Chapter 3

Find Clarity in Simplicity

Reality is complex. Here's how to write sermons that are clear and simple without being simplistic.

What is simplicity?

Simplicity is certainly related to clarity. The more complex the message is, the more likely it won't be clear. But there's something about simplicity that has to do with the cleanness of the message, the cleanness, the unclutteredness, of the ideas.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." In this quotation you have two simplicities. The simplicity on this side of complexity is oversimplification. It's simple, but it gets at simplicity the cheap way, by refusing to take into consideration all the complexity of the subject. And so it winds up simpleminded.

I don't like that kind of simplicity. Maybe it's the academic in me, but I thrive on nuance, clarity, genuinely doing justice to the complexity of the subject. I'm looking for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Such simplicity takes complexity into consideration and strikes to the essence of it. Such simplicity makes sense of that complexity rather than avoiding it. That's the simplicity worth having. That kind of simplicity is profound and powerful.

There's a danger, then, in setting complexity and simplicity in conflict, because the kind of simplicity we're after is not one that ignores complexity, but rather makes sense of it in a simple way. So a good sermon is simple in the sense that it is tied together around a central truth that makes sense of complexity. A good sermon will often be complex, but it will hang together. All that complexity will make sense and the audience can assimilate it because the complexity is given unity by a core something in that message.

When we lack that core, then we have all the pieces, but we don't have anything that makes sense of them or gives them coherence. That kind of complexity is hard on an audience. They're struggling to find that unity, trying to make sense of the complexity. They're trying to find what this part has to do with that part, and we're not helping them with it.

This is the genius behind the notion of developing a central idea in your message. I've taught for years with Haddon Robinson, who is often tied to so-called big-idea preaching. This approach says your message should be about one strong, large, significant, generative idea. Your message unfolds that.

The kind of simplicity we're after is not one that ignores complexity, but rather makes sense of it in a simple way.

In the case of expository preaching, that means you choose a passage that is a unit of discourse. The unit is a unit precisely because it has a central emphasis that gives it its "unit-ness," its unity. That's where you get your central idea. You don't force that onto the text. Good expository preaching develops the central idea that helps the audience grapple with the complexity inherent in virtually any significant passage of Scripture. So you haven't left the complexity of the text behind, but you have a simplicity to the message because you're on the other side of that complexity, helping the audience make sense of it.

What is the difference between the topic of a sermon and the main idea of the sermon, and what difference does this make in the simplicity of the message?

It's important to deal with the full idea of a passage, not just the topic. "Prayer" is not an idea; it's a topic. "Prayer is the source of our spiritual power"—that's an idea. You're predicating something about prayer. In a full idea such as this, you have a subject, which answers the question, What am I talking about? And you have a predicate, or complement, which answers the question, What am I saying about what I'm talking about? It's not till you have the combination of at least those two things that you really have an idea. If all you have is a subject, then your sermon will almost certainly be a pile of sticks. You're saying a bunch of different things about that subject that don't necessarily tie together around a central affirmation. That's a prescription for a kind of complexity that is hard on audiences. They're trying to play pick-up-sticks with the preacher's points and make some overall sense of them, but they're having to do it on their own.

Understanding the main idea of a passage requires clear thinking. If we haven't thought our way through clearly to that central idea, then how can we expect the audience to have clarity about what we're saying?

For that to happen you have to think through the flow of ideas in that text, so that you understand why this sentence leads to that sentence, and to that sentence, from beginning to end.

Absolutely. This is the mark of good exegesis. You're thinking with the author and trying to understand. The author speaks in ideas, not topics. The passage doesn't have one topic after another; instead, it has one idea after another. The passage has sentences, paragraphs, units, and you're trying to think through them with the author. It's out of that—what the author is saying—that you get your message.

In fact, in your preaching outline you need to use ideas—fully stated subject-complement ideas—not just for the central idea of the message, but literally for every point in your outline. Write a detailed outline of your message. It's a great discipline to make every point in your outline a full, grammatically complete sentence. There should not be one place where you have just a topic word or phrase. This forces you to be clear in your own thinking, which will help you to be clear for your audience.

This discipline enables you to look at your outline and ask the question, How do these sub-points develop this superior point? You are much better able to see whether they really do. This is helpful because unfortunately we can arrange an outline in good outline form, but if we look at the Roman numeral idea and then the A, B, and C ideas under it, we find that the A, B, and C ideas aren't coordinate to each other, and they really don't support the Roman numeral idea. But the outline formatting fools us; it makes it look like they do. Well, there's a breakdown here in the clarity of the preacher's thinking, and that's going to come across and lead to a complexity that will hurt our audience's comprehension.

I've seen expository sermons that include every idea in a long passage. Such messages strike me as having a density of ideas that people in our culture, who don't have a great attention span, will have trouble following.

If we're working as we should, we do a lot of exegetical homework in the text. As a result we can feel an obligation to dump that whole load on the audience. In the timeframe you have, that often works against your audience's ability to understand. If you had more time to develop this passage with your audience, to the point where you could unpack every idea and show how it relates to the whole, your audience might be able to handle this. But often you don't have time. You have to pick and choose wisely.

This brings us back to the importance of the passage's central idea and its development. Give people as much of that central idea and its development as possible, all the way through to its relevance for us. Why does God want us to know this? What difference does he expect these ideas to make in our lives? You should dip down into the minutia only as far as you can go and still achieve that. The point is for people to hear a word from heaven. Here is what God is saying in this passage. Here is the difference he expects this to make in our lives.

When I pastored a church in Tennessee, one thing I did to address the problem of having too much to say in one Sunday morning sermon was to unify the two Sunday messages. We had a morning and evening service. The Sunday night message would come out of the overflow of the Sunday morning message. In virtually every Scriptural passage, there are rabbit trails, tangential issues, or things people have questions about. Of course, if you don't have a Sunday night service, you can do this in a midweek Bible study or small group meeting. I often had people tell me they appreciated the unity of the day instead of having two series going on at the same time. And it sure helped my prep time.

How do we recognize before it's too late that our message is overly complex?

If you do a detailed, full-sentence outline, you will likely know immediately. You'll look at what you have and realize: I'll never get this all in. If you have twelve major points, that's way too much for people to take in through the ear. Perhaps some listeners could take that in through the eye if they had time to read it. But when they have to take it in for the first time through their ear, and you only have so much time, you have to limit the number of major points.

A good rule of thumb is three. A three-point sermon is not just a cliché; there are some substantial, conceptual reasons why having three main ideas makes a lot of sense. At any rate, if I'm past five main points, I know I have a problem.

I think of major points in a message as being movements, like acts in a play or movements in a symphonic piece. I call them movements instead of points and think of messages more organically than mechanically. Some outlines just clunk along mechanically. I think of the outline more like a map. Here's where I want to wind up, and here's where we're starting. From there we'll go to here, and from there we'll go over here, and so on. I'm taking people with me on a journey almost like on a map.

What part do illustrations play in achieving simplicity and clarity?

An effective communicator moves up and down the ladder of abstraction. Abstract ideas are fleshed out by concrete illustrations, and the concrete is explained and made sense of in the light of larger ideas. So we need the interplay between the concrete and the abstract.

The idea of sticking with one or the other doesn't make sense. If we stick with the abstract, we're a long way from where people live their lives. But keeping everything at the concrete level doesn't make sense either. Postmoderns often look down on propositional abstractions, but that's crazy. The genius of the human mind is the ability to abstract. Dogs can't think of justice. Mosquitoes can't think of differential equations. In fact, the most brilliant human minds are the ones that can do the highest level abstractions.

What you don't want to do is stay up at the abstract level; nor do you want to settle at the concrete level. You need the concrete to flesh out the abstract, and the abstract to explain the concrete. You keep moving up and down.

That's what Einstein did, wasn't it? He explained E=MC2 with pictures.

Einstein's thought pictures were first for this own thinking. He found them helpful in conceptualizing what he was after. But they were also helpful in explaining his ideas to others. He used the image of a train whistle's changing sound as it passes us to explain the red shift of light. This is what every effective communicator does. When we move up and down the ladder, it enables us to be profound and yet simple.

So there again, going back to what we said earlier, it probably is not a good idea to set complexity and simplicity against each other, as if the one sacrifices the other. Reality of whatever sort tends to be complex. The best kind of simplicity is thus the kind that helps us make sense of that complexity, not overlook it.

Who is a helpful example of dealing with complex ideas in a simple way?

It's a cliché, but that's the genius of C. S. Lewis. In his essays, found for example in God in the Dock or Mere Christianity, he's dealing with sophisticated ideas, but he manages to put them simply. Lewis is about the only author I go back and reread on a regular basis for this very reason. He just captures things. He's dealing with profound issues, but he makes them available to us in wonderfully illuminating and simple ways.