Calvin Coolidge, who never wasted words, came home from church and was asked by his wife, “What did the preacher preach about?”
“Sin,” replied the President in his usual laconic fashion.
“Well, what did he say about it?”
“He was against it.”
At least Mr. Coolidge knew what his pastor was preaching about. Not everybody who attends church is that fortunate.
Vagueness in a sermon is an unpardonable sin, like vagueness in a medical prescription or on a map. To quote Ruskin, a preacher has “thirty minutes to raise the dead,” and the miracle does not usually take place when the message is unclear and the preacher is uncertain where he is going.
Complexity is not the same thing as profundity. Insurance policies are certainly complex, but there is nothing profound about them. Compared to some sermons, an insurance policy is a child’s primer. Our Lord was simple in His teaching and yet very profound, for true profundity comes from simplicity.
How, then, can we avoid vagueness in our teaching and preaching?
1. We must have a definite aim for every message and state that aim in a direct and simple sentence. Our people should be able to stop us before the service and ask, “In one sentence, Pastor, what are you talking about today?” – and expect a clear and ready answer.
The statement might be a simple sentence: “Our Lord gives us four instructions to follow in winning the war against worry.” Or, it might be a question: “How, then, do we win the war against worry?” If you feel up to it, you can even dare to make it an exhortation: “Let’s win the war against worry!”
Finding that precise statement is one of the hardest parts of sermon preparation, but hard studying on our part leads to easier listening on the part of the people.
2. We must use concrete terms and not abstractions, being careful to define the important words. If your message is about freedom, tell us what the word means; because each of us has a different and probably very vague idea of what freedom is. Use your dictionary of synonyms to get that precise definition; and then make that definition “alive” to your listeners. Often a good quotation will do the job.
Abstractions become obstructions apart from illustrations. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not discuss the Hebrew and Greek words for worry. Instead, He talked about birds and lilies and burglaries.
Most Hebrew and Greek words have fascinating pictures within them, so don’t turn them into bewildering theological terms. Redemption moves you into the slave market, justification into the court room, departure into the army camp, and so on. There are many excellent linguistic tools available today to help you better understand the divine vocabulary.
3. We must cite specific facts and avoid generalities. “You will recall the American Airlines crash at O’Hare Field on May 25, 1979, that took the lives of 274 people” carries a lot more power than, “That plane crash a few years ago – I forget the name of the airline – it was at O’Hare Field and hundreds of people died.”
Specific and accurate facts not only give a stronger impact to the message, but they also quietly convey the fact that you cared enough to do your homework.
One of the handiest books for checking current facts is the humble almanac. The encyclopedia annual is an excellent resource for current biographical facts. If you want to build your credibility and get a reputation for accuracy, take time to get the facts.
4. We must always apply the Word in a practical way. One of the best ways to test the clarity of a sermon is to go over it point by point and courageously ask yourself, “So what? What difference would it make if I left this out?”
Clear preaching begins with clear thinking, and clear thinking involves determining what you want the message to do in the lives of the people. If your applications are vague, it may be that your interpretation of the Word, or the organization of the message, are lacking clarity. If we know what we are talking about, we can always say “Therefore…”
5. We must relate every doctrine to Jesus Christ. The Word must become flesh. When Paul wanted to get a generous missions offering from the Corinthians, he reminded them of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 8:9). When he wanted to urge husbands to love their wives, he told them about Christ’s love for the church (see Eph. 5:25ff). This is what it means to “preach Christ” and to do it effectively.
We don’t want our people leaving church and asking, “What was he aiming at?” No, we want them to say, “Did not our heart burn within us?” And we want them to come back for more.
©WWW 2003, previously published in Prokope, September-October 1987. All Rights Reserved
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).