What’s the Big Idea?
Preaching, and therefore writing sermons, is great privilege! As a preacher you know that you are serving God; serving God’s people and learning from God’s word all at the same time. And that makes it a really hard job, because you are representing God and his word; and you are wanting to be a faithful servant.
So, as we preach we keep in mind that what God wants is his people growing, and learning so they can honour Jesus in the way they live their lives. This means that reliance on the Bible text is vital. And so, preaching through books of the Bible regularly (expository preaching) is foundational. As Tim Keller says: “The primary reason we should normally do expository preaching is that it expresses and unleashes our belief in the whole Bible as God’s authoritative, living, and active Word”.
But, even in churches where scripture is preached it’s possible to really mess it up. Here’s an example: Many years ago, my husband (Rod) and I were missionaries in Spain. We were part of a small Presbyterian church that was struggling to survive in the quasi-medieval catholic context. Rod’s parents came to visit and joined us at church one Sunday. Rod sat between them, translating the sermon sentence by sentence. As we drove home my father-in-law commented “That was a good sermon this morning!”. I turned to Rod in utter surprise, unable to say anything. Sheepishly, he responded to my unspoken question with “They heard a different sermon to the one you heard!” Rod had been ‘adjusting’ the sermon as he translated.
You see, the minister was a Swiss-trained Spaniard who’d been taught to preach on the side issues in the text because ‘ the people can work out the main issues by themselves’. This meant every sermon dealt with obscure words, random historical allusions and unusual interpretations of the passage in front of us. In spite of our own theological education, Rod and I were gradually starved of spiritual nourishment. The impact on regular members of the congregation soon became clear. They were untaught and despaired of ever really understanding the Bible.
This experience reinforced our conviction that we must teach the main points of the passage and feed God’s people on his word. We cannot assume that people can work out the big idea of a passage, and so we need to teach it. But we also need to be training listeners to read the Bible for themselves, and to do that we need to be very clear about how we ‘found’ these ideas in the passage. As you read how-to books on preaching you realise very quickly that the authors all use different words for the steps in the process and sometimes the ideas overlap and sometimes they don’t. Lots of books talk about the Big Idea, but they’re not all talking about the same thing. So I’ve stitched together my own process from the books I’ve read and my experience in preaching. This article is about how I get to the Big Idea. First let me explain my language. When I’m beginning the process of writing a sermon I’m aiming for a number of points of clarity. The Goal of the text: I am trying to work out: What does this passage say (in summary)? Why is this passage in the Bible? Big Idea: What is the main idea of the sermon based on the goal of the text. And then I’ve added my own third step: Why you (the listener) should care about the Big idea: This is not application, but the foundational thinking for the application. To develop these three foundational points I need to be thoroughly immersed in the text. Every preaching book you read will give you different methods for achieving this. There is no ‘right way’. The method you rely on will reflect your personal learning style and educational background. My scientific background means I love drawing flow charts; but maybe your literary background means you will use grammatical tools. If you love details you will start there, and if the big picture is your preference you will start there. Working out the balance between your preferred style of research and that demanded by the text is hard work. And often you’ll need to delve into the text in a variety of ways. My Sermon Preparation Checklist is as follows. Karen Morris’ Sermon Preparation “Sermon length is not measured in minutes, it is measured in minutes-beyond-interest, in the amount of time the minister continues to preach after (s)he has lost the interest of her hearers.” (T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach) Passage:
Choose passage to be preached upon.
Read passage lots of times.
Print passage in a single 10cm column on A4. Stick in book.
Paraphrase passage in second column.
a) Draw a flow diagram if needed
Underline difficult verses to look up and think further on.
a) Write questions on opposite page.
b) Underline repetitions, groups, draw connections (in different colours)
Read commentaries. Note answers, ideas and possible structures.
Work out goal of the text. The main idea that is supported by all the other ideas.
Write a Big Idea of the sermon, and Why you should care about this big idea.
a) What 3 things in the text convinced me this is the big idea?
Work through passage stating, (where the big idea comes from) explaining and applying in full written text. What does it mean? Is it true? What difference does it make? (1 idea = 10 minutes)
a) Write Conclusion: Applications repeated b) Write introduction: Question/dilemma/challenge for which the sermon will be the answer
Go through sermon text and add illustrations.
Print out rough draft in 2 columns on landscape A4
Read out loud lots. Revise, reprint, read out.
Add prayers at beginning and end.
Highlight main words, sentences in each paragraph.
As you can see this is a checklist that fits my personality and learning preferences. I created this list so I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I preached. As a beginner preacher I’d forget the process each time, and so I’d use up valuable preparation time reading ‘how to preach’ books. Whatever you develop as a checklist it needs 3 distinct sections.
Here are some examples of the development section of sermons I’ve recently preached. 1. The sermon title I was given was ‘Christ Alone’, and so I chose Colossians 1.9-23 as the passage. Having spent an extensive time researching the passage, the development stage became: The Goal of the Text: To convince the Colossians they were safe because it was all done by Jesus. Big Idea of the Sermon: We are safe (qualified, brought, redeemed, forgiven, reconciled, holy) because it was all done through Jesus. Why you should care about the Big Idea: If you are in Jesus you are safeIf you are not in Jesus, you’re not safe, but you can be.
2. Matthew 12.1-13 - the passage where Jesus is accosted by the Pharisees because ‘your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath’.
The Goal of the Text: Acknowledge Jesus is Lord of all.
Big Idea of the Sermon: Jesus is greater than all our religious cultural rules. He sets the priorities because he has the authority. Why you should care about the Big Idea: Jesus sets our priorities because he has authority. 3. Matthew 10.16-26 - Jesus is sending out the disciples as sheep among wolves. The Goal of the Text: Jesus is the Master who sends people out. The Holy Spirit will speak through you. Big Idea of the Sermon: Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is my mission and could result in hatred, betrayal, persecution or death. Anything less is a bonus. Why you should care about the Big Idea: Our culture is changing - its expected. Don’t change with it, see it as an opportunity.
So, developing the Big Idea of a sermon is never an easy task, but it is something you can train yourself in. Having a process that you are confident in will help you to use all your preparation time productively rather than researching how to write a sermon. Knowing the 3 stage process will also enable you to predict how much more time you need to complete the sermon.
Now do it!
 Keller, T. Preaching pg 35  I have a blank A4 book I use for sermon preparation. Everything goes in it- the text, my paraphrasing, questions and answers, comments, notes, possible illustrations, quotes from commentators. There are also possible big ideas, possible structures, and multiple coloured lines, underlines and circles linking everything together.
 This article doesn’t include application, but I use the ideas from ‘The Heart is the Target’ by Murray Capill. I stick the heart into my book and answer the questions from page 115-116. This process develops possible applications. [4 & 5] Two good sources of ideas for writing your own checklist are the section called ‘Uncovering The Big Idea’ in Saving Eutychus, by Millar and Campbell and ‘Writing an Expository Message’ in Preaching by Keller.  Pg 66ff pg 213ff
Karen loves telling people about Jesus, and is keen to encourage and help others do the same. She came to faith during her last year at school and has been passionate about helping others come to know Jesus ever since.
Karen has worked with University students for decades, and was a CMS missionary among students with her husband in Spain and Belgium. She currently ministers as an Evangelist with the Christian Union at Monash University in Melbourne; at her local church; and in her local community (the gym, the shops, the school).
Karen is the author of ‘Leading Better Bible Studies’, which she wrote with her husband Rod, and has 2 teenage children: Isaac and Anneke.