The problem with most sermons is not that they are too deep, but that they are not deep enough. Kent Edwards believes this so strongly that he has "set out to rethink preaching." He does this in his recent book Deep Preaching: Creating Sermons That Go Beyond the Superficial (B&H Academic, 2009). As I read his book, which won a PreachingToday.com book award, I realized that his "rethinking" does not lead him to scrap the homiletical models taught by the current deans of expository preaching, such as Haddon Robinson and Bryan Chapell. Rather, Edwards has a knack for identifying pieces of these models that we take for granted or ignore.
One of these pieces has to do with the preacher's heart. "Start with your heart," Edwards counsels. Then he asks, "Do you want God or God's blessings? Do you want personal advancement or personal intimacy with God?" (p. 50) Those questions stop me in my tracks! Edward explains why preachers must wrestle deeply with questions like these: "The people God uses in significant ways always want Him and refuse to trade His presence for cheap carnival prizes like larger salary, fame, or large ministries" (p. 50). In a later chapter, Edwards circles back to this issue again, wondering why "parishioners do not know when and where we have wrestled with God" (p. 175). There is so much at stake with the preacher's heart, he contends, since "God uses deep preachers because they do not try and take God's glory for themselves" (p. 174).
Edwards, though, is not content to view deep preaching only as a matter of the heart. From this starting point, preachers must work hard at communicating the truth that they have absorbed into their souls. A key way to convey this truth is through metaphor. As Jesus demonstrated, metaphors can range from a few words—"you are the salt of the earth"—to extended similitudes like the parable of the Prodigal Son (p. 139).
God uses deep preachers because they do not try and take God's glory for themselves.
Here, Edwards offers a couple of important clarifications. First, "the longer a metaphor is, the greater its emphasis will be. If you spend 10 minutes developing a metaphor you better be sure that the point of the metaphor is the main point of your message. If not, the extended metaphor will pull you away from the central idea of your passage" (p. 140). Second, "the longer the metaphor is, the greater its emotional impact has to be" (p. 140).
These insights helped me recently when I prepared a sermon on Romans 13. The more I studied it, the more convinced I became that the text itself contained a metaphor that communicated the main idea of the passage. The Apostle Paul wraps up his discussion with the command: "Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14)." So, I spent a couple minutes talking about the clothing we wear and about what it means to wear the Lord Jesus Christ. Then, I stated my big idea like this: The way to live in this age, when you belong to another, is to dress yourself in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I also resonated with Edwards' conviction that deep sermons are lean. He uses the metaphor of deleted scenes in a movie to make his point. He writes: "What impresses me as I watch these deleted movie scenes is … how much stronger the movies were without these scenes. With the deleted scenes gone, the movie was tighter and better focused. Sometimes less is more" (p. 167). So, Edwards counsels preachers to go through their sermon like a director going through a movie in an editing room. "What scenes should be removed? Which content muddies the focus? Which ones are rabbit trails? God is eternal, but our sermons don't need to be" (p. 167). I have been more ruthless in my sermon preparation this week to cut out some good stuff. It is good stuff! But getting rid of it will keep people more focused.
If you want to go deeper with your preaching, this book is worth reading. It will reorient you to some issues that will determine whether your sermons cut deep or simply remain superficial.
Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.