"Preacher, exactly what was it you were trying to say last Sunday morning?" I doubt that any remark could be more depressing to a preacher who takes his preaching efforts seriously. Yet, I am convinced that the criticism implied in the above comment is widespread and well deserved. It cannot be doubted that most, if not all, that we have to say in a sermon is true, good, and important. The problem is that there is no coherence to all of it. The hearer cannot put his finger on the exact thrust of the sermon and, hence, is not sure what to do with it all.
It is evident that' one of the best ways to avoid this problem is for the preacher to settle on a sermon thesis before he begins to develop his sermon outline. A sermon thesis is a one-sentence statement of the point that the preacher wants to make. If a preacher cannot summarize his sermon in one clearly worded statement, then he does not know what he is really trying to say and is not yet ready to deliver that sermon. Again, every word of his sermon may be true, but the effect of his words will be scattered rather than focused. Hence, the audience cannot respond appropriately to his message. Indeed, he cannot be sure himself what he wants his hearers to do. However, if a preacher can settle at the outset of his lesson what one specific point he intends to convince his audience of, then he can organize his thoughts around that point and can thereby marshall his evidence in a persuasive manner.
The sermon thesis corresponds to the conclusion of a logical argument. In every argument, there are three crucial elements, two of which are readily apparent. The two apparent elements are the conclusion and the evidence that supports that conclusion. The invisible element is the mental operation that we call on inference, whereby one thinks, "This (e.g., the conclusion) is so because that (the evidence) is so." To be effective a sermon need not be logically formal or stilted, but it should be structured so that the audience knows what point it is expected to believe and thus can concentrate on honestly making the inference hoped for by the speaker. Regardless of the kind of sermon being prepared (evangelistic, doctrinal, devotional, etc.), every sermon should have a thesis. Without it, a sermon will leave the audience ultimately undirected, albeit momentarily uplifted.
The following suggestions for a good thesis may appear to be somewhat arbitrary but I have found them to be excellent guidelines.
1. Avoid beginning a thesis with the word "to." One usually ends up with a sermon aim or purpose rather than a thesis (e.g. "to convince my hearers of the importance of baptism." This is an aim, not a thesis.)
2. Make the thesis brief (8-15 words) and uncompounded.
3. The thesis should be fresh and thought provoking (note the effect of a proverb).
4. It should be arguable. (Why preach that which no one disputes? In times like these there is much persuading, convicting, and changing of minds that need to be done. If you do not have to work to defend your thesis, your audience may think it trite and unessential to the struggles they are really facing.)
Although the following are not perfect examples, they are somewhat helpful in illustrating the above remarks:
"Every Christian should strive to live so that the truth does not suffer in his hands."
(cf. 1 Tim. 3:15.)
"The place to stop adultery is in the heart." (cf. Matt. 5:28.)
"In our haste to forgive, we often opt for false forgiveness."
"A constant struggle in Christian growth is that of avoiding the pull of the average.''
In view of the seriousness of our message, we ought to make every effort to simplify the listening process for our hearers. One good way to begin simplifying that process is to have well in hand, before we prepare our sermons, a concisely stated sermon thesis.
By Jerry Gross, Doraville, GA