Is Preaching the “Big Idea” a Bad Idea?

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Conventional wisdom says no.

But in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Vol. 61, No. 4, Dec 2018), Abraham Kuruvilla says yes, the “Big Idea” is a bad idea, and preaching the Word of God for the people of God is the right idea. Scripture is not something to be distilled to a key idea to remember, but is a text to be preached, and the task of the preacher is to present the Word of God in a manner that allows the congregation to do the work of theology together. Kuruvilla argues further that Scripture not only says something in its proclamation, but does something, and therefore exhortation is not primarily argumentative, but demonstrative.

“Big Idea” preaching offers principles and practical wisdom, often in the form a of memorable or arresting statement that conveys an important concept drawn from a Scriptural text. When this preaching method is taught, it is recommended that the key concept of the sermon be written as a clear, concise, and compelling sentence. It is the main “take away” or point. Kuruvilla calls this the distillate–the thing leftover when the text has been boiled away. Everything else in the sermon is illustrative of the distillate.

But that is the problem. Kuruvilla writes:

Such an operation assumes that the text is a conglomeration of unordered (disordered?) data. And the distillate is the product of an interpreter’s reworking of this raw textual data and its massaging into something supposedly more intelligible and easier to grasp (and preach)–the Big Idea. One would then have to wonder at God’s wisdom in giving the bulk of his Scripture in non-propositional form. Perhaps deity would have served himself and his people better had he just stuck to a bulleted list of timeless Big Ideas rather than messy stories and arcane prophecies and sentimental poetry, all of which turns out to be merely illustrations or applications of “underlying . . . principle[s] behind the text.” This Big Idea approach of traditional evangelical homiletics may even suggest that once one has gotten the distillate of the text, one can abandon the text itself.

I’ve seen it happen. Kuruvilla says that the alternative is for the interpreter to “pay close attention to the text, privileging it, not just to discover some kernel hidden in it, but to experience the thrust and force of the text qua text, in toto and as a whole–the text irreducible into any other form.”

That’s easier said that done. But it can be done. It can be done by trusting God and the people of God. God works through the preaching of the Word, and the Spirit works in the lives of the people. The Word should be explained carefully, and applied faithfully. But by preaching the Scripture in toto, allowances are made for God to take a minor note of the text and sound it more fully in the life of a particular hearer. More possibilities are opened beyond one assertion or Big Idea.

Kuruvilla says that it is time for preaching methodology to change, to recenter on the Word and to rethink our approach. Perhaps the shift can be sped along if it comes from two direction: preachers who chose to more fully and carefully exposit the Scriptures within the sermon, and congregants who gently urge their ministers to exhort them directly with the Word of God.