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Avoiding Jigsaw Puzzle Sermons

Sermon achieves clarity through coherent structure.

I am not a puzzle person. I do not want to invest the time and effort necessary to put 1001 apparently unrelated jigsaw pieces into coherent order. Every Christmas when my in-laws bring out a new puzzle, I run for cover. Those who sit under our pulpit ministries show a similar lack of patience for puzzling sermons.

When people listen to a sermon, they do not want to be forced to invest the effort necessary to rearrange our thoughts into a coherent order. They want the preacher to do that. The people who populate our pews want the components of a central idea (no random thoughts or extraneous pieces) provided when they are needed (not in a haphazard jumble) in a manner that leads to a conclusion (no wandering). People want sermons structured for clarity, not as a jigsaw puzzle.

Fine-tuning involves cutting out those details that do not directly contribute to the big picture and including those that do.


Logical structure

The clarity of the clinic sermon, "Add a Leaf to the Table," testifies to its good structure. It has a discernable introduction, body, and conclusion, which together communicate a main idea. The introduction broaches the main idea with a metaphor that embodies the main idea of the sermon: a yellow chrome table. "At that table...everything was shared. There was only one rule: the thoughtful rule of sharing." At the end of the message we know that as the preacher went to fetch a leaf for the family table so that others could be served, so we are to go out of our way to serve others within the family of God. For us to see the main idea this clearly the preacher must have put the pieces in proper order.

A conclusion that makes a direct landing

One of the greatest strengths of this sermon is its conclusion. Many preachers end their messages resembling airplanes that have gone astray: circling and searching for a place to land. This sermon does not. While effective conclusions can take many forms, this one succeeds by re-employing the initial table metaphor and concisely restating the main idea. It lands cleanly and effectively.


Fat introduction

One of the ways this sermon could have achieved even greater clarity, however, is by improving the introduction. The sermon begins with a stutter. The opening paragraphs refer to a linguistic dispute among Scandinavian Lutherans. This episode was interesting and entertaining but did not introduce the main idea of the message. The second, "real," introduction involving the table did not come until later. The first introduction was unnecessary and would have been better left out.

Fine-tuning the "real" introduction could have further enhanced the introduction. So much time was spent introducing the socially unattractive attributes of the people gathering around the chrome yellow table that it raised the question: Is the idea of this sermon discrimination or selfishness? While selfishness clearly emerges, this was not apparent in the introduction. Fine-tuning involves cutting out those details that do not directly contribute to the big picture and including those that do. This was a strong introduction that could have been stronger.

Missing transitions

A second way that better structure could have improved clarity is by the use of clear transitions. In the main body of the message, the preacher moves from a cultural/historical background of 1 Corinthians 11 to an extended exegesis of the passage and then to corporate and personal application of the passage. I would have begun with the text rather than the background information, but regardless of the order, there were no transitional sentences that linked the sections to each other and the main idea. Transitions help listeners know why this information is being given now and how it relates to the sermon as a whole.

The author of this clinic sermon is a wise communicator. Knowing that in oral communication simplicity reigns supreme (there are no bonus points for complexity), this preacher constructed a straightforward message. This is a sermon that can be appreciated by everyone — even those who don't enjoy puzzles.

To read how Jeff Arthurs evaluated this sermon, click here.

To respond to the editor, click here.

Kent Edwards is professor of preaching and leadership, and director of the doctor of ministry program at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and author of Deep Preaching (B&H).

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