Pastors, as we approach our weekly sermon preparation, let me suggest three factors that should shape every message.
First, the text itself should shape the message. The text sets boundaries for a message. A biblical message always accurately explains the text, and is limited by the text. The text draws boundaries around the possible sermon subject and themes. If you don’t know what the text says, and what it means, then you aren’t ready to move on yet.
Second, the “big idea” should shape the message. Any given text only has one meaning. But it may have multiple implications, and almost unlimited applications. We should recognize that we cannot say everything that could be said about a text in a single message (or at least should not say everything that can be said, though I have heard a few attempts, and probably committed that sin a time or two). It is necessary to single out a theme and a big idea, and then preach that. That means some things are going to be left unsaid, at least for now. We must be willing to leave some stuff on “the cutting room floor.” On the upside, it may mean that you can use the same text and the same exegetical work next week to preach a different theme and a different big idea. For instance, a message on Exodus 3 might focus on the faithfulness of God in his character. It might focus more on the response of people to the faithfulness of God. It might focus on God’s sovereign control over history. A single message should not focus on all three, however. Focus on one idea. Save something for later. As Bryan Chapell says, “How many things is a message about? One thing.” As Larry Rogier says, “I am going to be here next week anyway, so I will preach that then.” (Only one of those sayings is worth writing a book about though.)
Third, the audience should shape the message. In the course of preparation, you need to imagine the audience that will be sitting in front you. That’s right, the actual audience. See faces. See couples. See families. See enemies. See guests. See people you saw in the coffee shop, the park, or the diner who might show up. Think of conversations you have had. Think of conversations you need to have. Think of conversations you would like to have. Think of the questions they would ask. Think of the things that would cause them to crease their brow and cock their head to one side. Think of the things that would cause them to say, “No way.” Anticipate their unbelief, and then address it. As a general rule, I am thinking in terms of preaching to “just below the midline.” I am not trying to impress the most knowledgeable, though I might have something in there for them. I am not trying to impress the least knowledgeable, though I want to be clear. I am trying to preach to the majority of people. That means I am going to assume a mid-line of maturity and understanding, and then stay around there or just to the simpler side of it. If you do that, you will probably find (as I have found) the greatest impact.