Weaving on Back to the Big Idea
Weaving on Back to the Big Idea
Dr. Olu Peters on what Western pastors can learn from African preaching
PreachingToday.com: You have a very interesting background. Tell us about the various cultural threads that have shaped you as a preacher.
Dr. Olu Peters: I'm an African Canadian. I grew up in Nigeria until I was in my twenties, when I came to Canada to study. After a long academic career culminating in my Ph.D, I started teaching here at Emmanuel Bible College, and I've been teaching Bible here since then. But as of now I am the chair of the Bible and theology as well as the director of pastoral studies at the Bible College in Kitchener.
At PreachingToday.com we talk a lot about developing a "big idea" for every sermon. I know you're passionate about that concept as well. But what do you mean by it?
The big idea is the main thread in the fabric of the sermon. There are different types of fabric products—sweaters, bed covers, shirts, cushions for chairs, even textile products like carpets, lots of them. They are made of many threads, strings that are woven together. But each one, even if it is invisible, has a main thread, to which all the threads are linked. The same is true for sermons that we preach. Different sermons, whatever kind of the sermon that may be, that sermon needs a main thread to keep the sermon together as a unit. Otherwise the sermon will fall apart into pieces. That's my "big idea." Each sermon should communicate one main thing.
Most preachers would say they do this already.
Well, there are preachers who practice it well. They have the main thread. But I've also heard many preachers who think that they have the big idea down, but they really don't. Instead, they just have loose threads that lack a compelling main idea. It helps to have outside opinions here, especially the opinion of your congregation. If they can tell you what your sermon was about in a sentence or two, and it matches what's in your notes, you're communicating the big idea. If it's muddy, no matter how well you think you're doing, something isn't working.
Of course, bad preparation such as proof-texting or selecting random passages to preach from sets a preacher up for failure here. Communicating a faithful big idea will only happen when the message is well anchored in the biblical text.
Haddon Robinson says it well, "Get the idea of the sermon from the idea of the text." If we make up our minds as to what our sermon is on and then start looking for texts to preach on we end up just saying what we have already made up our mind to say.
Preachers have to constantly fight this, in order to have their big idea be the thread throughout their sermon. But if they can do it, it will make all the difference in the pulpit and for their hearers.
Based on your cross-cultural experience, how have you seen this play out in different contexts, especially African versus North American contexts?
To begin with, African preachers have a much deeper perspective on narrative preaching. While the West is rediscovering the art of narrative preaching, in Nigeria and other parts of Africa storytelling is a much more advanced good form of communication. That comes out in the preaching. This is nothing new of course. It is like Jesus. Notice how Jesus preached—with stories. In the Nigerian setting they often tell stories, and out of those stories you learn lessons. Even when they're preaching parts of the Bible that aren't narrative, they will tell stories in their preaching.
In North America we tell stories, but it's usually just to illustrate a point, rather than being the governing idea shaping how we communicate the text. We don't realize that we could use more of it.
The upside is that stories connect deeply with our culture. The downside is that sometimes the stories can get more attention than the text.
Of course, the Western dynamics are flipped. The text is strong, but our sermons just become a series of three-point sermons that don't express emotion or the spirit of many texts. When it comes to preaching, we need more than just "three point shots." And in fact, that is the problem that I find in much North American preaching. There are too many "three-pointers" in our sermons. We have become three point shooters from behind the arc, when sometimes all we need to tell is one good story based on the biblical text, especially a narrative text.
Unfortunately, most narrative preachers still use several points instead of one main point. A better way to do it is to have a single main thread that moves and develops through the sermon with short stories, examples, and illustrations in support of the big idea. Many passages fit this style of preaching very well; especially if the preacher is preaching a narrative text. But this works even in discourse or epistles. For non-narrative passages, I suggest that the preacher boil the passage down to the main point, and then craft his or her sermon like telling a story.
In my twenty years of preaching, probably ninety percent of my sermons were three-pointers. How can pastors get out of that rut?
By coming back to the "big idea." What is the point of your message? If the sermon is like a piece of woven cloth, what's the main thread? This is very common with African-American preachers—the idea that a sermon should repeat one thing over and over again from different angles.
Now, to be candid, I am as guilty of "three point shooting" preaching as you are. Some of us are linear thinkers, who find it that it is a lot easier to think this way. We just keep going straight down the road to our destination. But I'm learning to just say one thing. We need to have a main thread that runs through the fabric of each sermon. If there are other threads they need to be well connected with the main thread.
There's a lot of emphasis on pastoral training in the West. You teach preachers, so what's your take?
We have so many resources in the West that preachers find that many aspects of preparation and exegesis are already done for them. There are many well-trained pastors in Africa too, but many preachers find that they have to do a lot from scratch.
Training is good, but it invites a problem. It forms our intellect, but usually only allows us to speak to other intellects. We learn to address our hearers' heads, to communicate the facts. But we also need to speak to the hearts of the people. The two are connected of course, but preachers often get so caught in the Greek that they miss the heart of their audience. To do this, preachers need to experience what they're talking about in their own hearts. We need to authentically engage with the text or the topic we are addressing, and be open to the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
We must learn to speak to the heart of the people, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. We need to take our resources and our mental preparation and truly submit it to the Lord. I often say to my students when I teach them, "If you want to preach, get pregnant." This "pregnancy" comes from what the Spirit of God lays upon your heart. And when you get pregnant there's a time for that pregnancy to grow before delivery. So the time for the pregnancy to continue to grow before delivery is a time you continue to pray and do your study and whatever you needed to do, but you already got pregnant. Like Mary. God put something in her womb.
That baby is the main thread, the big idea of the sermon. It has to be given time to grow and develop through study, prayer and reflection, listening to the Lord.
Preachers need to experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit here.