Haddon Robinson was my seminary preaching teacher. He was a very good preacher and a very good teacher. His lectures were mini masterpieces of communication. He spoke without notes, included numerous illustrations, and always conveyed a great idea. It felt more like a rhetorical performance than a classroom lecture. Robinson literally practiced what he preached.
We were thoroughly instructed in all our homiletics classes at Gordon-Conwell in Robinson's distinctive methodology. Robinson was our example,biblical preachingit was our textbook, and students who preached sermons on Big Ideas won seminary prizes. I liked the classes of Dr. Robinson and always impressed me with his chapel sermons. Although I have not fully adopted his method, I have learned much from his advice, criticism, and numerous ideas in his book and lectures.
Lessons for Every Preacher
Robinson is best known for his Big Idea approach to preaching, butbiblical preachingit is about much more than this concept.biblical preachingit is Robinson's attempt to convince the student of expository preaching and then help him craft an effective, relevant, and memorable expository sermon.
While parts of the book, first published in 1980, appear humorously dated (for example, a reference to resources available on CD-ROMs, a comment about how our culture loves "movies", the suggestion to visit "experienced stylist" for choosing wardrobe), this classic book is still worth reading and rereading. There is a lot of good advice, much of which I have incorporated (sometimes unknowingly) into my own preaching.
- As you move from text to sermon, find your exegetical idea first, then your homiletic idea. And remember that the two ideas are often not identical.
- In determining your exegetical view, ask three diagnostic questions: What does it mean? It is true? What difference does?
- At any point in the sermon, the preacher can illustrate the text, defend the text, explain the text, or apply the text. These four movements can be remembered with the initials IDEA (illustrate, defend, explain, apply). Most preachers spend nearly all of their time "explaining." They would do well to incorporate more of the other three.
- Sermons should be arrows pointing to a target, and the points in the sermon should help the arrow hit the target.
- Preaching in general and illustrations in particular are more effective the further down the ladder of abstraction. Be specific whenever possible.
- When it comes to presentations and conclusions, start strong and drop everything. Presentations must attract the attention of listeners. Conclusions should not present new material. They need not be long, but they should do more than invite the listener to "live in the light of these great truths."
- Speak clearly. Speak clearly. Use short sentences.
I could go on. The book is especially suitable for the young student or minister who has little preaching experience. But even seasoned preachers will find sound advice and edification in Robinson's well-tuned words and proven advice.
Mining, Not Molds
As with any homiletics book, there will certainly be certain exhortations that reflect the author's gifts and style, but which may not work for everyone in all contexts.
For example, I don't think most preachers should preach without notes. I tried it early in ministry and got tired of memorizing by the time I preached.
I don't think you always need a spectacular presentation. After discipling people with the Word for years and decades, we expect flashy headlines to become less necessary.
And I don't think you need as many illustrations as Robinson suggests. I doubt that many preachers spend as much time collecting illustrations as Robinson did. It was not uncommon to see Dr. Robinson in the cafeteria reading the paper and cutting stories to use in a sermon one day. I wonder if this level of attention to collecting illustrations is achievable (or necessary) for regular weekly preachers?
The best preachers can be dogmatic about the things they do well. I love Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but nobody can agree with everything he says inpreaching and preachers. Seminaries are blessed to have revered and performed homiletics (as Robinson was) training students. The danger is that the school produces a type of preacher who preaches only one way. The best preaching books should be looked to for tools, methods, ideas, and inspiration; they are not to be thought of as molds into which every new preacher must be poured.
Is a great idea a good idea?
Finally, a few words about preaching the Big Idea.
First, my review. I am not convinced by Robinson's definition of expository preaching. He writes:
“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived and conveyed through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit applies first to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher. . applies to listeners." (5)
There's a lot to like about this definition, but is it really true that sermons can only be expository if the preacher employs the literary-grammatical-historical method of interpretation? This takes away a lot of good pre-modern preaching. Also, notice the phrase "biblical concept." This already tilts the discussion towards preaching the Big Idea. I think Robinson's definition is very accurate. I would argue that expository preaching involves reading God's Word clearly and then giving it meaning so people understand the reading (Nehemiah 8:8).
According to Robinson, every sermon should have a central unifying idea. To ignore this principle is to ignore what specialists in communication theory and preaching tell us (18). Although Robinson claims that all the apostles' sermons communicated a great idea, I find it difficult to see how the prophetic sermons in the Old Testament, the sermons in Acts, or the letter to the Hebrews (if it began as a sermon) can be as narrowly defined as Robinson suggests.
Likewise, when Robinson insists that "the purpose behind every individual sermon is to secure some moral action" (72) and that sermons should focus on "measurable results" (75), I fear the danger of creeping moralism and the assumption that every sermon must tell people to do something. I don't think preaching Big Ideas is the only way to preach or always the best way to preach.
But I think it's often a very good way to preach. Most sermons try to do too much (at this point, my congregation is crying out, "Doctor, heal yourself!"). Most preachers probably spend very little time trying to figure out the main idea of the text and then are limited to that idea in the pulpit very little. It is true that Reformed sermons often sound like running commentary. They are usually filled with good theology and good information and communicate many wonderful truths. But many of these sermons could accurately be titled, "Many Things I Learned This Week That I Want To Tell You About."
Robinson's method is a useful corrective to meandering messages that fall over the congregation like a mist rather than piercing the heart like a laser.
Biblical preaching requires skill and faith. As Robinson reminds us, ministers are the only professionals who have people who meet weekly to hear what they have to say. "We preachers use words as tools, and we must use them with thought and skill" (147). We can and must improve. This is our challenge and our opportunity.
Fortunately, preaching is not just a human exercise. Like the boy with his fish patties, Jesus can make a meal out of our meager supply. After all, “we serve the living Lord. Give him your breakfast and trust him to feed your people” (169).
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