The Preacher's Toolbox: The Necessity of Clarity

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Clarity enables mobility. When preachers make the message clear, the people of God are freed-up to follow Jesus.

“For the preacher, clarity is a moral matter,” insists Haddon Robinson in his book Biblical Preaching. “If what we preach either draws people to God or keeps them away from Him, then for God’s sake and the people’s sake we must be clear.”[1]

Does that sound like an overstatement? Clarity in preaching is nice, sure, but a moral matter? The profundities of the Bible often require in-depth and detailed explanations, after all. What God has made complicated, do not merely make clear.

There is truth to this. Simplicity should not surrender to oversimplification; clarity cannot come at the cost of faithfulness. When he asserted that, “There was a time when the Son was not,” Arius was disturbingly crystalline.

Yet, I believe Robinson is on to something. The more years I preach, and the more that I listen to preaching, the greater my appreciation for clarity grows, even as my commitment to depth endures. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Thus, I have come to share the prayer request Saint Paul makes of the Colossians: “Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3-4). Clarity is a moral matter. It is how we as preachers “ought to speak.” So, how can we help the message be less muddled?

Clarity is a moral matter. It is how we as preachers “ought to speak.”

1. Say it in ten words or less

A friend and fellow pastor opined that if you cannot summarize what you are trying to say in ten words or less, then you do not know what you are talking about. He is exaggerating, perhaps, but not by much. It is all too easy for us preachers to get mired in the details. If you cannot encapsulate the core idea of your sermon in a sentence or two, it is probably too complicated.

There is a way in which I receive almost instantaneous feedback about the clarity of my core idea, and perhaps you can adapt this in your setting. I have an elder in my congregation who, when he speaks a blessing over communicants at the Lord’s Supper, will seek to incorporate in a few words from the central message of the sermon. For instance, after last week’s sermon on Jesus’ parable of the unrighteous judge, he said something to the effect of, “Now, may this true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen your power to pester the Lord.” Thus, a litmus test of clarity for me has become, “Will Mark be able to communicate the core idea of the sermon in his blessing?” If so, in all likelihood it will be ten words or less.

2. Structure the message

I am persuaded that as many or more sermons today flounder on the shoals of disorganization as do flop on the shores of false teaching. You can have insightful exegesis, engaging gospel-hooks, and accessible illustrations, but if they are not structured in a logical and pleasing way, then the message as a whole will remain unclear.[2]

Structure does wonders for clarity. Having an outline is a good first step, but even an outline can be an artificial foisting of order on an otherwise disordered mess. Roman numerals on a page do not a coherent message make. Better is the natural unfolding of a narrative, the delineated distinctions of a contrast or classification, or the plain progression of a cause that generates several effects: Sermon structures which help the hearers to follow along and anticipate what is next.

3. Avoid jargon

Pastors know plenty of five-dollar words from their training. So, too, do doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and folks in many other vocations. Practitioners in these various and sundry professions can demonstrate how learned they are by sprinkling in jargon, showing they really do know what they are talking about.[3] But what does every patient, client, and parishioner want? Layman’s terms. Clear communication.

But what does every patient, client, and parishioner want? Layman’s terms. Clear communication.

Does this mean you have to dumb down your sermon? By no means. But if you want to use a technical term (and there are times when you can and should) then define it! Better yet, illustrate it. “Eschatology is the branch of theology that deals with the so-called ‘last things.’ When we talk about the return of Jesus and the new creation, for instance, we are talking about eschatology.” Haddon Robinson has a good rule of thumb: “Don’t overestimate the people’s vocabulary or underestimate their intelligence.”[4]

4. Repetition, repetition, repetition

Repetition is the mother of learning, they say, and we might add that it is the father of clarity.[5] Since oral communication, in contrast with written communication, evaporates as soon as it hits the air, for clarity’s sake it is necessary continually to reiterate the essential content of the sermon. To be sure, uttering nonsense over and over just adds to the nonsense. Assuming your content is sensical, though, repetition helps to clarify the message, just as another pass with the cloth helps to clean the mirror.

There are a number of ways to employ repetition. For instance, you can restate important points in different words; a practice which mimics biblical parallelism, as I have recently written here. You can also summarize your main points at moments of transition. This catches everyone up to speed and even reminds you of the ground you have covered. And you can repeat key words and phrases throughout the sermon, providing a thread from beginning to end. Wax on, wax off.

So, he may run

The lectionary recently featured a deep-cut pericope from Habakkuk. Reading the passage, I was struck by God’s charge to the prophet: “Write the vision; inscribe it clearly on tablets, so he may run who reads it” (2:2). Clarity enables mobility. When preachers make the message clear, the people of God are freed-up to follow Jesus.

In this sense, preachers are like John the Baptist: Preparing the way for the Lord, making the paths straight, facilitating the work of God’s Word. Some people will, of course, still not receive the message; we know this all too well. Even so, on the path that leads to life it is better someone fall over the stone of stumbling than trip on the trash of homiletic mishmash.