Stop making points!

It’s time to stop using a preaching style which kills the bible.

10 comments

He was, I knew, quite an experienced, and well-known, Christian speaker.  He had a reputation for clarity, and I was looking forward to hearing him.

And with three words, he lost me.

‘My first point…’

When did we start making ‘points’?  And when did we start telling people that that was what we were doing? 

Those are separate issues, by the way, and they contain the clue to what’s gone wrong. One is a list of observations on a pad in your study – the other is what you’ve actually decided to say.  The journey between those two moments ought to be a long one, but when we’re short of time we just microwave our first observations.  You know what I mean.  We’ve all done it.

But there’s a problem.  Because it feels to me as though what we’re doing, by default, is reducing every biblical form into one shape, and a rather boring one at that. 

Points can’t tell a story. They can’t capture our imagination and take us to the campfire, the palace, the exile by the Euphrates.  They can’t distinguish Cain and Abel. They can’t capture Jacob’s tension as he returns to his brother.

Points can’t capture a poem, its delight, its danger, its power.

Points can’t even make an argument.

You see, even when the passage in question is tightly woven, and logically an argument, it is still making a case, answering, countering, proving, deducing, and moving towards a conclusion.

Points don’t do that.  Like a report in a board meeting, they are observations, discrete. Points present information flatly, for information.

Now you’ll say, but I wasn’t doing that! I was proving, deducing, arguing. I’m a regular Poirot in the pulpit.

In which case, make that clear to yourself, and to your hearers, that that’s what you’re doing.  Make us hear the argument, join it, hear our objections overturned, and our idols brought into the dock.  Work to engage us.

Let me give you an example.  Billy Graham’s best known phrase is probably, ‘The Bible says…’  And there’s a little squad in second position: ‘I want you to get out of your seats…’ ‘Don’t worry, the buses will wait…’  But right up there is, ‘But, Billy…’

‘But, Billy…’

He voiced our objections, anticipated them and answered them.  It was an argumentative dance, in which he held us and won us over.

He didn’t just make a series of points.

So what could replace ‘points’?  Well, I could suggest using the language of ‘plot’.  Allow yourself to look at your material and ask about variations of pace and intensity, light and shade, engagement and exposition.  When can you assume our interest, and when will you have to work for it? Where’s the drama? What’s at stake?

Try it, and let me know how it goes.

10 comments on “Stop making points!”

  1. Not sure I agree here. My experience of most preaching these days is that I can’t follow it because the structure of what they’re saying isn’t clear enough. I.e. if you asked me at the end what the passage was about I couldn’t tell you. I think that’s probably because preaching as you suggest might allow you to be more sensitive to genre etc., but it’s much harder to communicate clearly and so those with limited time sacrifice clarity by dropping structure and to the listener it sounds like a stream of consciousness.

    1. Think of the latest good movie, book, TV box set that gripped you. Was it because the writer made points? Or because they understood structure and plot really well? By all means please be clear, obvious, easy and logical. But make sure your sermon is an operation, not an autopsy!

      1. Actually more often than not the point of the movie, novel etc. is somewhat opaque and has a tendency to allow the reader, watcher etc. a whole range of responses as to what the point is. All the more in the post-modern context in which we live. And especially to those not schooled in the arts of film-making etc.

        However, think realistically about what you’ve just said. The latest book or movie has had huge amounts of work put into it. Usually by some of the absolutely best people in the field. Often there are vast amounts of money on offer to support it etc. It will have taken months if not years to get to that point. And still most of them bomb into insignificance. Then think about little old me with a few hours in a week trying to put something together that actually has a take home clarity…

        Sure having overt structure can cause problems for engagement (although that depends a lot on the hearer too). But as I say, my constant experience of average preachers like me working without overt structure is incomprehensible sermons. If that’s true then I think that’s the issue that needs addressing if you want us to change style.

      2. I’m just an average preacher too, Stephen, working with limited time and abilities, usually against the clock. But I want us to make conscious and self-aware choices about how we structure our material. Of course explicit structure is really important, and we never move beyond that. But we can all get better at it. As we mature as preachers we tackle more difficult and diverse genres, and there is a right sense of challenging ourselves and stepping up to a new task. Narrative and poetry demand a new set of skills for any preacher, and I’m encouraging us all to stay restless and self aware. Preach well!

      3. Ah, I think I’m beginning to get you now. In which case I would love to hear more about how you do it. As I say, when I (and others) go more “story” or “poetic” we get less clear. Structure gets submerged, main point lost etc. I think I get what you say about plot (is this like looking at scenes, characters etc.?).

        I’d also really love to know how you think we tackle poetry. Maybe some blogposts on ways of preaching different genre (which might then be a very useful book) 😉

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the problem with a flat or rigid structure imposed by the preacher. But I also agree with Stephen that the opposite extreme is if anything a greater problem. I’m constantly urging our less experienced preachers to adopt a clearer structure and make it explicit, as it can be hard to follow and therefore very boring without it.

    Where exactly on this spectrum do you want us to land? Are you saying we shouldn’t provide an outline at all (whether verbal, handout or powerpoint)? Or simply that our outline should conform in pattern to the text rather than be ‘imposed’ by the preacher, and laboured in delivery?

    1. I’m really keen on structure! And I’m happy with explicit structure too; I hope I do that, and I don’t want anyone to be opaque or allusive. That’s really unhelpful. Clarity and simplicity. Drill that into preachers in training. BUT that does not mean a series of scantily connected ‘points’ which lose the dynamism of the literary trope. It really is little more than one extra step, to ask how we can be interesting rather than boring.

  3. I think some confusion might come from what we all mean by “points”. From one “point of view” this whole post makes a point ( conveys an idea) by means of several sub-points all of which support the main point ie: we should stop making points! Which is sort of the whole point of the post… LOL That said there is a good point being made here….

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