Don’t Pack Too Much in Your Sermons

Recently my family of eight packed into our mini-van for an early spring vacation. When I say “packed in” you may be thinking in terms of seats. I mean we were packed in. The trunk was filled to the top; the floor had shoes, books, bags, and blankets. The front seat was full of distractions for the little kids as well as entertainment for the adults and big kids. But when we got closer to our destination (10 hours away), we went to Costco to buy food for the week. In this we were now officially, completely packed in. Kids balanced cartons of eggs, coffee, vegetables, and milk while we finished our course.

The vacation ended, and my normal responsibilities at the church resumed. I prepared a sermon and then delivered it on Sunday. After reflecting upon it and critiquing various elements of it, I was drawn back to our road-trip. We preachers tend to stuff our sermons so full of content that it can make for a rough trip. Consider the parallel. Early in the week I prepare an outline and structure (packing list). Soon I’m writing and building on the homiletical bones (initial packing). Through my zeal and love for the content the paper usually fills up pretty fast. The car is nearly packed. However, as I stew over the passage and think about illustrations and implications, I always add more. A paragraph here, an illustration there, and before you know it—the sermon’s van is fully packed.

But this is not all. In the moment, fully engaged with delivering the sermon, I am firing fresh arrows out of my preaching quiver. This is like a stop at the outlet mall or gift shop. Of course we can fit in some new running shoes for dad, new jeans for mom, or sleds for the kids. The car and the sermon are packed.

As preachers or Bible study leaders, this is good and important reminder: We can’t pack everything into every message. Let me give you a few reasons why and then how we can pack it more effectively.

Why You Can’t Pack Everything

It’s impossible. Just like you can’t bring your entire house with you on vacation you cannot download your Logos library to your congregation every week.

It’s counterproductive. The preacher will undermine his sermon if he is going on and on about every single textual and theological dispute filling his favorite commentaries. It’s still important, but it is not necessary to bring everything to the pulpit. After a while your sermon shocks will go out.

It sets an unrealistic picture. Elders are supposed to be an example to their flock (1 Pet. 5.1-3). Can you imagine the perception of the young Christian listening to seminary-level lectures every week? It’s good for the pastor to read and enjoy these things, but the poor guy in the front row who’s struggling with reading his Bible is not going to be encouraged. He is going to feel hopelessly lost.

How to Pack More Efficiently

Remember it is one sermon. As pastors we have the privilege of preaching on a regular basis. We have the advantage of time. This long view liberates us from feeling that we have to cover everything about everything in one sermon.

Establish a clear, succinct main point. If we have established and expounded the central point and main idea of the passage week after week, then we will be shaping the church from the Bible. If we do this over an extended period of time then our hearers will learn theology, hermeneutics, and discernment. Faithful, clear, biblical exposition in the power of the Holy Spirit over a period of time will grow mature Christians.

Know your congregation. Jesus reminds us that he knows his sheep (Jn. 10.14-15). Likewise as pastors who lead, feed, and guard the flock, we must know the sheep. Whom are you preaching to? What are their heart idols? What is the maturity level? I remember hearing D. A. Carson talk about how he does not put all the cookies on bottom shelf when preaching. Carson quickly added, “But I don’t put them all on the top either.” Instead, Carson advocated for challenging the most mature and the least mature hearer in his congregation every week. The only way to do this, he added, is through a robust but accessible gospel-centered, theological exposition. The preacher must take complex and even infinite concepts and make them understandable. You have to know your Bible and your people in order to do this effectively.

Plan. When I was trying to jam in the extra pair of boots and one more grocery bag into my van I rebuked myself for my lack of planning. The preacher can help himself and his church by simply taking some time to prayerfully plan out where he is going to lead the church from the pulpit. Things may come up that take precedent and alter the plan, but at the core, the preacher knows where he is leading the sheep. This front-end work liberates the pastor from overstuffing his sermons. He has thoughtfully and prayerfully planned the preaching menu.

If necessary, do a “walk-thru.” If you have a central point and a plan it can be helpful to walk through the outline or manuscript to see what you can cut. Does that illustration add or subtract value? The quote by Keller is great, but is it necessary? Do you have any unbalanced portions of the outline? Can you make some things more clear so as to not overwhelm new Christians in your congregation?

Prayerful, thoughtful, and careful planning make for good sermons as well as good road trips. This is just another way the pastor can lovingly serve the sheep God has called him to lead.

  • Betsy Childs

    This is so true. Thank you!

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  • Keith

    Having just written my first sermon for seminary, I know exactly what you mean. Tim Keller’s sermons are a good model for this. He seems to say profound things very simply. The downside of his approach, which jumps immediately to application, is that you don’t get to see how he got there from the text itself. Someone who “shows their work” is Martin Lloyd-Jones. His strength is using logic and arguing from the text, while presenting other views. I think that if the preacher’s goal is not just to feed sheep, but to build them up to be ministers themselves, then on some level we must be equipping men and women to be able to read their bible better, so that they can teach one another better. This is why it is crucial for the minister to be able to understand and reproduce the work of great commentators without being dependent on them. The person in the pew should leave the church thinking, “I could do that.” They should be excited to go home and search the scriptures to find more of what the preacher just showed them. They should not feel like 1) they cannot truly learn the Bible until next Sunday, 2) that they need exhaustive knowledge of biblical languages in order to study, and 3) that they need access to vast commentary sets. In an ideal sermon 1) Like MLJ’s preaching, application is shown to come directly from text so the listener understands that the authority lies in God’s word, not preacher’s interpretation. 2) Like Keller’s preaching, it should be simple enough for a child to understand, yet profoundly not of the wisdom of this world 3) Emphasis should be placed on the person and work of Christ AND man’s responsibility under His lordship. The challenge to those with too much to say is to crystalize and focus your thoughts. Don’t chop down your tree, but cultivate your vine. The challenge for those who don’t have enough to say is, don’t run to the commentaries immediately, but pray, meditate, and read and reread scripture. Let your simplicity be sharp and detailed, not blunt, repetitive, and fuzzy. Present Christ in HD, but focus on one angle.

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  • Hayden Norris


    Excellent! This is something that has really helped my preaching connect to the people that are hearing it. I come from a background of ‘Seminary’ style preaching and tried to emulate that early in my ministry and couldn’t understand why people were lost.

    We must be able to exegete the people as well as the text. If we are overloading them and talking over their heads we are just talking, not teaching. We can wish that they were further along but the only way to help them to grow is to connect the Biblical truths to their lives in an understandable way. This is a great pastoral article.

    On another note, I am really happy that a couple that used to attend my church are in in your church in Omaha. I was hoping they would get involved with you guys and they have. Say hi to the Hsu family for me when you get a chance.

    • Erik Raymond


      Thank you for the comment and for sending the Hsu’s our way. They are dear, dear saints.

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  • Jimmy

    Thank you for an excellent article. You are right on target, particularly in the sub-paragraph “remember, it is just one sermon” and the one talking about doing a walk through and cutting instead of adding paragraphs.

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  • David

    This is a great post. I think too that sometimes pastors shoot themselves in the foot because they HAVE to explain so much because the congregation knows so little. If we feel like we have to fit even the most mundane information into a passage in order to get the point across, perhaps the way we “do church” isn’t working because our people just aren’t learning as they ought. Kind of like having to keep packing diapers and wipes in the car because our teenage children still aren’t potty trained.
    Next, we must understand that not everyone gets excited when they discover something cool about a verb tense that we never knew was there. I’ve had these feelings but when I preach something like that, the people don’t connect to it like I do. The fact is, you can nearly always make the same point without having to point out the greek or other background information and the people will get it just the same, if not better. For many, once you mention the workd “greek” or “in 122 AD, this dead guy said….” they clock out until the application because they know they aren’t going to be able to connect. Not to mention some of these preaching styles present a disconnect between the preacher and the pew. This disconnect is a primary reason people don’t learn as they should. They don’t feel like you’re preaching to them, you’re just preaching a message. There is a difference. That difference is often something the people understand but the pastor doesn’t.
    Finally, preachers often make the mistake of deviating from their main point in order to be deep, instead of going deep in order to serve their main point. But the whole sermon long, the people should be able to know what the main goal of the sermon is. Not that it needs a title, but what is the take-away? What is the passage getting at? Sometimes we get too excited about the little details we end up treating all these little details like the main point, and we preach like the people are supposed to take away all these little things, so that no one really remembers anything. stick to the main point! If your details don’t serve the main point, don’t mention it. Appreciate it in your own walk, but remember that the people need to walk away with their main point. For a normal church in my sphere, people get 3 messages a week. If we all really nailed 156 main points a year, the church would be growing by leaps and bounds! But instead we expect our people to retain 15648643 main points so they actually just perish beneath the burden given by Pastor.

  • David Haken

    The great torture of every preacher is that he must throw away 90% of what he knows about a passage to preach on it. – John Stott

    • Will Pareja

      Great post, Erik! Thank you!
      And, David, while we all admire and look to the venerable Stott, I don’t think the quote is all that helpful and is probably exaggerated. John Stott could say that b/c he was John Stott and probably forgot more of his Bible knowledge than the average preacher will ever know (see? an exaggeration=+). In other words, just b/c he’s Stott doesn’t make his advice infallible.

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