Some preachers use words. Other preachers smith them. One of my growing edges in ministry over the last decade or so has been to abandon the former and embrace the latter.
Smithing words is especially important when, in a one point sermon, you craft the bottom line. The pointed point. The take-away. Here are some tools that have helped me along the way …
So you’re committed to simplifying your messages and mulitplying your impact by zeroing in on one memorable point. Yet before I give some “rules” I have devised for smithing the words in a bottom line, there are two clear and present dangers along the way.
1. Mastering The Obvious. If your bottom line is along the lines of God loves you or Sin has consequences or We need to share the Gospel well … all of those are TRUE, but none of them are interesting. None of them required getting up for church in the morning as they have been part and parcel of church assumptions ever since there was a church. To keep yourself from mastering what is obvious, ask yourself in preparation: “is this not only true but interesting as well?”
2. Trite exhortation. I long for bottom lines that are neither predictable nor elementary, but are instead provocative, compelling, and well worded. How does that happen?
Out Of The Danger Zone & Into Impact
Some of the most effective bottom lines take shape when the preacher plays with the words involved. The kind of wordplay I am talking about includes double meanings, using the same term as both noun and verb, and upending the congregation’s expectations. Here are a few examples:
In a message on kindness from the Fashion Statement series based on Paul’s virtue list in Colossians 3:12: Kindness does for people who can’t do for you.
From a message drawing from James 2 and its discussion of preferential treatment for wealthy church guests: The favorites you play play you.
I opened the Eye Rollers series with a message on “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” that landed at this bottom line: The only way to love your enemies is to realize you’re the loved enemy.
In that same series I also preached on Jesus’ words regarding anger in Matthew 5:21-26. The conclusion? Your anger fades when you face the ones you anger. I heightened the contrast with two poles on the platform, one with a sign representing the noun (Your Anger) and the other the verb (You Anger).
Our Behind The Scenes series based on the book of Esther launched with a message called “Control Freak, Meet Trophy Wife.” The bottom line, inspired by King Xerxes antics in chapter one, went this way: People control you when they can’t control themselves.
During On The Up And Up, a series on the Songs Of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), the sermon on Psalm 122 built to Having the right doesn’t give you the right. That sermon with that bottom line also happened to be delivered on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July.
From a series called Only Human, I developed this bottom line for a sermon on Psalm 8: It’s no accident that you’re on purpose.
My earliest inspiration for sermonic wordplay came, not surprisingly, from an Andy Stanley message from Proverbs: Wise people know what they don’t know. Simple, compelling, convicting, and memorable. May all your wordplays get the same reviews!
One of the most reliable bottom line structures involves contrast. The best contrasts expose conventional wisdom for the fallacy it (usually) is, while replacing it with the counter-intuitive truth of the Gospel.
In the “For The Gospel” message drawn from Galatians 2:11-21, I drew this contrast: Heaven isn’t a reward for those who are better. It’s a gift for those who’ve been bought.
In the Solutionist series (which became the Abingdon release Solve), the lesson I drew from Nehemiah’s worker list in chapter three (a list that is at first glance it is mind numbing and at second study is soul lifting) was Leaving your mark isn’t about what you accomplish. It’s about who you influence.
The Eye Rollers series culminated with Jesus’ most impossible command of them all in Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect. What do you do with that? A helpful contrast: You won’t have perfect performance for Jesus but you do have perfect position in him.
I have saved my favorite bottom line wordsmiths for last: prepositions. With a slight adjustment to the smallest words, an impactful preacher can both expose the folly of God-less thinking and illumine the beauty of Gospel living. These bottom lines often take the most work to uncover – remember the more effortless it looks, the more effort it took? – yet they are deeply rewarding once found. They also have the added benefit of using diction and syntax that no one would label confusing or academic.
Here are some of the strongest bottom lines that twisted on just a (small) word or two:
From Lost Hope, a message that dug into Elijah’s death wish and God’s provision in I Kings 19: God won’t do for you what he needs to do with you.
I started 2018 with Practicing The Presence, a series inspired by Brother Lawrence and focusing on spiritual disciplines. The first sermon came from a survey of Psalms which give witness to the power of morning prayer. The bottom line: Where you start the day determines how you finish it.
The Crash Test Dummies series concluded with a survey of Samson, perhaps the least heroic hero in the biblical library. What lesson did we draw from a man whose story ends up literally in a heap of rubble? Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them. That particular bottom line emerged not only from biblical study but also from pastoral counseling … and now that it has been both preached and published has worked its way back into the counseling room. Often.
The preceding is an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact, published by Abingdon Press and available here.