2 Big Problems with Overly Simple Sermons

by Marc Cortez

Many sermons are a lot like popular sitcoms. And I’m not referring to the fact that pastors seem to think that a good sermon has to start with something funny, although that’s an interesting connection in its own right. I have something else in mind, something deeper.

As many have pointed out, sitcoms are great for suggesting that even the most complex problems ca be resolved in just 30 minutes. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s betrayal, innocent suffering, finding a soul-mate, or social injustice, give a sitcom thirty minutes of your time and they’ll present you with a gift-wrapped solution for whatever ails you.

Of course, we’re smart enough to recognize that sitcoms are more about entertainment than edification. So we don’t worry too much if they over-simplify the complexities of life.

But what about when we hear the same thing in a sermon?

Simplicity and the 3-Point Sermon

I grew up on the three-point sermon. Take any text, add colorful analogies, stir vigorously, and serve. Simple.

And this approach has tremendous benefits. It forces the preacher to be clear about what he wants to communicate, and it keeps the listener from getting distracted by too many points and sub-points. Anything that helps people stay focused on your message, maybe even remembering something about it when they get home, is a good thing, right?

Here’s the problem: sometimes reality is more complex than our desire for simplicity allows.

For example, I recently talked with a student who’d been asked by a teacher to put together a teaching outline of Exodus 9, the chapter about the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart. And the teacher obviously wanted the student to put together something akin to a 3-point outline: simple, clear, and concise.

The problem is that the text is far more complicated than that. Not only does it raise challenging issues in its own right (e.g. who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, when does the hardening take place, how does this happen, what are the implications for how we view God, etc.), but the faithful preacher must also wrestle with both biblical theology (e.g., how does Paul interpret the story in Romans 9?) and systematic theology (e.g., what are the implications for understanding how divine and human agency relate to each other?). And that’s just for starters. And we’re somehow supposed to squeeze all of that into something short, simple, and concise? Right.

So, of course, we don’t. Instead, we reduce the complexity, making the passage more understandable, simpler, easier to digest. Something that will fit into a 30-minute sitcom sermon. And when we do that, simplicity becomes the enemy of understanding. People may walk away with a clearer sense of what my sermon was about, but they haven’t really understood the text.

Simplicity vs. Clarity

Some of the problem comes from failing to recognize the difference between simplicity and clarity. We rightly recognize that good communication requires clarity, and we’ve heard too many people hide ignorance in complexity, using hifalutin words as a shield to keep people (and themselves) from seeing that they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Yes, clarity is important. But clarity is not the same thing as simplicity. Those are importantly different concepts.

For example, I’ve spent considerable time studying the question of human “free will.” And, given enough time, I think I could explain with some clarity what the issues are and why it matters. But it would take considerable time because it is an amazingly complex issue. I could introduce someone to the topic fairly simply, but really explaining things would take considerably more. And that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the issue. I can’t explain it simply because it isn’t simple.

Simplicity and clarity just aren’t the same thing.

The Overly Simple Sermon

When simplicity becomes king, the pulpit is often its kingdom. I think too many preachers have taken Einstein’s quote to heart. They’ve heard too often that good communication must be simple. So they force everything into that mold, talking about complex issues like poverty, suffering, ethics, and even the gospel, as though these were relatively simple and easy to understand. They’re not, and pretending otherwise sets us up for one of two problems (probably both):

We Create Simpletons: Some people will hear our simple explanations and take them at face value, believing that these issues really are as simple as we’ve presented them, failing to grow in their understanding of the true complexity of the world.

We Create Despisers: Others will hear our simple explanations, but will be fully aware that life is far more complex than the sitcom portrayal we’ve given them. Done often enough, they’ll develop a low view of us as preachers, or, even worse, a low view of Christianity, thinking that the problem lies in the superficiality of Scripture itself.

Now, I fully appreciate the challenge of speaking on difficult issues in just thirty (or so) minutes. And I’m not suggesting that we can solve this with longer sermons. Turning a 30-minute sitcom into a 60-minute sitcom isn’t going to create deeper Christians.

But neither is the “solution” of making complex issues sound easier than they are. When we do that, we’ve sacrificed clarity at the altar of simplicity and lost understanding in the process. We need to remember that clarity is the goal, not simplicity. The latter is frequently a valuable tool, but it is only that. Forcing complex issues to appear simple is closer to indoctrination than communication.


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