Make Preaching Memorable

Written by Mark Farnham

On May 12, 2010

Why do heretics make such a big splash with their ideas? One reason seems to be that historically, many heretics have possessed an uncanny ability to communicate their ideas in popular vernacular. Two examples will suffice to make the point–Arius and Tetzel.

In his theological contest with Arius regarding the nature of the Son, Athanasius was fighting an uphill battle with the heretic’s memorable articulation of his message. Shelley notes,

Arius’ views were all the more popular because he combined an eloquent preaching style with a flair for public relations. In the opening stages of the conflict, he put ideas into jingles, which set to simple tunes like a radio commercial, were soon being sung by the dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the school children of the city. (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 100-101)

Over one thousand years later, another preacher was blazing a trail through Germany, with a simple and memorable message: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” The Dominican priest, John Tetzel was so effective in his papal fund-raising campaign through the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther’s ire was aroused and he responded with his 95 theses.

Two observations arise from these examples, one negative and one positive. Negatively, the propensity of the human heart toward ideas that entertain the mind and require no intellectual effort is a proclivity that is all too familiar today. Why wrestle with difficult concepts of the Trinity when Arius’ jingle can be learned in a matter of minutes? A similar attitude in evangelical Christianity eschews serious doctrinal preaching and teaching in favor for a simplistic faith that can be learned in a matter of weeks. This watered-down version of Christianity teaches catchphrases and talking points that never scratch the surface of biblical faith. In our sound-byte culture, this intellectual laziness seems so much easier than the kind of devotion to which Timothy was urged for Scripture reading, teaching and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13).

Positively, the truth is not averse to being articulated in memorable terms. Too often the adherents of orthodox theology are adroit at articulating sound doctrine in a manner that preserves and advances the faith, but they fail to understand what makes a message unforgettable. This is not a plug for alliterated sermons, for a series of five characteristics of Paul’s life beginning with the letter “P” is hardly a model for making one’s message memorable. Rather, what preachers and teachers need is an understanding of the limits of the average individual’s attention and memory, and a concerted effort to simplify one’s message and main points. We also need to understand that many factors contribute to a sermon being memorable— simplicity of expression, repetition in delivery, imagination in structure, passion in the preacher, and more. The most basic, simplicity of expression, is a challenge in itself.

The master of memorable sermon titles is Haddon Robinson, whose messages on the Good Samaritan (“A Case Study of a Mugging”) and Mary and Martha (“Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There”) are hard to forget. But what about memorable content? Making one’s proposition and main points memorable takes hard work. It requires deep thought and multiple revisions, sometimes leading to the scrapping of earlier work in order to retain wording that aids memory. It requires analogies, similes and metaphors. It requires vivid illustrations and pointed applications. There have been many times when my sermon preparation has ended short of this final step, and I have no doubt that those occasions have undermined the long-term effectiveness of a message.

Recently I was given a Sunday evening in my church to preach the entire book of Numbers in about 35 minutes. After multiple revisions, rewording and rewriting, I boiled down my proposition to six words that I believe accurately reflect the message of Numbers, especially the core of the book, chapter 14. The message of Numbers, I told the congregation, is this: God’s sovereignty triumphs over our stubbornness. Of all the preaching I have done over the past few years, my guess is that this sermon was the most memorable. Yet, the time it took to distill my thoughts into those six words was an investment that I have not always been careful to make.

If heresy can be made memorable through catchy phrases and slick marketing techniques, how much more should we be investing the time and effort to express the truth in ways that will make a lasting impression on our hearers? How many unforgettable statements in Scripture are so because of their distillation of poignant ideas into simple statements? “You must be born again.” “Judge not that you be not judged.” The Lord is my shepherd.” In light of the media-savvy times in which we live, we should seek, not to compete, but to outshine all competing ideas with the profound simplicity that we find in Scripture.

Haddon Robinson sums it up well:

You want to leave something lasting in the minds of the congregation when a sermon is over. The truth is, people don’t remember outlines. They may not [ever] refer to them again…What they do live for, what they do die for, is an idea, some great truth that has gripped them. I can’t expect that every congregation is going to remember every idea I try to get across, but there’s a better chance they’ll take something away and remember it for a week or two or even a month or two later if I can stamp that central thrust on their minds. The rest of the sermon is often like the scaffolding: It’s important, but the major thing is for people to get hold of an idea or have an idea get hold of them that can in some way shape the way they respond to life. (“Better Big Ideas,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, 353).

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1 Comment

  1. Jim

    I appreciated much of this article. I do disagree with the remark that H. Robinson is master of memorable sermon titles. The two cited were descriptive summaries of the sermon content being preached, but often his `big idea’ is disconnected to his sermon titles. Titles, in my humble opinion need to be memorable, concise, but most importantly, integrated (as the “big idea” itself) in terms of it reflecting the main message of the sermon. For example, consider Dr M.L. King’s sermon entitled, “I Have a Dream” – therein lies the brilliance of his memorable sermon – his title was integrated throughout his message as he kept repeating it over and over. Now to this day millions of people can remember his message and hope it produces more civility between the races.


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