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How to Increase Clarity

Sermon must overcome foggy introduction.

Next to biblical accuracy, clarity is the second most important quality of a sermon. If we are unclear, our message is hidden. On a clarity scale of 1 to 10, I give " Add a Leaf to the Table " a " 7. "


Preacher hammers home central idea.

I counted twelve direct statements of the central idea, " Add a Leaf to the Table. " In addition, the sermon title is the central idea itself. Through repetition alone the preacher effectively focuses listener attention on the main idea.

Using a metaphor as the central idea raises the communication stakes.

The main idea has another strength: it places an image in the mind. The central idea is a metaphor that suggests we should welcome and minister to Christ's body, the Church.

Using a metaphor as the central idea, though, raises the communication stakes since metaphors communicate indirectly. Listeners have to translate the metaphor to understand it. If this technique works, the idea has more impact and much longer retention in listeners' hearts. If it does not work, listeners leave confused. I think this metaphor works. The preacher mixes vivid images of childhood meals with straightforward explanatory comments that clarify the metaphor.

Body of sermon effectively combines induction and deduction.

The major movements of the sermon are

1. Stories and comments about potlucks
2. Reading the text: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

3. Childhood stories with repetition of " add a leaf "
4. Explanation of the text with cultural data
5. Application

6. Summary, with a return to the image of childhood meals.

The sermon presents the first four movements inductively. The central idea ( " Add a leaf to the table " ) first appears at the beginning of movement three. The message veils the central idea in metaphor and sweeps listeners forward with images. Without pausing to clarify the metaphor, the preacher next explains the text with first-century cultural data, but still he does not state the central idea as a universal principle.

The principle gradually takes shape in listeners' minds, but to make sure the principle is clear, the preacher eventually states it outright at the end of movement four, two-thirds of the way through the sermon: " The Corinthians' selfish attitude hampered the redemptive life that could have taken place, that they could have shared with others. They needed to add another leaf to the table. "

The sermon presents movement five deductively, as it applies the principle to the congregation: " So what does this mean to our church? "

The body of the sermon flows in an hourglass shape from induction to deduction. This arrangement is psychologically effective. It capitalizes on the indirection of induction as listeners " overhear " the central idea, and it capitalizes on the clarity of deduction when the preacher states the central idea.


Introduction is unnecessary.

In the section above I praise the body of the sermon. I cannot give similar praise to the introduction. The preacher begins with humorous references to picnics and zany controversies over potlucks. This accomplishes only one of three things that an introduction should do. It gains attention. It does not surface need, and it does not provide a bridge into the body of the sermon in thought or mood.

I recommend cutting the potluck stories (movement one) and beginning with the childhood stories (movement three). This will gain attention, create a desire for the beautiful hospitality the preacher's parents displayed, and focus attention on selfless service. After these stories and the repetition of the central idea, the preacher could then read the text, stating, " The Corinthians weren't very good at adding a leaf to the table. Their love feasts are described in 1 Corinthians 11. "

The conclusion is better than the introduction. It returns to the childhood stories and repeats the central idea. The technique of starting and closing with the same words is called inclusio. It is psychologically satisfying for listeners because it provides bookends to the sermon. The inclusio would be even stronger if the sermon began, as I recommend, with the childhood stories rather than the potluck stories.

Pronouns are vague.

Clarity results not only from effective structure (the macro-level of sermonic arrangement), but also from precise individual words and sentences (the micro-level). This sermon would be clearer if it used fewer pronouns like it, this, and that. Although these pronouns do less harm to oral than written communication, even oral communication gets foggy when it uses too many pronouns. Listeners must work hard to follow the speaker and may switch off.

Notice the pronouns in this paragraph: " If we received word that somebody was going hungry in our church, we as a congregation instantly would respond. They'd have piles of food in their living rooms. But this is a deeper issue than food. It goes to our attitude. It goes to our motive. "

The pronouns we, somebody, our, they, and their are clear because the preacher immediately links them with nouns and explanatory comments. But the pronoun this is not clear, and the use of it to clarify this compounds the confusion.

To read how Kent Edwards evaluated this sermon, click here.

To respond to the editor, click here.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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