by Pastor Matthew Everhard
Another pastor and I were recently discussing his upcoming sermon. He expressed the tension many preachers face in the development of his message. He was dealing with a complex issue in 1 Peter, namely suffering. His question was this, "How simple should I make this? This text is so complex, how deep should we go?"
If you have ever preached a sermon before, you too have felt this bi-directional pull between simplicity and depth. I know I have!
We live in an era where most preachers have already decided that sermons should be simple or simplistic. It is a foregone conclusion. Most strive for humor and likability above all else. Like late-night comedy, "good" sermons are memorable because they are humorous. Usually the result is theologically shallow water. Most congregations are deluged with personal illustrations serving to illustrate more personal illustrations. It is not surprising then that we live in an era of the highest biblical illiteracy since the time just preceding the Reformation.
Therefore, the question of simplicity vs. depth deserves some consideration. Let's examine this question a bit more carefully in several specific areas.
Language: Without any doubt sermons should be simple in their language. A pastor who talks over his people's heads will quickly lose his audience. We are not presenting at the Evangelical Theological Society on Sunday mornings, gentlemen. Like many professionals, we have a ton of jargon that we throw around. Some give in to the temptation to use it to sound intelligent. Nevertheless, Christianity is ripe with language that the world does not share. Words like "justification," "propitiation," and "sanctification" should not be forgotten in our communication, but rather explained. While the pastor should strive for clarity, he should not forsake the riches of our theological vocabulary.
Illustration: Illustrations too should strive for clarity. Many of our stories meant to highlight a particular theological point are often too successful. The point is lost due to the power of the story itself. A humorous anecdote often overwhelms the verse it is meant to highlight. Many of our points do not need much illustration, the power is latent in the text itself. While most pastors feel the need to "illustrate" everything, the stories meant to shed light may actually steal the moment and make the preacher's theme more difficult to follow.
Content: When it comes to content, however, simplicity can often be our enemy. Most of the truths we profess defy "simplicity." While the gospel is so clear that a child can understand it, we can never exhaust its riches. The nature of God, the work of Christ, the power of the Spirit, and the history of redemption are decidedly not simple. In attempting to make them seem so, pastors run the risk of sounding glib, trite, and worse yet: shallow. By avoiding difficult, obtuse, or complex themes and texts entirely, the pastor abdicates his role to declare the "whole counsel of God."
The fear that our congregations will not "get it" may actually be a form of pastoral pride. When God's Word is opened, and the preacher delivers the content with conviction and pathos, the Holy Spirit will yield incredible amounts of illumination so that Word of God does not return void.
Therefore, I say "Grab a shovel pastors, it's time to dig deep!"
Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville Florida. Follow him on Twitter @matt_everhard