When I served a congregation near Austin, Texas, we offered a Wednesday night Bible study hour that began with a short devotional. In spite of my best efforts to involve other members of the congregation, I was often left with the responsibility of delivering the devotional message — and, frequently, at the last minute. Thankfully, I had two tools in my homiletic quiver that helped me out during these times, tools that have helped me for many years — a love of culture and a knack for connecting cultural artifacts to Scripture.
The strategy is rooted in my first formal training in preaching. When I was in high school, Lipscomb University offered a half-week camp for youth who thought they might want to be preachers when they got older. The director of the camp taught us a little method for developing short, meaningful messages on a moment’s notice — “picture, point, passage.”
The picture could be a scene from a movie or an anecdote from Reader’s Digest. We were encouraged to keep a file separated according to theological and pastoral topics so that we could easily connect this illustration to an appropriate passage of Scripture and draw a meaningful “point” to share with the congregation.
Is it a “magic bullet” for use in Sunday sermon prep, or something that works every single time? No. It takes practice to develop this skill. Yet, I think that as we continue to preach in what Tom Long has labeled an “episodic” culture, it will be a useful approach to communicating the Gospel in small yet explosive messages.
Here is how this strategy works: The goal of what I term a “P3” devotional is to teach a short yet powerful lesson (think Paul Scott Wilson’s “one theme” concept) by illuminating the passage of Scripture with a contemporary image. The focus of the message is to share a message from Scripture. The image is simply our connection to the message.
Therefore, there are two beginning criteria that must be met regarding the passage:
1. The passage must be a cohesive unit of thought
2. It must be a passage that translates well to an image
Once the passage has been selected, the next step is to develop the message, the “point.” As Wilson says, “The theme sentence states the heart of the text’s message and the heart of the sermon … What the text communicates at its literal or plain level to its own people is what the sermon tries to communicate to listeners today.”1 Here, we must answer what one thought this passage is attempting to communicate to our congregation.
Once we have the text and theme settled, then we can look for the image. This step is tricky because this is where the message will begin. If an appropriate and meaningful image is not selected, the connection to the passage and the theme presented will not be as impactful. Therefore, we do well to remember the advice of Mark Galli and Craig Larson who write that “illustrations put light, color, and excitement into our sermons.”2
Images can come from anywhere. For example, images can come from films, books, pieces of art, anecdotes, blogs, news stories, or even the Bible itself. The guiding rule of thumb must be that the image is striking and easy to explain.
Now that we have our material selected, we need to organize it in a way that will give our message its best potential hearing. Here is my recommendation: picture/image; passage/text; point/theme.
We relate well to stories. Therefore, in a short message, we can quickly draw the congregation into our message by sharing a scene from a film or novel. This is what I call “the set up.” We are preparing the congregation to hear the short, well-crafted message that we are going to present in only five minutes.
Next, we transition to our text, what I call “the sit down.” We center our message in Scripture because that is where preaching finds its authority and content. Then, with the congregation wondering how this modern-day image connects with the biblical text, we offer our theme, our message. I call this “the send home” because, as Tom Long also argues, the sermon must cause something to happen among the congregation.3
Finally, in constructing this message, we should follow three maxims of creative writing: be focused; be concrete; and be resourceful. Although I am not advocating a new way of developing the Sunday sermon, my hope is that this strategy will help alleviate some of that anxiety that comes the next time you are asked to deliver a short message to the local rotary club or school chapel service.
1 Wilson, Paul. The Practice of Preaching. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 41.
2 M. Galli, and C.B. Larson. Preaching that Connects. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 71.
3 Long, Thomas. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 86.