In defence of preaching points

I regularly read Chris Green’s blog. I really like it and it often gets me thinking about the nuts and bolts of ministry (which is handy, given that is what he is aiming to do). I recently came across this post in which he suggests we should stop making points in our sermons.

I should point out that Chris is a former Vice Principal at one of the leading Evangelical training colleges in the UK; I am a pastor of a tiny church with nothing clever on my CV. Chris has written several books; I have written one (and I highly doubt mine is as widely read or as good as any of his). He has written in the BST commentary series; I… well, haven’t. Most significantly of all, he used to lecture on preaching and church leadership; I have not done that. So, if you’re into argument to authorities, my ‘I tell you the truth’ isn’t going to cut it.

Nevertheless, I am going to disagree with him. At least, a little bit. You see, I want to defend the humble preaching point. Chris wants rid of them. But I think the preacher known for his clarity, whom Chris went to hear, owes some of his clarity to his preaching points. Let me explain.

Chris says points can’t tell a story, capture a poem or even make an argument. Now, I’m not sold on that last one but I take the broad point. Chris argues that the purpose of a point is to observe. And I think he is basically right.

But here’s the thing, I thought the point of preaching was to observe what the text says (i.e. what does this mean?) and then apply it to those listening (i.e. what does it mean for me?) Now, if the goal of our preaching is to get folk to the point of knowing what the Lord is saying in his Word and what it means for them, suddenly points are looking quite useful, aren’t they?

I totally understand the need for us to be aware of the kind of literature we are dealing with when seeking to draw out the main point (and any supporting sub-points) of a passage. Of course the way you approach the text is going to change whether you’re dealing with history, poetry, prophecy or epistle. But our goal is to help people understand what the Lord is saying to us through the text and that, I venture, is going to need points.

Trying to preach poetic passages in a way that captures the poetry, if we’re doing it in English (and I am presuming the vast majority of your members are not following in the original languages) isn’t going to work. Just go and ask a Welsh Christian friend how well English translations of Welsh hymns truly capture the poetic form to get the point. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I am just not that interested in helping my people appreciate the literary depths of the Hebraic poetic form. Frankly, I suspect the average Oldhammer isn’t bothered about that either and would view it as a bigger snooze than, ‘my first point is…’

That doesn’t mean we don’t preach poetic passages. Of course we do. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t pay some attention to poetic forms because that is going to change our interpretation somewhat. But my goal isn’t to capture the delight, danger or power of the poem per se. My goal is to ask: what does the Lord want his people to know through this poem? What does this poem mean and, specifically, what does this mean for those of us in the room?

Now how do we work out what the passage means? We read it carefully, making sure we pay attention to the form of literature, and we make observations about the text and seek to find a unified whole. That’s what most people call the ‘big point.’ Once we have worked out the main thing it is saying, we make further observations about the different angles that shed light on that main point. These tend to be the two, three, four or however many points of the sermon itself. Once we have observed what the text means and the different angles it takes on the main point, we ask how these different observations apply less generally and more directly to those sat in front of us. But all of these things lead us to make humble observations that become our points.

Chris seeks to address an objection. He says:

Now you’ll say, but I wasn’t doing that! I was proving, deducing, arguing. I’m a regular Poirot in the pulpit.

But, actually, that isn’t my objection at all. I’m not proving anything in the pulpit, on the contrary, I am actively seeking to observe the text and elucidate what it means. I’m not looking to deduce anything other than what the text means, which we base on our observations. If Paul is building his argument, I’m not looking to build mine but seeking to observe what he has said and meant and then to faithfully explain it to my congregation.

Interestingly, Chris lands on Billy Graham to make his *ahem* point. What was Graham’s best known phrase? ‘The Bible says…’ But here’s the thing, what is that if it’s not an observation? That’s a point, isn’t it? Yes, he answered potential objections to what he said, but that too was based on textual observation. That is, he made a point based on his observation of the text and then he defended that reading of the text by observing the text some more and pointing to it.

Now, when we preach with points, we are saying (or should be saying) ‘the first thing this text is saying is…’; ‘the second thing this text is saying is…’; and so on. When we are addressing potential objections, we are saying that the points we raise from the passage are X, Y and Z and the potential objections to those being what the passage says are addressed by pointing back to the text. But points allow us to clarify what the text is saying and, equally, are the vehicle for allowing us to address potential objections.

Chris says that Billy Graham didn’t just make a series of points. I’m not wholly sold on that. But even if true, we must grapple with the fact that he was largely talking to an audience who were not believers. He was not principally dealing with an audience who had come to sit under the Word to hear what God had to say to them as his people, he was largely addressing those who were not believers. This means that the scenario was not one in which showing what the scriptures stated with clarity (and how it applied to those sitting there) would necessarily lead to the desired response. There are dozens of potential objections that arise that extend well beyond, ‘is that what the text is really saying?’ I am, therefore, less than certain such should be the model for our regular preaching to the Lord’s people at any rate.

I like to preach as though the Word of God is inherently interesting. I think we communicate something problematic when we don’t! I like to preach as though believers genuinely want to know what God says to them in his Word and what they ought to do as a result. I think we communicate something problematic when we don’t! Given the first two assumptions, I like to preach using points based on observation of the text. Wanting to make those points relevant, they are not mere observations but tend to be the primary points of application I am going to make. Drawing our applications, and stating the meaning of the passage, without making such observations seems problematic to me.

As a counter, it has been my experience that those who shy away from points – who may well ‘bring the story to life’ or really plumb the depths of the poetry – tend to be considerably less clear about what the passage actually means. We may get a better flavour of the stylistic elements of what we have read, but I have found – almost to a sermon – they are much less clear on what it means and, more specifically, what it means to me – even if I did happen to get drawn in to a nicely presented narrative.