I have a theory about why most sermons have three points.
No, it’s not that two’s not enough and four’s too many. and it’s not to do with Obama’s ‘Rule of Three.’ It’s to do with the way we preachers work.
You spend hours in a week staring at the Bible passage you’re preaching on, asking yourself the question: what is it about? What is the principal subject or the central theme? In Haddon Robinson terms, ‘What’s the Big Idea?’
And if you’ve preached for a while, you’ll know that Big Ideas tend to come as sentences, not single words. Especially if you are trying to identify what is unique about a passage. That’s another good question, by the way – ‘What wouldn’t we know if this verse wasn’t in the Bible?’
But because we know we mustn’t be complicated, we aim to keep that one sentence clear and simple. Which means it normally has a verb, a subject and an object. And there are your three points: 1) there was a cat, 2) the cat was sitting 3) the cat was sitting on the mat.
And then we want to keep that clarity, so we take our theme sentence, and draft our aim sentence for the sermon – which is that people understand the theme sentence (at least, that’s the kind of desperate point I reach when I’m scraping the barrel last thing; it’s probably just me).
I am all in favour of clarity, and the exercise that has us focussing with that intensity on the passage can only be good. But I think there are some other questions to ask once we have achieved that clarity, which will put some passion and purpose into the sermon. They will mess with that structure a bit, but it’s worth while.
They are not original: I think I lifted the first and last pairs from Andy Stanley, and the other from John Ortberg, although putting them together is new. Here are six clarifying questions to ask of your sermon for this Sunday, and the more specific you can make your answers, the better:
- What do I want people to know?
- Why do I want them to know this?
- What do I want people to feel?
- Why do I want them to feel this?
- What do I want people to do?
- Why do I want them to do this?
(and a question for people who like thinking theologically: don’t you think those three pairs map very neatly onto Christ’s roles as prophet, priest and king…?)