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Three Words, One Point


Man preaching in church

How many sermons have you delivered during your life in ministry?


Two hundred? Five hundred? More?


How many have you heard? Many more, I’m sure. But how many do you remember? And here’s the crucial question: Of those you remember, what made them stand out? What made them memorable?


I myself remember very few of the precise details of the sermons I hear. And that’s understandable. My memory is no different from many who sit in your church building each Sunday listening to you. When you preach, you have multiple goals. Here are some:

  • Be faithful to the Scriptures

  • Help my people hear from the Lord

  • Listen to the Spirit and pass on His wisdom

  • Do rigorous exegesis

There are more, of course. One of the most important is clarity. If we’re not clear, we simply confuse people. Yet to achieve clarity, it’s necessary to take complex ideas and condense them down, so that they’re understandable and memorable. And that’s why I’d like to suggest something called “Three words, one point.”


Three Words. One point.


It really is remarkable how few words you actually need to communicate an idea. In fact, I think you’ll find you rarely need more than three. Three words to communicate one idea. That should resonate a little, surely. Let’s start with the Ten Commandments.

  • No other gods

  • Make no idols

  • Do not blaspheme

  • Keep the Sabbath

  • Honour your parents

  • Do not kill

  • Never commit adultery

  • Do not steal

  • Do not lie

  • Do not covet

Condensing ideas down is a good practice. A very good practice. And it’s essential when preparing sermons. There are so many words and ideas in your average passage of Scripture, it is easy to be overwhelmed. The letter to the Romans is particularly challenging. In most chapters, there is enough wisdom to fill several sermons. It’s like a fruitcake – so dense and rich you’ll get a stomachache trying to digest it all.


So, the shorter the better. Here’s an outline of the Bible in one or two words.

  • God

  • God is

  • God saves

  • God restores

  • God’s love

  • God’s story

  • Holy God

One day, you should build your own collection. But it’s when we get to three words that things start to fizz.

  • God saves man[1]

  • God’s love story

  • God defeats devil

  • Three In One

  • Father, Son, Spirit

  • Faith, Hope, Love

  • Goodness, Truth, Beauty

  • Creation, Fall, Restoration

  • Christ reveals God

  • Death, Life, Eternity

  • God loves man

  • God is Love

  • God will triumph

  • God saved me

  • Your Kingdom come

  • Jesus is Lord

The exercise of expressing big ideas with very few words is an essential one in preparing a message. The reason is that our minds are designed to grab and hold simple, clear ideas. The longer the sentence, the harder it is for us to remember the idea. The counter-argument, however, might be that when we’re confined to very few words, we are “dumbing down” the message.


I disagree.


Condensing the idea down to three words enables our minds to grasp the essence of the message. Its inner core of truth. That doesn’t mean there is no complexity to be explored. It simply means that as we prepare the message, we are rightly constrained by the central truth of the passage. If we don’t limit ourselves in such a way, it’s just so tempting to go off into side alleys. When this happens, we say lots of words, but our hearers don’t have anything memorable and solid to take away. It’s all a bit vague and meandering.


One of the principal problems with many sermons is that the speaker is caught between preaching and teaching. They are not the same. When preaching, the principal aim is to exhort and comfort. Either we’re challenging our hearers with the truth, or we’re comforting them with the truth. A good sermon is used by God’s Spirit to speak his truth into hearts who either need comfort or challenge. Sometimes both. When our focus is primarily on explanation, we lapse into teaching, an activity with great value, but extremely hard to do in half an hour. Often, preachers fall between two stools – they do a lot of explaining, and then tack on a quick exhortation at the end. It’s very hard to do well.[2]


There are, of course, many ways to approach a sermon, but I’d like to challenge you as you prepare this Sunday’s sermon. Have you managed to condense down the main idea of the sermon to one sentence? Can that be shortened to three words? I encourage you to try.


Many preachers like three-point sermons. I’m fine with that. But each point could and should be expressed in three words (more or less). I can’t tell you why three is such an explosive number. It just is. Here are some ideas from the New Testament.

  • Love one another

  • Forgive your enemies

  • Your Kingdom come

  • Obey the Lord

  • Submit to God

  • By faith alone

  • In Christ alone

  • Please stop arguing!

  • Thank God more

  • Pray for me

  • Love your neighbours

  • Worship God alone

  • Trust in God

  • Lose your life

  • Love the marginalised

  • Christ is Lord

  • Be faithful always

Of course, feel free to add a few extra words, if you feel they’re needed. This is not some magic formula. It’s just a healthy, useful exercise to help a preacher become a better communicator. Sometimes, more words are needed:

  • Christ suffers for us

  • God alone is worthy of worship

  • Trust in God not man

  • Be patient in love

  • Love until it hurts

  • Speak the truth in love

As you prepare your sermon this week, I challenge you to summarise each point in three words. If you can’t, it may well not be clear. Even to you. If you can’t manage three words, just confine yourself to one sentence (of any length). For those who love the three-point sermon, I encourage you one day to try out the one-point sermon.


This is a sermon that works in a circle. The main idea is expressed, then every subsequent point (there may be three) is related directly to the main point, which is repeated. You always circle back to the main point. When you do this, you’ll find the sermon is very memorable. Of course, not every passage lends itself to this approach. But some do. Many do.


One final challenge. Try writing a three-word outline for every book of the Bible. I’ll get you started.

  • Genesis: God creates everything.

  • Exodus: God saves Israel.

  • Leviticus: God gives law.

  • Numbers: More laws, wandering.

  • Deuteronomy: God’s law review.

May the Lord be with you as you preach his word this week.


 

1. I’m using “man” here to represent all of humankind. I like it primarily because it’s a nice, short word.

2. Churches in which preaching and teaching are properly understood function better than those in which preaching and teaching are clumsily blended in the Sunday sermon. This is my own personal view, and you may have a different one.



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