In 2 Corinthians 10:4, Paul stresses that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” These strongholds (ESV) are fortresses (NASB), which defend a position. One of my pastors reminds us that we all face various strongholds, which hold out against our labors in Jesus Christ. As a professor of homiletics, in what follows, I discuss such a stronghold that vigorously holds out against a simple principle of preaching. I begin with a personal experience.
Early in my tenure as a Professor of Homiletics at our seminary, I was a presenter in a pre-synod conference on preaching. In the first session, I set forth and sought to defend the proposition that every sermon should have one main point. Part of my presentation included a list of preachers and teachers of preaching stating this position. The next speaker, a well-respected pastor, began by saying, “I don’t believe every sermon needs one main point.” Here is the stronghold. I met it head-on at the conference in which I was one of the lead speakers. My further presentations were an uphill slog.
Later, when asked to present a paper at the seminary’s annual Westminster Conference, I asked the assistance of one of my colleagues. I’d never made a presentation in an academic setting. This brother kindly read my paper and then had one question, “Where is your thesis statement.” With some embarrassment, I reworked my paper with a proper thesis statement and requested a second review. This little story sets up a running debate within the seminary community.
Here is how I frame the debate. Although many sermons are printed in books, sermons are prepared, in the first instance, to be heard in the congregation. On the other hand, papers are meant to be read. From this perspective, we understand that preaching and writing are two decidedly different activities. Listening and reading are two distinctly different activities. Although this is the case, many maintain that writing a sermon is just like writing a paper. So then, I respond, if a paper ought to have a strong thesis statement, a sermon also ought to have a strong main point. Here again, we meet the stronghold. “I don’t believe every sermon needs one main point.” The position seems illogical.
At the same time, I ask, “If the bulk of prominent preachers and homiletics teachers hold that a sermon ought to have one main point, why do so many demur, raise doubts, and show reluctance? A quote from J. H. Jowett responds.
I have the conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching . . . until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting and the most fruitful labor in my study . . . I do not think a sermon ought to be preached, or even written, until the sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon (The Preacher: His Life and Work, 133).
Yes, to derive the main point of a text and formulate the main point of a sermon is demanding work. A former student came to me early in an Introduction to Preaching class and announced, “Professor, I’ve selected a great text for my chapel sermon this quarter. It divides nicely into three parts.” Such an approach is much easier and less demanding. The challenge is to remove this stronghold and to build each sermon around a single controlling idea.