My pastor and mentor in the ministry told me, “Always put some of the cookies on the bottom shelf.” I tell my own students, “One goal is for the kindergarten kid to be able to tell mommy and daddy at lunch exactly what your sermon was about.” Clarity is so critical in preaching. In order for the sermon to stick, the listener must first understand. Only then can they retain and ultimately apply the truth. Clarity, therefore, for every level of spiritual maturity is the first domino that must fall.
The pursuit of clarity is a theological and homiletical non-negotiable. The manner in which one pursues it, however, is paramount. Unfortunately, many utilize the pursuit of clarity as warrant for watering down or even omitting biblical content and/or terminology. Preachers often categorize certain biblical terms as “insider” jargon and aim for its elimination for the sake of “outsiders.” Terms such as propitiation, atonement, sanctification, repentance, and even sin and salvation among others find themselves out of a job due to their theological gravitas. This path to clarity is misguided. It assumes pastors preach to crowds instead of local churches. It acts as if preaching is not discipleship. It prefers short-term communication efficiency above long-term spiritual depth.
Jim Shaddix with Jerry Vines in Progress in the Pulpit argues for the role preaching plays in forging the corporate identity of the church. He writes:
Preaching creates in us a corporate consciousness and a sense of common bond. It shapes us into a corporate body that has corporate values or goals…Consider a few ways to make this happen in your preaching…use and explain the language of Zion. One of the most significant characteristics that defines community is language. People are bound together by their ability to communicate with one another. Their ‘ownership’ of terminology ties them together. And that’s what’s so ironic about many contemporary calls for preachers not to use terminology that’s unfamiliar to the unchurched…But we need to think critically about this counsel. If the church loses its language, it will lose an important aspect of its community. When we lose some of our terms that define us as a people, as well as their distinctive meanings, we lose some of that which sets us apart from our culture.
Jim Shaddix, “Pulpit Discipleship: Shepherding the People to Christlikeness Through Preaching,” in Progress in the Pulpit: How to Grow in Your Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 2017), 77–78.
Shaddix reminds us as preachers that we preach week by week to the called out ones—the community of faith—the church! Our convictions, our actions, our culture, and our language should be different from the world around us. The unchurched who often gather with us for worship might not be familiar with every term we use. Yet, this does not warrant the removal of such terminology. Instead, carefully explain, clarify, and teach the value of such terminology. Is this not what the Levites did among the congregation as Ezra read from the Law of Moses?
See Nehemiah 8:5–8. By doing the same, you will further instruct the saved and simultaneously inform the lost.
Preaching is a primary contributor to both individual and corporate discipleship as it proclaims the Word, which forges Christlikeness. Thus, preaching shapes the identity of the family of faith. This identity and Christlikeness will always seem strange and even offensive to an unbeliever no matter what terms we use. Therefore, fear not the weighty terms of the faith. Claim them. Use them. Explain them. Clarify them. By doing so you will harness their power in forging the family identity of those who look forward to a day when not only our words, but also all things will be made new.
Kyle Walker is the Vice President for Student Services and Assistant Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.[