Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 3)

In my last two blogposts (which can be found here and here), I walked the reader through the process of becoming familiar with the preaching text to the point where you should have a solid grasp upon what the preaching text says, although you still might not be sure how to preach it or organize the sermon.

The next step is to form the preaching proposition, sometimes called the “big idea.” That’s easier said than done, and a lot of well-meaning teachers assume that finding the proposition comes naturally. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you aren’t alone and I’ll try to help you here. Now, I need to say that if you haven’t first done all of the exegesis that I mentioned in my last two posts, then you won’t be able to do this, or you may come up with a preaching proposition, but it may not be the main idea of the text or accurately reflect the author’s meaning. Be the approved workman and don’t be ashamed that you preached a sermon that doesn’t reflect the meaning of your text.

Before we go down this road, some of you might be wondering, what is a proposition? In simplest terms, a proposition is a statement or assertion. So, a preaching proposition is a statement that you are making about your text that you are going to explain or prove. Some examples might be: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” or “We are no longer under the Mosaic Law, but under the Law of Christ.” A “plural noun” preaching proposition would include a plural noun, and is probably familiar for anyone that has heard a sermon. Some examples of these might be: “Three Reasons Why Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and “Four Proofs that We are Not Under the Mosaic Law.” As you might be able to see, these examples of plural noun propositions are different forms of the same statement made earlier, and the content of the explanation would be the same, although each sermon might be organized differently.

Forming the Preaching Proposition

I’m going to walk through several steps to reach a preaching proposition. These steps are heavily influenced by a chapter in Wayne McDill’s book 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. If you need more help, I’d recommend you pick up this book.

  1. Write out the main subject of the text you have studied in one word. For example, if you were preaching 1 Cor. 13, you might write down, “Love.” This I can be hard to do because it requires that you crystalize your thoughts from study down to this one idea. Don’t give yourself more words. Limit it to one word only. This will assure that you are certain about the main idea of the text.
  2. Next, find a word that clarifies and narrows your one word main idea. For our example, “love,” you need to narrow down this large subject. Does 1 Cor. 13 speak about romantic love, brotherly love, Jesus’ love, marital love? How about “Christian love?” That fits. Let’s move on.
  3. Write out a sentence that includes the two words you chose from steps one and two. We can consider this a sermon title, or maybe something you’d put on a church sign. Make this a single sentence or phrase only. How about, “What Christian love looks like?” Sounds good.
  4. In this step you will need to expand your sentence again, using the same two key words (for our example, “love” and “Christian”). This time, you will write a sentence that includes what I’ll call “Bible dress.” This refers to the human author, his audience, and the scenario that is taking place in the context. Make sure it is only one sentence again. For our example, we might write about 1 Cor. 13: “Paul is concerned that the Corinthians are failing to show Christian love to each other and so he teaches them what this looks like.” Notice how we have the writer, audience, and even a little about the context (failing to show…”). This could of course be expanded to refer to the greater argument of chapters 12-14, and we could mention the place of spiritual gifts involved. But hold back the need to include so many details because we are only trying to get a crystalized summary for now–the details will come out as we unpack our proposition in the sermon.
  5. Now we are going to do a little trimming. We need to figure out what we want to leave in the last sentence because it is universally true, and what we want to remove because it is contextually true, but doesn’t fit our context. This new sentence will be stripped of the Bible dress (context, specifics, etc.) so that it becomes a universally true statement for today. For our example, it might look something like this: “God is concerned when the Church fails to show Christian love and He shows us what it should look like.” Notice that I replaced “Paul” with “God” because God is also the Author, and I replaced “Corinthians” with “Church” because the Scriptures written to the Corinthian church were also written to be applied to the whole church. Is this new sentence universally true and unbound by time and context? I’d say, yes! Let’s move ahead.
  6. Now, we are going to change our sentence into a questions: “God is concerned when the Church fails to show Christian love and He shows us what it should look like” becomes “What happens when the Church fails to show Christian love, and what should it look like?” We turn this into a question to test our propositional statement. Can we find the answer in our text? If not, we have made a mistake somewhere and need to go back and see where we went off track. If we can find the answers to our question in our text, we got it right. Make sure you choose the right words to form the question: Who, what, where, when, why, or how?
  7. Next, we will look for those answers in the text by choosing an appropriate plural noun–if we asked “Why?” we might find “reasons” in our passage. Maybe we will find steps, examples, reasons, examples, ways, proofs, thoughts, questions, prayers, solutions, etc. For our 1 Corinthians 13 passage, we might choose “Ways:” “Ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and what it should look like.” Another possibility might be, “Ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and Ways we can love like Christ would.” When we find these “ways” in our text, this makes up our outline and gives us the number of “ways.” We might find Four ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and Five ways we can love like Christ.” Each “Way” would be a sermon point, and with each point we would prove our propositional statement and explain the text before us. At this point, we might even see that we have two sermons here and would break it into two sections to be presented at two different times.

Why are we doing all this? I want you to understand a couple of things that are important. First, take your time to craft these sentences–refining your word choices so that you have clarity and an economy of words. But it is also important to know that this is a process, and so you don’t need to worry too much about each sentence being perfect. If you need to, go back and adjust if something doesn’t quite fit. Secondly, the reason for this process is to make sure that the preaching proposition is firmly based upon the text and its meaning. We are sticking with the heart of the text (the subject and its modifier) and building upon it, instead of what many preachers do–start with a sermon idea and find a text to make it say what they want.

Although this process does take a lot of time and effort, the results are satisfying and assure you that you are basing your conclusions on the text of the Word. take your time and learn to develop the skills needed to do it right, and over time it will become easier and you will move much faster through the steps. Of course, when we have the propositional statement we aren’t done. We still need to come up with an introduction, conclusion, illustrations, applications and transitional statements. But the meat of the sermon is now outlined and we are well on our way to preaching a biblically centered expositional sermon. Congratulations!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s