go back and orient your entire message around your point. Remember, we are taking people on a journey. Once you’ve identified the destination, you owe it to your audience to make the path clear and direct."
One criticism that can be raised is that such an approach means you cannot explore complex theological and doctrinal issues in a Sunday sermon. There are important truths that require multiple rooms, each connecting to another, to understand. That is true. It is also true these things need to be incorporated into the broader educational structure of a church. The question remains, however, is this: Is Sunday homily or sermon the right setting for in depth theological education?
Horton Davies, in The Worship of the American Puritans, estimates the typical seventeenth century Sunday sermon length among American Puritans would have lasted less than half an hour. Twenty minutes was a reasonable average. And these were Puritans. Not theological light weights. In addition, the Sunday sermons of these Puritans usually focused on practical, not highly complex theological, topics.
Here are the questions you need to ask before standing up this Sunday. Can I see a clear door I want the message to go to? How can I get the people standing around to walk with me toward that door? Can we reach that particular door in a reasonable amount of time? If everyone reaches that door, would do I expect to happen in their lives if they step through it?
Far more sermons will falter and fall flat this Sunday because of trying to say too much than because of saying too little. It's easy to get lost in a large new house. Getting lost in a hallway, however, would be a good sign you need to start planning for retirement soon.
Saying less and saying it clearer is better than saying more and mistaking complexity for profundity.