Contrary to popular belief, J. H. Jowett (1928) is correct, “I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal” (p. 133). Here, Jowett speaks of the main point, the statement of purpose, behind a sermon or Bible lesson. He does not have the main point of his text in mind. He is thinking about how best to apply the point of the Bible text to the congregation. The point of the text might be a gangling sentence. The point of the sermon or Bible study needs to be short, pithy, pregnant. It is a seed that the sermon fills out via the text.
But why do pastors and Bible teachers avoid developing a single unifying point for their sermons and teachings? The immediate answer is that it is difficult work. Jowett confesses, “I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labor in my study” (p. 133). Note that Jowett also believes that getting this pithy unifying statement, based upon the text, is the most fruitful part of his study. Is it difficult? Yes! Is it fruitful? Absolutely!
To overcome this difficulty and achieve fruitfulness, the pastor or Bible teacher must be under constraint, sometimes against his own conscious wishes, which seem easier. Jowett says, “To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness, this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon … ” (p. 133). Cutting material to make a presentation more streamlined and pointed is anathema. “I’ve done all this study. I have a truckload of information to dump on the congregation.” A clear purpose statement narrows the subject and prohibits the dump truck or bushel basket approach.
All of the above reminds me of a dear colleague who reviewed a paper I prepared for a seminary conference. His first question was simple, “Where is your purpose statement?” Did I ever feel foolish! In retrospect, my question is also simple. “If a conference paper needs a purpose statement, shouldn’t a Bible lesson or sermon have one also?” As Jowett says, “I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon” (p. 133).
J. H. Jowett. (1928). The Preacher’s Life and Work. New York: Doubleday.