The Big Deal about the Big Idea
Your quick but essential guide to the big idea in expository preaching
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At PreachingToday.com 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.
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:
- 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.
- It helps the preacher focus. As the old hymn says, "Prone to wonder, Lord I feel it." Preachers also know how to wander in their sermon construction. After all, there are so many interesting things to say about a passage. Preachers can easily lose their focus and end up wandering from one topic to the next without aiming for a clear destination.
- It helps listeners focus. When the preacher cuts extraneous fat, listeners comprehend clearly. Reducing the essence of the sermon to one idea will increase its impact on the hearers.
How to find the big idea
Exegesis and commentaries may help you break the text down into lots of little pieces. The big idea should take all those little pieces and put them back together into one sentence framed in contemporary terms. During your study of your preaching text, you're asking questions about what the text meant to the author and the original audience. But in this stage preachers ask the following question: What does this text mean for us today? In other words, if somebody came into your study, how would you express that concept to the person sitting across the desk from you?
How to write the big idea
Every big idea should have the following components:
- It should be a complete declarative sentence so that it is something we can actually say in the sermon.
- It should be stated in about 12 words or less. Short and memorable is preferred.
- It shouldn't have conjunctions (and's, if's, but's) because conjunctions usually introduce a second idea. Remember the big idea is about one thing, not two or three good things.
- It ought to be image rich (visual) and suggestive to the listeners.
Here are some examples of crisp big ideas written after sound exegetical work:
- God remains faithful to his faithless people. (Based on Jeremiah 31.)
- You can't have two masters ranked #1 in your heart. (Based on Matthew 6:24.) Or you could also borrow a big idea from Bob Dylan—"You gotta serve somebody."
- God has a plan for his children to grow up together. (Based on Ephesians 4:11-16.)
- Confessing our sins leads to freedom. (Based on Psalm 32:1-5.)
- God's glory shines through our cracks. (Based on 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.)
How to use the big idea
No matter how you organize your sermon, everything should flow from and relate back to the big idea. Of course if you really want it to stick in the listeners' minds, you'll have to say it several times. Say it at the beginning of the sermon. But then come back and repeat it again. Haddon Robinson recommends saying your big idea 5-7 times—although you can say it in different ways. Drive it home or people won't get it.
If you want to know if you clearly communicated your big idea, ask a family member or friend the following question: "If you were to sum up what I was saying in the sermon today, what would you say?" They should at least get in the ballpark. If you don't say the big idea in different ways throughout the sermon, people will not get it. So write your big idea (make it clear in your mind first) and then explain it, prove it, apply it, show people where it is in the biblical text, but always try to get them to remember it.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).