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Podcast Episode 10 | 14 min

The Big Idea

It helps the preacher and the listener focus.
The Big Idea

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Matt Woodley: Welcome to another episode of Monday Morning Preacher. I'm Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com, and a 25-year journeyman studying the craft of preaching, helping other preachers, and glad to be here today. I'm here with our guest host, Kevin Miller.

Kevin Miller: Hey, Matt, how you doing today?

MW: Kevin is one of the guys that helped launch PreachingToday.com, about 25-some years ago.

KM: Yeah, the earth's crust was cooling, dinosaurs were roaming the land, and we launched PreachingToday.com.

MW: So Kevin, I've been doing a lot of research on preaching this week, and today we're going to cover some amazing topics. I'm going to share a lot of what I've been learning. So we're going to start looking at ways to improve your delivery, then we're going to cover how to streamline your sermon prep process, then we're going to switch to how and when to use personal illustrations in your preaching. I also have some incredible ideas about great applications. Oh, and did I mention we're going to talk about writing effective introductions that really grab people's attention.

KM: Wait, Matt, you do know that this podcast is only 12-15 minutes long?

MW: Well, what's the problem? I've got lots of exciting stuff I've been thinking about all week long. I've been doing all this research and I've got all these great ideas, and I am ready to share it.

KM: Well, you're going to have to talk super-duper fast. And did I mention that all of our other podcasts have had one topic per episode?

MW: Yeah. You know, Kevin, you're right. I'm just giving preachers, including myself here, a little taste of the medicine that we sometimes dish out to others. Specifically, we have too much great content and it goes off in too many different directions. So there's a really simple concept that can help all of us preachers simplify our messages and give our people something memorable and life-changing. It's called the big idea of biblical preaching.

KM: Yeah, and really champion of the big idea over the last 20-30 years of English-speaking preaching is Haddon Robinson, who was closely involved in the founding of Preaching Today, and I think it's one of the most important concepts a preacher can master.

MW: I like to think of it this way, and Haddon used this analogy similar to this. This is a true story. I've actually been taking archery lessons.

KM: Really?

MW: Yeah, I showed up, I said, “I want to learn how to shoot a bow and arrow,” and the guy said, “Well, I can teach you how to shoot an arrow but not a bow.” But the whole point of archery is to hit that little red target 50 feet away in the middle, not just spray it all over the place, but hit the bullseye. And Haddon said the big idea is like the bullseye—what are you trying to hit with your sermon.

KM: So why a big idea? I mean, there's lots of approaches to preaching, what do you think makes it worth an episode today?

MW: Two things. It helps you as a preacher focus, it helps you cut what you don't need, and then secondly, it helps your listeners focus. It helps them know where you're going and how to track with you.

KM: That sounds awesome. Well, tell us what's the clip today. I'm guessing you pulled something from the archives from Haddon Robinson himself.

MW: You are absolutely correct. And it's from one of our most popular sermons ever on our site, which Haddon tackled the entire story in the book of Hosea in one sermon, all fourteen chapters.

KM: Wow, professional driver on closed track, do not attempt.

MW: It is brilliant. It's called “The World's Best Love Story.” We're going to play the first paragraph, the opening paragraph, and how he sets up his big idea. So here's the intro.

Haddon Robinson: Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that all the world loves a lover. And if he was right that all the world loves a lover, then the best-loved book in the entire Bible should be the prophecy of the prophet Hosea. In some ways, the story of Hosea differs little from millions of other stories that take place every year in London or New York or Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles or Singapore or Sidney. First the story of a broken vow, a broken home, broken heart, broken life. But in other ways, this story is so utterly unique that it ranks as one of the most amazing in all of literature. Now, we have ignored this story of Hosea. We've clipped it from our Sunday School lessons and shunned it in our pulpits, but God has chosen the sad, sordid story of this brokenhearted prophet to reveal his love and to demonstrate his grace.

MW: Okay, Kevin, let's pause for a minute, and then we're going to listen to another clip in just a minute. But what did you notice about Haddon setting up the big idea?

KM: Well, one thing I loved was that it connects me immediately to my world. He's mentioning cities that I've heard of and some of which I've even been to like Boston or Chicago, and so it doesn't feel like it's from the dusty Ancient Near East. I love that. Maybe one more thing I'll point out is that he already is intriguing me. He's saying that this is a story that we shun or don't pay attention to, and I'm kind of thinking already, Why?

MW: Yeah, that's good. It draws you in. I like the fact that Haddon, who is the maestro of the big idea, written about it for decades, he doesn't beat people over the head with his big idea. It's clear, it's simple, it's biblical, but it's also subtle. We know where he's going, but it's not stiff or wooden. And then Haddon takes that big idea, and if you read the sermon he weaves that big idea masterfully through the whole story, and then he comes back to it at the end. So here's the last paragraph of his sermon, the concluding paragraph.

HR: And if you ask me where is God, the answer is very much the same. He's right here. Right here, speaking to you again. Right here, waiting for you to respond with love to love. Waiting for you to respond with trust to promise. Waiting for you to cast yourself with a reckless abandon upon the grace of God. And waiting for you to discover in the depths of your experience what it means to be loved by God according to the love He demonstrated through the prophet Hosea.

MW: Again, I love the way Haddon comes back to the big idea of how God demonstrates his love for broken people. It's simple, it's clear, but no one will walk away from this sermon thinking, Man, that was so much information I have no idea what he said.

KM: Yeah, and I love how it applies the text to my life. This is not a history lesson. At the conclusion of this sermon I am faced with the immensity of God's love, and I feel a need to respond to that.

MW: There's two things that Haddon taught about coming up with the big ideas that were really fundamental. First was that it has to derive from the text. You don't just pull it out of thin air, you read and listen to God's Word until you get a sense of what that passage is about in its essence, the best that you can. Then the second thing is that you convert that big idea from the text into a big idea today for your people today. So it's always in the present tense, it's never, “So God delivered the Israelites from the Jebusites.” It's always, “God can deliver us from the power of evil today.” That's present tense.

KM: Right. And what you've just done there, I think is really important, Matt. There's really like a two-step process to getting to your big idea. The first is to get your exegetical idea, that was the big idea from the text. But then to move into the present tense of how that big idea would speak to your hearers today, and that's what Haddon calls the homiletical big idea. So it's important that you don't just get your exegetical big idea and stay there or you're going to be delivering kind of academic papers. If you want to preach, you've got to move to the homiletical big idea.

MW: Excellent. And let me add just one more thing about the big idea here, and that is the big idea can also be not just a concept or an idea but it can also be an idea with an image. For instance, a metaphor. So I preached on 1 Timothy 1, where Paul talks about being the chief of sinners, and I used the image of a line, and mercy is at the front of the line. And if you really want to be a good Christian, go to the front of the line. Be the person that says, “I need mercy more than anybody else.” And so I wove that throughout the sermon. So the big idea was get in the mercy line, get first in the mercy line.

KM: I was there that day actually for that sermon. Great sermon, and one thing I loved about it, Matt, was that you actually physically moved your body to sort of help me visualize the line, and then you walked up and took your place at the front of the sin line.

MW: So this is actually a lot of work to get clear about the big idea. It seems easy but it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of thinking.

KM: So what advice would you give to preachers who want to get to a big idea and really incorporate this in their preaching?

MW: Well, first thing is write it down. Write it down. Get clear on it.

KM: Yeah, it's interesting you say that because I have for years now actually written it in at the top of my document for a new sermon as soon as I have it, or whatever ideas I am developing that I think may be the big idea. I put them right up there at the top so I have to read it every time I open the file.

MW: So give us an example from a recent sermon of yours. Pull one out of your preaching files.

KM: I preached on John 10, not so long ago, about my sheep hear my voice and they follow me. And I was just taken by "my sheep hear my voice" so my big idea was something like, you can know and follow the voice of Jesus, here's how.

MW: I was preaching on Matthew 18, recently, where Jesus talks about becoming as a child and protecting little ones, and how he is seeking after his little ones. My big idea was orient your life to welcome and protect Jesus' little ones, but I actually got even crisper than that. I said, Welcome and protect Jesus' little ones, that's what we're called to do as a church.

KM: I like the way you simplified and shortened that, Matt. I think the best big ideas could almost work on a t-shirt, they're that simple and that memorable.

MW: Yes, that's right. And again, that takes work and a lot of thought. It's not simple, it's simplicity on the other side of a lot of complex work. So Kevin, how does the big idea drive the sermon? It's kind of like the driver of a bus. How does it take people?

KM: Well, one thing it does for me is it forces me to simplify all the study material that I have done on that text. I'm fascinated by biblical texts, like all preachers are, and I may find three, four, five great things I want to say from that text, and the big idea tells me just do one, leave the rest on the cutting room floor. Then the next thing it does is it says your introduction should somehow help people move from their world immediately toward this big idea, then it tells me make sure your application helps people take some measure of response to this big idea. It actually makes everything really clear and saves me a lot of time. It takes time to get it, but once I got it, it saves me a lot of decision making and frustration later.

MW: I think it's really a service to your people too, because it saves them from a lot of confusion, a lot of complexity, a lot of what is happening, what is this preacher talking about today, and what is the point of this. So in one of our interviews with Haddon, he said, “I don't know of anyone who has been moved to God with an outline of the book of Galatians.” But then he went on to say, “What people do live for, and what they die for, is an idea or some great truth that has gripped them.” That's very powerful.

So preachers, we encourage you to find the great truth from your biblical text, from the Word of God, get clear about what that truth is, and what the Bible says about it. We encourage you to write it down, test it out with someone, and bounce it off of somebody, see if it works. Then let that great truth from God's Word grip you so that it can grip your people Sunday after Sunday.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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