Finding a Theme

If you re frustrated at times because your preaching doesn't seem to move people to change, it probably is because they aren't sure just what your sermon is really calling for. And if your congregation doesn't know, maybe you don't either. Probably the most difficult part of sermon preparation is defining in your own mind, clearly and in a single sentence, the idea you want your listeners to take home with them. This sixth article in a twelve-article series on better preaching will help you do just that.

W. Floyd Bresee, formerly a homiletics professor, is an associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial/Stewardship Association, Washington, D.C., and directs continuing education for MINISTRY.

The white-haired couple sat together in their usual pew the one down front. As their pastor preached on, the old man turned to his wife and asked in a loud whisper typical of the hard of hearing, "What's he talking about?" She turned toward the preacher and listened intently for some time, then leaned over to her husband and answered loudly enough so that both he and half the congregation could hear, "He don't say!" What that poor preacher needed was a sermon theme.

What is a sermon theme?

The theme is the gist of your sermon in a sentence. Homileticians sometimes call it the "proposition," "thesis," "central idea," or "central thought." But whatever it's called, don't look at it as some formal, rhetorical requirement to get in your way. Grady Davis insists, "That the best sermon is the embodiment of a single generative idea is not a rule but an accurate reporting of fact."1 As you prepare your sermon ask yourself, What is my heart's burden in this sermon? What specific thought do I want my people to take out the door with them? If I put this sermon into one memorable sentence, what would that sentence be? Answer these questions, and you'll have your theme.

Do not, however, confuse your sermon subject with your sermon theme. Your subject is what you're going to talk about. Your theme is what you're going to say about it; Congregations quite often remember the preacher's subject, but the subject, by itself, has nothing to carry people through the week. It won't help your people much to remember that your subject was "The righteousness of Christ," but it will help them to remember your theme, "We are saved, not because we are good, but because Christ is good." It won't attract many people to your congregation's fellowship if they remember that your sermon subject was "the church," but some might be power fully drawn by remembering your theme, "Surrounded by loving Christians, we learn to love Christ."

J. H. Jowett emphasizes, "No sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal. I find the getting of that sentence the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study.

To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness—this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon." 2

Why the theme is so important

The sermon theme is important because it gives you something specific to aim at. Too many sermons aim at nothing in particular—and hit it on the nose. Henry Ward Beecher admits, "I used to go out hunting by myself, and I had great success in firing off my gun; and the game enjoyed it as much as I did, for I never hit them or hurt them. I fired off my gun as I see hundreds of men firing off their sermons. I loaded it, and bang!—there was a smoke, a report, but nothing fell." 3

Have you suffered the discouragement of firing your sermonic gun again and again, only to have nothing fall? No lives changed? No souls won? Like the hunter, a preacher must learn that firing his gun is not enough. He must learn how to aim the thing. The sermon theme forces you to take aim.

A theme makes your sermon easier to preach. One writer claims to have figured out why American golfers have tended to beat British golfers with some regularity. In their approach shots, the British play for the green, while the Americans play for the pin. The more precisely and specifically you know what you're aiming at in your sermon, the more successful it will be. If the congregation doesn't know just where you're going, it is understand able perhaps. But if you don't know what you're aiming at, it is really unforgivable! I've caught myself trying, from the pulpit, to lead my congregation, with a discouraging lack of success—only to discover that the reason was I didn't know exactly where I was going myself.

The farmer sent his son to open up the first furrow in a new field. If that first furrow wasn't straight, the whole field would be plowed crooked. Stopping by later, Father was aggravated to find it anything but straight. "Son, what happened? Haven't I taught you to focus your eye on one object in the distance, to keep your eye on it so you'd stay straight?"

"Sure, Dad, that's what I did."

"You did? What did you focus on?"

"On the old cow grazing over there in the pasture."

You can't plow a good furrow focusing on a moving object! You can't preach a good sermon unless you have something solid and immovable to aim at. A sermon with many good thoughts but no central theme wanders north a while, then turns west a bit, and finally ends up going south! How much simpler, and how much more satisfying, to step into the pulpit knowing just where you're going. A theme makes your sermon easier to preach.

A theme makes your sermon easier to understand. It eliminates "Columbus" sermons. When Columbus left Spain he didn't really know exactly where he was going. When he got to the New World he didn't know where he was. And when he got back home he didn't know where he'd been! Too many preachers stand up not knowing exactly where they're going. As they preach, their audience doesn't know where they are. And when it's all over, neither knows where they have been!

With a sermon theme, the preacher does know where he's going. And when he shares his theme with the congregation, they find it so much easier to know where he's headed and to go along with him.

How do you tell your congregation the theme? It may be very important not to be too prescriptive here. A sermon plan should be a thing as personal as a toothbrush. I've told my wife that I'd know our union was really complete when she let me use her toothbrush. Sometimes I used to forget which one was mine. Finding out how excited she got when I used the wrong one, I would wet hers under the faucet and leave it on the sink just to tease her! She stopped it all by buying me a blue toothbrush; she figures any idiot should know blue stands for boy. Families share very many things—but everybody should have his own toothbrush.

And every preacher should have a right to his own way of putting his sermon together. Personality should not be stifled by rhetorical rules. How you share your theme with your congregation is no exception. A few suggestions and options, however, might be helpful.

The backwoods preacher probably didn't realize he was suggesting good homiletical rules when he described his preaching technique by saying, "I just tell 'em what I'm goin' to tell 'em. Then I tell 'em. Then I tell 'em what I done told 'em." Let's state his three-pronged approach homiletically:

First, give your theme in the sermon introduction. The practical purposes of the introduction are to gain attention and to give your theme. That's telling them what you're going to tell them. Second, repeat your theme wherever practical throughout the sermon body. It often fits well just as you close a sermon division or as you begin a new one. This is telling them. Third, in the sermon conclusion, summarize what you've said and then call for action. Repeating your theme would surely be a part of the summary. This is telling them what you've told them.

Won't people get tired of all this repetition? They will if the theme is shallow. They won't if your main idea is big enough to be a theme. Don't be afraid to be understandable. A good idea takes time to soak in. Congregations get bored, not with the simple, but with the shallow. Besides, people listen only a small percentage of the time you're talking. Anything you really want to stick in their minds has to be repeated.

Isn't it more clever to save your theme until later in the sermon? Yes, and some sermons work more naturally that way. Not only should the preacher's way of organizing his sermon be as personal as a toothbrush, but sermons themselves also tend to be highly individualistic. Some sermons virtually insist on going a certain way. The rules of rhetoric ought not to interfere automatically.

On the other hand, although clever and clear is good, clever and unclear is not. Clear is always better than clever. Clever is an extremely dangerous temptation to the preacher's pride. When people hear a clever sermon they are impressed with the preacher. But when they hear a clear sermon they are impressed with the preacher's Lord.

A theme helps your sermon make a more lasting impression. You are sunning your self on the beach under the soothing, relaxing warmth. Your eyes close, and you feel a nap coming on. But an erstwhile friend slips up with a magnifying glass and focuses the sun upon one spot on your arm. You jump, suddenly very much awake, your whole attention centered on that one spot! Have your sermons been lulling people to sleep as you bathed them with general truth and very little in particular? The theme acts like a magnifying glass to concentrate one idea till it makes people jump.

Amplify is better than multiply. Most sermons multiply. They go in one direction for a while, then try a new thought that branches off the first and later follows another branch off the second. We end up preaching branches of branches of branches. There's no focus. Thematic preaching, on the other hand, is an amplification of one idea. It places the theme before the congregation; then in the sermon body it presents an idea that amplifies the theme, then another, and another. You keep bringing your listeners back to your central idea and focus on that one idea to make a deeper impression. This is what R. W. Dale recommended when he said, "We should all preach more effectively if, instead of tasking our intellectual resources to say a great many things in the same sermon, we tried to say a very few things in a great many ways." 4

If an angry bear came charging me, I wouldn't want to have a shotgun that would only-pepper him with a charge of small shot! I might just aggravate him. I'd rather have a rifle that could hit him with a single bullet powerful enough to penetrate and stop him in his tracks! Take a sin or problem that happens to be mine, confine yourself to it, and it will penetrate the "thick skin of my indifference" to lodge in my heart. Throw in a fistful of other sins or problems along with it, and I may very well go away unscathed.

What makes a good theme?

 It must be true—Biblical. If your whole sermon is going to focus on one idea, be very sure it's really true, not just dramatic or different. The best way to be sure your idea is true is for it to be Biblical, to grow out of your Bible study. The following list attempts to illustrate some good themes and some poor ones. (1) Which sample theme is most untrue? [See the end of the article for suggested answers to questions (1), (2), (3), and (4).]

a. The earth is cursed as a result of sin.

b. Jesus saves.

c. Christ loves everyone—but He loves Christians more than non- Christians.

d. Whom God loves He chastens.

e. In heaven we will have both a city and a country home.

f. God is love.

g. The church is God's idea for helping us help others.

It must be importanta big idea. The theme needs to be significant enough to deserve a half hour from every listener's time. Ask yourself, "If I left this unsaid, what difference would it make?" (2) Which two examples from the sample list illustrate ideas too small for themes?

It must be practical and interesting. The theme should deal with a life situation. If it does it's probably interesting. On the other hand, many beautiful thoughts, important thoughts, have been preached in the same way so many times that they automatically turn congregations off unless you find a fresher, more contemporary way of sharing them. (3) Which two examples most emphatically break the "practical and interesting" rule? (4) Which two examples attempt to illustrate themes that meet all three requirements?

How do you find your theme?

Don't settle on your theme too early. Your sermon preparation begins after you have chosen a passage or a subject but before you have decided your exact point of view on that subject. Always attempt to open your mind before you open your Bible. Don't force your ideas upon the Bible; let it force its ideas upon you. You aren't looking for man's answers to man's problems; you're looking for God's answers, and the best place to find God's answers is in God's Book.

Another reason for not choosing your theme too early is that the material you gather as you study may not fit the theme. To some degree you are always limited in your sermon preparation by whatever material happens to be in your hands at a given time. You may have an excellent theme; you may have out standing material, but if the material doesn't fit the theme, you have big trouble.

Don't settle on your theme too late. Grady Davis warns, "Attempting to write the sermon before the idea is worked out is perhaps the most dangerous way of all and the most deceptive. A man can extemporize on paper as easily as on his feet. A fully written manuscript is no guarantee of a prepared sermon. It may be as carelessly done as if he got up and spoke without any preparation at all. If writing is a substitute for thinking the idea through, it rather guarantees that the sermon will never be thoroughly prepared." 5

The best way to choose your theme is to let it develop as you study. Always begin with the Word. As you read, ponder, and pray over a text or passage, you will come up with ideas that might be worth preaching. Write them down. Each time you do, ask yourself whether something in this idea is big enough to be the central thought of your sermon—your theme. Keep a separate sheet of paper on one side of your desk. Every time you come up with a thought that just might become your theme, write it on that special sheet. By the time your sermon material has been pretty well gathered, the sheet should be full of possible themes. From it you should now be able rather easily to choose the theme you want. Now your theme has grown out of your Bible study. Now your theme will fit your material, because both come from a common source.

Having chosen your theme, follow some commonsense rules for wording it. Let's say you have found an idea you want to preach, from Hebrews 11:26. "He [Moses] considered the 'reproach of Christ' more precious than all the wealth of Egypt, for he looked steadily at the ultimate, not the immediate, reward" (Phillips).* You're especially impressed by the underlined portion. Here are five possible themes. When you have found what is most emphatically wrong with each, you will have come up with five rules for wording a theme.

1. A comparison between looking at ultimate and immediate rewards.

Rule: The theme gives a point of view, not just a subject. It doesn't tell just what you're going to talk about, but what you're going to say about it.

2. Spiritual productivity necessitates eventual goals, precluding the immediate.

Rule: The theme should be simple, not complex. It should be a deep thought expressed simply enough that people can carry it home.

3. Does successful living result from looking at ultimate or at immediate rewards?

Rule: The theme should be declarative, not interrogative. You can use questions in your sermon or in leading up to the theme, but the central purpose of a sermon is to give an answer, not ask a question.

4. Good eyesight results from over coming shortsightedness.

Rule: The theme should be straight forward, not figurative. Illustrations are great, but not in a theme. "Eyesight" and "shortsightedness" could mean any one of several things. The theme must be worded so both the preacher and his congregation know exactly what he means.

5. Successful living does not result from looking at immediate rewards.

Rule: The theme should be positive, not negative. Don't concentrate on what success isn't; concentrate on what success is!

Following all five rules, you might come up with a theme such as: Successful Christianity results from looking at ultimate, not just immediate, rewards.

Christ our underlying theme

We must never forget that, in one sense, every sermon should have but one theme—Christ. In choosing your theme, always ask, "How does this theme, how will this sermon, uplift Jesus Christ?" We too often give our people something to believe, when they yearn for Someone to love. Be like Spurgeon, who was sometimes faulted for having nothing to talk about but Jesus. Spurgeon took pride in the accusation, saying, "Put me down anywhere you like in Old or New Testament, and I'll head straight for the cross."

How can you make sure salvation through Christ underlies every sermon? We once had a Chihuahua dog who went with us everywhere. At the beach our boys would try to tease her into the water. With a little contriving, they could sometimes manage to get her wet, but her swim was always a very brief one. Later we had a Gordon setter. When we took her to the beach, she was the first one wet. Why? It's simple. She loved water.

There are two ways to get Christ into your sermon. One is by contriving and purposeful planning, but the results are less than satisfactory at best. The other is to love Him. When you truly love Jesus, you can no more keep Him out of your sermon than you can keep a water dog out of water. Then you can preach like Paul, who said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).

Quiz answers: (1) c; (2) a, e; (3) b, f;
(4) d, g. Your answers may differ. Please
don't let this interfere with your under
standing of the three theme require
ments.

 

From J. B. Phillips: The New Testament in
Modem English, Revised Edition. (c) J. B. Phillips
1958, 1960, 1972. Used by permission of Macmillan
Publishing Co., Inc.

 

 

1 Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia:
Muhlenberg Press, 1958), p. 26.

 

2 J. H. Jowett, The Preacher, His Life and Work
(New York: Doran, 1912), p. 133.

 

3 Henry Ward Beecher, Yale Lectures on Preaching
ing, I (New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert,
1892), PP. 4, 5.

 

4 R. W. Dale, Nine Lectures on Preaching
(London: Hodder &. Stoughton, 1890), p. 150.
5 Davis, op. cit., p. 37.

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W. Floyd Bresee, formerly a homiletics professor, is an associate secretary of the General Conference Ministerial/Stewardship Association, Washington, D.C., and directs continuing education for MINISTRY.

June 1984

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