It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a preacher. Here you’ve spent all week in preparation. You’ve consulted dozens of resources, done your exegetical homework, crafted an outline, prayed and then labored for a half hour or so on Sunday morning, only to have one of your listeners say in their own polite, tactful way,
“What was your second point again?”
“You talk really fast.”
“What did you say that word meant?”
All of this and more is code for, “You just weren’t clear”. And let me repeat for clarity sake: This is the one of the worst things that could ever be said about the preacher. Truth that is not clear, is like clothes that don’t fit- you can’t do anything with it.
Over the last several decades of preaching I’ve found the following checklist to serve me well in helping me to be clear in the preaching moment:
- Spend just as much time with the how as you do the what. Many preachers spend so much on the what- exegesis, hermeneutics, reading commentaries- that they forget the how, that is giving careful thought to the way in which things need to be communicated. Jesus gave careful thought to how he wanted to communicate truth. Just look at the careful attention he gave to illustrations and visual aids.
- Table of Contents. Remember the people you are talking to are not reading what you’re saying, they’re listening to you. When someone reads and they feel as if they missed something they have the luxury of turning back the pages and catching it. Not so with listeners. Once it’s missed, it’s missed. To help us with this we preachers should give a table of contents at the start of our message. “This morning we’re going to learn these three things,” and state them. I have found this simple exercise to not only help with clarity, but it gives people a road map for our time together, letting them know in advance when we’re close to landing the plane.
- Edit. Whenever a movie is made there is always several scenes that didn’t make it to the final product. Filmmakers know that everything that is shot cannot be shown. Preacher you should not bring all of your study to the preaching moment. There’s some “scenes” that need to be left on the editing room floor.
- Manuscript. My colleague, H.B. Charles has been known to advise young preachers to “Write yourself clear”. I have used this discipline for the last fifteen years or so. I don’t take the manuscript with me, but I have found the discipline of writing down my thoughts helps me to clarify what I want to say in the preaching moment.
- Big Idea. I resisted this for years, but in the past months I’ve returned to what Haddon Robinson and others have called the big or central idea of a text. It has been a rich tool in helping me to preach with clarity. Books like, Biblical Preaching, and Christ Centered Preaching will shed further light on this concept. I highly recommend them.
- Clarity begins with you. The message must be clear to the preacher before it’s clear to the people. I had a preaching professor who once said that a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew. Preacher are you clear with where you are going? The slightest hesitation to this question will be magnified by a thousand with your people.
- Structure. Here we have in mind things like outlines. It’s up to you how detailed you want to be, or if you want to use alliteration. As a model of structure I have used the explanation, illustration, application format. Make the point. Show the point. Show the person in the point.
- Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
- Simplicity. The mark of brilliance is the ability to make the complex simple. It has been my experience that recent seminary grads specifically struggle with this. In their quest to make their mark and validate their calling they want everyone to know how smart they were. My best compliments on preaching always come from children who say to me in their own way that they got what I was saying.
Remember, you can never argue with a person who says to you they didn’t understand you. We as preachers have to own that.