Have you ever been involved in a conversation in which you felt you had missed some key information? Or, perhaps it felt like you joined the dialog somewhere in the middle even though you knew you had been there from the beginning? Years ago, I knew a lady, who in almost every conversation I had with her, operated much like this. She was a very dear lady and I loved her and her husband greatly. However, in these encounters she was either assuming some information that I didn’t have, or she simply was not clear regarding what she was talking about. These can be frustrating interactions because you enter the conversation not really knowing what you are talking about, when in the conversation you do not know where you are headed, and then you leave the conversation with no takeaways because you do not know where you have been.
As frustrating as this is in a conversation, it can even be more detrimental in a sermon. Have you ever had this experience? You have no idea what the sermon is really about. You are frustrated because there is no clear direction, point, or ending goal. At the beginning of the sermon, you are not really sure what you are listening to, in the middle of the sermon you do not know where you are headed, and you leave the sermon with no takeaways because you do not know where you have been. Although there may be several contributing factors to a sermon missing its mark, this experience illustrates the importance of formulating a clearly understood and stated proposition.
By proposition, I mean a present or future tense concise, clear, and simple sentence, which states the main teaching and thrust of the sermon and is derived directly from the main emphasis and intent of the text being exposited. Essentially, it is the essence of the sermon in a sentence built directly from the essence of the text in a sentence. Brown, Clinard, and Northcutt called it the “Idea of the Sermon.” Haddon Robinson referred to it as the “Big Idea” or the “Homiletical Idea.” Wayne McDill named it the “Sermon Idea.” And, Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix identified it as the “proposition,” as did Bryan Chapell. Although recognized by different monikers, the point is that most homiletics textbooks identify the need from a proposition. As a matter of fact, I have heard that Dr. Adrian Rogers said, “If you don’t have a proposition, you don’t have a sermon.”
In this article, I list five benefits that including a clearly articulated proposition in your messages will add to your preaching. Several of these are closely related, build off one another, and are explanations of the same concept nuanced in slightly different ways.
First, it is a primary step in preparing to preach.
Stated in the negative, without a proposition, you are not ready to preach. A sermon’s proposition is the summary of your message in one sentence. It is the “essence of the sermon in a sentence,” and it is derived directly from the summary of the text of Scripture by which your sermon is driven. Therefore, if you cannot summarize your sermon in one sentence, do you really have a solid statement of your text in one sentence? And, if you do not have a solid statement of your text in one sentence, can you really explain your text? And if you cannot explain your text, do you thoroughly understand your text? Furthermore, if you do not understand your text, the content of and authority from which your message should derive, are you really ready to preach?
The answer to each of these questions must obviously be no! This does not mean that if you have a proposition then it is a guarantee that you are ready to preach and that you will do it well. However, it is a virtual guarantee that if you do not have one, you are not ready to preach and that you will not preach well. Also, being able to state a proposition that is based directly off the authority, meaning, and intent of the passage, is a strong indicator that you have completed and synthesized much of the other work that is necessary in sermon preparation.
You can do many other things — exegesis, finding illustrations, crafting applications, writing your introduction and conclusion – but if you have not formulated a sermon proposition, you are not ready to preach. Writing a sermon proposition is a vital step in preparing to preach God’s Word.
Second, it helps you practice conciseness.
This reason is close to my heart. I am one who struggles mightily with the concept of brevity. Why say in 5 minutes what you can stretch into 15! I have worked and struggled with this for most of my ministry. I have found that formulating a well-crafted sermon proposition before I continue to the remaining components of sermon preparation helps me greatly in this area. If, before I begin to think about my main divisions and explanations, I have stated what I believe the text and thus my sermon is about, it helps me “trim down” what I feel I need to include in the body of the sermon. This process helps me focus on the main thing and therefore gives me a standard to measure what is important and necessary, and what is not.
Likewise, the practice of having a solidified proposition in my mind when I go into the pulpit, helps me do in the moment of delivery what having one helps me do in my study – keep the main thing the main thing. This allows me to remind myself constantly and consistently what is important and necessary in order to grasp the main truth of the passage. What a tool this is to keep us from chasing rabbits and therefore having unnecessarily long sermons! Again, this is not the only component that is necessary for brevity, but it is an invaluable tool when conciseness and understandability are major aims of your preaching.
Third, it helps you stay unified.
Some messages today appear to suffer from a common malady. Many seem to be a collection of “mini-sermons” rather than delivered as one cohesive whole. In any given message, the connection between points seem loose at best and non-existent at worst. In other words, depending on the number of points a sermon contains, this becomes the number of independent mini-messages within one sermon event. For instance, if the sermon has two points, it appears to have two distinct and unrelated messages contained within it. Or likewise, if the sermon contains four points, the issue is multiplied – the preachers delivers four “messages” in one sermon event. Many preachers seem to go into the pulpit holding no unifying theme, which often results in confusion, and even disdain, on the part of the congregation. I believe this is a unity issue.
The problem may be, or at least contributed to, by a lack of a proposition or at least one that is vague and not solidified in the herald’s own mind. If you have a clear proposition, you have a unifying subject, thought, and aim to organize every point around. You can evaluate whether or not each division is relating back to one clearly unified concept. This will be invaluable for you and your audience!
Fourth, it allows you to preach with more confidence and freedom.
One of my goals in sermon delivery is to preach with minimum or no notes. This is not a shot at those who feel more comfortable carrying with them to the pulpit a skeleton outline, detailed and copious notes, or even a complete manuscript. I know there are “tradeoffs” with any method that you choose. I tell my preaching classes as much and give them the option to choose the method that they feel works the best for them. For me, however, no notes is best.
There are several components of the homiletical process than can help you preach relatively note free, but I believe one of the most essential is a solidified proposition, which is firmly planted in the preacher’s mind and heart. If I can take nothing else with me into the pulpit but a clear sermon proposition that I have understood and committed to memory, this gives me confidence and the freedom to preach without being bound to my notes. There are at least two reasons why this is true.
First, I feel like I will never get “lost.” If I know what my sermon is about overall, I can constantly remind myself where I am and where I am headed. Even if for an instant I find myself wandering from the main thing, I have a guidepost in my mind to put me back on the path toward the intent of the message. Second, knowing the main theme is a memory aids for all my other supporting information and main divisions. This is true because as I mentioned above, the proposition is the unifying force underlying my entire sermon and every other component of my message is built off it. Maybe not word-for-word, but if I know the whole, I have a much better chance of remembering the parts, since I am confident I have designed the parts to relate specifically to the whole.
The parts seem almost natural in the moment of delivery if you intimately know the proposition. A clear proposition gives me confidence that I will remember the other elements of my sermon, and therefore to preach the whole message with much more freedom.
Finally, it gives your audience one clearly defined sermon takeaway.
As one author communicated aptly in the title of his book on preaching, we live in and therefore “preach in an age of distraction.” It can be argued that audiences are distracted by many stimuli in our current cultural context. Therefore, they appear to bring those distractions into the environment in which they listen to sermons. It has been asserted for years that congregations have a shrinking attention span and memory. This means that even though that I as a pastor and proponent of deep and detailed preaching want my audience to remember all of the main divisions and theological truths of the text, they inevitably are not going to do so.
Therefore, if my audience is going to forgot many if not most of the elements of my sermon, I want to be as strategic as possible regarding what they forget. To put it another way, if my congregation is going to remember only one thing, I want to guarantee that they remember the main thing of the text. Deriving your sermon proposition directly from the text, which you are expounding, basing and unifying your sermon around that proposition, having it clear in your own mind, and then communicating it explicit to your audience is a great way to do just that. A solidified sermon proposition almost guarantees that whatever else your hearers may miss or forget, they will take away one, and the most important, driving truth!
In addition to teaching homiletics at the Masters and Doctoral level at NOBTS, I also teach the foundational preaching class for our undergrad program, Leavell College. This is the first preaching course for practically every student enrolled. Many of them have never preached a sermon. Therefore, this class is truly foundational for their preaching. As a result, near the beginning of the semester, I assign a five to seven minute speech on a subject of their choosing. I call it the “Central Idea Presentation” assignment, and I do this for several reasons.
This exercise provides students who may have never spoken in public in any capacity an opportunity to do so in a low-pressure environment. It allows the students to get feedback from the professor, so that they will know what I will be looking for when they preach their sermons at the end of the semester. Also, it provides an opportunity for them to stand before their peers and get a feel for that kind of environment before they have to do so later and with greater consequence.
However, the main reason I require this assignment is communicated in its name – the “Central Idea Presentation.” This assignment allows them to practice and requires them to formulate a “proposition” and build the entire body and main divisions of the speech around that idea. When I explain this assignment, I always tell them: “If you cannot build a speech around a central idea, you will never be able to do it in a sermon.” And, I believe it is of utmost importance to be able do so in a sermon. As I have heard my mentor Dr. David Allen say on more than one occasion, “a mist in the pulpit equals a fog in the pews!” My prayer is that this article may help you understand the importance of a sermon proposition, and in so doing, it may help you remove some of the mist so that you can clear some of the fog.
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See J. Ellsworth Kalas, Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2014).