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The Big Deal about the Big Idea

Your quick but essential guide to the big idea in expository preaching

Average Rating: Not rated [see ratings/reviews]The Big Deal about the Big Idea

At we often talk about "The Big Idea" in preaching. It's kind of a big deal around here. Of course we didn't invent the concept or the phrase. The concept comes from some pretty old sermons given by Jesus (see Luke 4:8-10) or Peter (see Acts 2:14-36). In our day, Dr. Haddon Robinson has probably done more than anyone to promote and popularize the concept of the big idea in expository preaching. So after reading what Dr. Robinson and a host of other fine preachers (like Dr. Jeffrey Arthurs and Bryan Chapell, to name a few) had to say about this concept, here's my condensed version, everything-you-need-to know in about 1,000 words overview of the big idea in biblical preaching.

The crux of the big idea

Preaching Professor Dr. Haddon Robinson likes to say, "A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot." In other words, the sermon should focus on one clear, simple, concise main idea. If you're writing a paper, you'd call this the thesis statement. Robinson calls this sermonic main idea—or bullet—"The Big Idea" of preaching.

If your spouse asked you or friend called you at 3 A.M. and asked, "What is the sermon about this Sunday morning?" and you can't answer in one crisp sentence, the sermon's not ready to preach.

As a preacher, after you've studied and prayed and found the passage's main idea (sometimes called the exegetical big idea), it's important to write a one-sentence summary that captures the main point of your sermon. (Writing it down will force you to be clear about the big idea.) Sermons may have many facets, but ultimately sermons have more punch when they focus on just one thing. Everything you say in the sermon will revolve around that one thing, like all the branches and leaves of a tree revolve around the trunk.

How do you know if you have a good big idea? Bryan Chappell says that it must pass what he calls the "3 A.M. test." Chappell explains: If your spouse asked you or friend called you at 3 A.M. and asked, "What is the sermon about this Sunday morning?" and you can't answer in one crisp sentence, the sermon's not ready to preach. You need an idea people can grasp. If the sermon's idea is, "In the Babylonian incarceration of God's people, they suffered for seventy years to determine what God's plan was and never could determine it … " it doesn't pass the 3 A.M. test. Instead, you need something like "God remains faithful to his faithless people." Now that's a crisp, clear big idea.

The importance of the big idea

Organizing a sermon around one clear big idea is important for three reasons:

  1. It reflects sound hermeneutics. The biblical authors intended to convey ideas to their hearers/readers. Of course texts have many ideas, but the preacher's job in exegesis is to discern how those ideas relate to each other.
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Matt Woodley:

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Matthew Woodley

August 20, 2014  11:06am

Carl: Thanks for the helpful comment and I'll check out the resource you mentioned.

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Carl Duhrkoop

August 18, 2014  9:39am

This is a very good article that I will pass on to my students. I do believe there should be one more component, however: "The big idea should be applicational in nature." (It ought to encourage an active response in the listener.) Of the five examples, 2-4 were applicational; 1 and 5 were truth statements. A very good resource for this is "Application in Biblical Preaching," a thesis by Brian Jones, written for Gordon-Conwell in 2003.

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