The Haddon Robinson Principle: How to Burn your Sermon into the Brains of Your Audience.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? For all the folks who line up at the door, shaking your hand, happily congratulating you on the message you just preached, how many of them really remember it? “Well! I should hope they ALL do – they just heard it!” Yes, but try asking them: what was my message about? Do they know? Can they sum it up in one sentence? A paragraph? Will they know this week, as they go about their daily lives? Will they know next week, after it’s long gone?

I’ll admit upfront I don’t think pedagogy is the point of preaching; I think preaching does a work of its own, even when folks don’t remember the point. But I also know that preaching can have a long-lasting, residual impact on people when its burned into their brains. The prophets, Jesus and the apostles all used pedagogical technique to burn their message into the hearts of their listeners; and we gladly have permission to do the same! The truth is, if our congregation can’t sum up our preaching in a sentence, it’s not going to impact life the way it ought to; and if preaching doesn’t change lives, it’s not good preaching.

This is where our friend Haddon Robinson comes in, most famous for his emphasis on “Big Idea” preaching. Here’s what he says: “Ideally, each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.” How many points was that? Three? Five? No. One point. One single point. So here’s our principle: Preach with a pin, not with a hammer. A pin is a narrow, focused point designed to penetrate through surfaces. A hammer has a wide, flat surface, and its designed to bat around and flatten the outer layers. If we want preaching that penetrates the heart, we must preach with a pin. See what I mean below:

1. A single point forces good editing. If nothing else, preaching a single point is a brilliant help in editing content. The single most important question the preacher can ask himself when creating a final manuscript is: “How does this information contribute to my single homiletical idea?” If the preacher is honest, most of the interesting things we find in exegesis – the stuff that is fascinating, interesting, or relatively relevant – has to be thrown out. We don’t like to do that, because the course of the week digs up so much gold its tempting to put it ALL on display. This is where character comes into play – am I preaching for me, or am I preaching for them? Do I want to show off how much I know, or be funny and entertaining, or do I want to change lives? Lectures delve into details; preaching gets to the point. This is a painful process. At the end of the week, we know so much about the text that we’re often tempted to lump it all into one gigantic, vague “point” of the sermon. Sharpening and defining our point helps us resist this temptation, and limits our preaching to only what people need to hear in order to understand and receive the main point.

2. A single point guides listeners through the sermon. When digging deep into a text, we really do find a lot of great, fascinating information. WE know how it all fits together. But the law of the “curse of knowledge” tells us that we often impose our assumptions on our audience – THEY don’t know how it all fits together. In order to help them follow along, we need a single hook to hang all the points we’re making on. We need a single stake to which the congregation can be drawn back, again and again, so we can say – “See? This is how it all relates.” Even if you don’t give your main point away until the end (inductive preaching – that’s what I prefer), the audience can sense the difference between a focused message and scrambled eggs.

3. A single point makes a better argument. When we lay out several different points in a sermon, we don’t have time to argue well for any of them. When we come up with a boatload of applications, we don’t have time to flesh them out. But when we pick a single point, we have the time we need to make a solid argument for that point, and to flesh out in detail exactly how it looks to live it out.

4. A single point is memorable. Finally, preaching a single point is memorable. A couple of months ago I preached a sermon in which I asked several questions, then answered them. That was fine, but I never heard about it again. The next sermon I preached, I picked one single point, and was amazed at the result. WEEKS later, people were still mentioning that sermon, thinking of specific applications, still chewing on the truth presented that morning. Did I say everything I wanted to say? No. But I said everything I needed to say, and that’s enough. Preaching one point allows us to feed the sheep throughout the week. That is a beautiful, satisfying feeling for any Shepherd.

25 Comments

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  • http://wordfocused.wordpress.com cbthomas76

    As usual, a ‘pointed’ and helpful post. Quick editing observation though… argument two is missing the word ‘point’ in the title… I hope you don’t mind me ‘pointing’ it out. Whoops. I think I had too many ‘points’ in this comment! God bless.

    • http://prinsenhouse.blogspot.ca/ Jeannie

      I assumed he was making a, uh, “point” about single vs. married preachers, which is a whole ‘nother story. :-)

      Anyway I like this post very much — especially because my church’s pastor always has a BIG IDEA (or as he always says, “the idea we’re going to camp out on today”). His style always makes for memorable, penetrating messages.

      • nmcdonal

        Well, Jeannie, it’s true – Paul says single guys are better at ministry than married guys. So see? My point still stands!

    • nmcdonal

      No, point after point it was a good point. Although when I tried to correct it, I wrote “pint” on accident and considered leaving it for a moment – I think a good, solid pint can really spunk up a sermon, too.

      • http://wordfocused.wordpress.com cbthomas76

        Ha! I’ve heard a few messages where afterwards I wanted to go for a pint, I’ve also given a few messages that may have been improved by having a pint. These days, I stick to ‘points’ – three if them usually, with alliteration of course!

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    This line is a good piece of advice preachers should keep in mind: ” Did I say everything I wanted to say? No. But I said everything I needed to say, and that’s enough.”

    My first sermon almost 30 years ago had 15 points. Or was it 16? I’m a single point guy nowadays.

    • nmcdonal

      Like a good Puritan, TIm – 16 points is the minimum. Although, I’d argue that all 16 points for the Puritans were really great arguments for one, single point. And, it’s always good to occasionally break the rules!

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        Rules – made to be broken. I’m now going to start calling you James Dean.

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  • http://afinework.wordpress.com afinework

    Being one of Haddon Robinson’s former students, as well as now qualifying for “old curmudgeon” status, allow me to provide an alternate view and a caution in regard to HR’s “Big Idea” preaching. One danger that I have observed in following HR’s methodology too closely is that it tends toward the moralistic. This is particularly true in regard to the OT and narrative.

    As an example, I submit a book that HR edited years ago, which was a companion volume to his “Biblical Preaching” textbook entitled, “Biblical Sermons”. This book was a collection of sermons written and preached by people who had studied under Robinson and which were presented as excellent examples of sermons using his methodology. If you read those sermons, you will find many of them, particularly OT narrative, that never even mention Christ. The preacher is so focused on the “Big Idea” that he loses the “big picture”, and neglects to find Christ, or to set the text into the context of biblical theology. If your sermon would fit just as well in a synagogue or a mosque, then you’ve probably missed the real point, and It should no longer be called “Christian” preaching.

    • nmcdonal

      I agree with that critique of Robinson’s method as a whole, afw. But I think his particular point about sticking to one point is as valuable as anything I’ve heard regarding preaching.

      • http://afinework.wordpress.com afinework

        Sure. We must preach the passage. But in determining what the “big idea” of the passage is, we must also go beyond the boundaries of an isolated passage and place that text in its biblical and redemptive context. For instance, in the book I mentioned in the previous post, “Biblical Sermons”, there is sermon preached from 1 Samuel 17, David and Goliath. What’s the big idea of the sermon? It’s stated a few different ways: “Looking at life from ground level or God level?”; “What are we going to do about our giants?” “Without God, facing our giants is impossible.” Now, I admit, I don’t own the book anymore and had to look it up on google books, but it has almost the entire sermon there. and 10 pages in there was not one mention of Christ or any redemptive connections whatsoever, and I’m pretty sure I remember that this holds true for the remainder of that sermon.

        Even if one were going to focus on the idea that “Without God, facing our giants is impossible”, shouldn’t there be some mention, somewhere, that in order for God to deal with our giants, we must know Him through Christ?

        Let me make clear that I’m not necessarily criticizing Robinson, although I’ve heard him do much the same kind of thing on more than one occasion. I’m just saying that I have witnessed this weakness in his methodology. To put it simply, if we miss Christ, have we really found the “big idea”?

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        Q: if we miss Christ, have we really found the “big idea”?

        A: No.

        Tim

        P.S. I know it was a rhetorical question, afw, but I thought I’d give answering it a shot anyway. ;-)

      • http://afinework.wordpress.com afinework

        “Q: if we miss Christ, have we really found the “big idea”?
        A: No.
        Tim
        P.S. I know it was a rhetorical question, afw, but I thought I’d give answering it a shot anyway. ”

        We often need to be reminded of the obvious, don’t we?

        “Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them…” 2 Peter 1:12

  • Mason

    Do you have any books that have been particularly helpful at identifying the big idea in a passage?

    • nmcdonal

      This is a little counter-intuitive, but I actually think Bryan Chappell’s “Christ-Centered Preaching” has a better theological grasp of big-idea preaching than Robinson’s book, “Biblical Preaching” (but you need to read both…). I’d qualify that, however, by saying that I think Chappell’s approach is too mechanical. But, that’s the place to start.

      • http://afinework.wordpress.com afinework

        Good suggestion. I agree with your assessment of Chappell. Of course, beginning preaching texts will almost always be too mechanical. I think its the nature of learning to preach. We follow patterns and models until we develop our own voice, so to speak.
        A couple of other good preaching texts, though not specifically “big idea” oriented, are John Stott’s “Between Two Worlds”, and one that I think should be on every preacher’s shelf, “Preaching and Preachers” by Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

  • http://www.toomanythorns.wordpress.com Dominick

    I always heard that sermons were normally “3 points”, but i could see how one point would make a more fruitful sermon. I wonder (for the sake of demonstration) if you have a particular sermon you could link to us, so we might here an good example of the point(no pun intended) that your making.

    • http://afinework.wordpress.com afinework

      Here’s an area in which I would heartily agree with Robinson. The structure of a sermon should reflect the structure of the text. That is, the fact that one is preaching the main idea of a passage doesn’t mean that the sermon only has one point, per se. There is the main point, and then there may be supporting sub-points. For instance, if one were going to preach Ephesians 1:3-14, which in the greek is one long sentence, the big idea is found in v. 3, that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Paul then goes on to give examples of those spiritual blessings. He chose us; He predestined us to adoption; He redeemed us through His blood; He made known to us the mystery of His will; He’s given us an inheritance; He’s sealed us with the Holy Spirit.

      There’s one main point, but there are five supporting points. In other passages, there may be two, or three, or four. The point is, there is nothing magical about a three point sermon, and one ought not be constrained by artificial structures. Allow the text to determine the form. Do the exegesis, and then turn the exegesis into oratory.

      Likewise, if one is preaching narrative, one is dealing with a whole different animal. Paul “outlines” quite nicely. Narrative doesn’t. It’s a story, not an analytical presentation of an argument. So a narrative sermon may not be structured by points. It may have a structure more akin to a drama, flowing from one act to the next, rather than moving from bullet point to bullet point.

      my .2

      • http://chriscookston.blogspot.com CRC

        Afinework, Thanks for typing this. I sorta assumed the “big idea” and the “single point” here were synonymous but it was unclear to me. The Eph 1:3-14 is a perfect example. The way I would structure my message around that text would probably be similar to yours. Most likely, saying much about, going deep these “spiritual blessings” as this would operate as one’s pin rather than hammer. Yet, bringing in the specific blessings, e.g., election, adoption, redemption, one-by-one but not letting them steal the show, as it were. Remembering the “pin” is the heavenly spiritual blessings that God has given us.

        This can be difficult. Some of us could easily pick out one of those specific blessings and give a lot of info.

  • http://cbcpm.net michaelandrzejewski

    I really need to keep this in mind. I would rather someone remember one thing from God’s word, than forget 3-5 things every Sunday. Pins are better than hammers, pins are better than hammers…
    http://cbcpm.net

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  • http://twitter.com/ChrisBrauns Chris Brauns (@ChrisBrauns)

    Good stuff. I did my D-Min under Haddon at GCTS. One of the central goals of my book, When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search was to teach psc’s what to look for in a sermon. I used this summary phrase. A sermon should be “a biblical bullet fired at the life of the listener.”

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