I admit it: I obsess over bottom lines.
Pointed points. Plain truths. The one point of one point sermons.
However you label them, they are the currency of the preaching craft as I practice it. Once I sense that after study and prayer I have arrived at a bottom line that is biblically faithful, theologically accurate, and rhetorically compelling, then the rest of the sermon design flows with relative ease.
What you may not know is that there are three (at least) types of bottom lines. Here they are:
I’d estimate that 65% of my messages land at a “declarative” bottom line. By declarative I mean a simple (not simplistic) summary statement that is faithful to the Scripture, applicable to life, and memorable to the brain. Here are some examples:
From a sermon based on John 4 where Jesus has his interaction with the woman at the well: “Jesus exposes who you are so you will discover who he is.”
From a message drawing on Elijah’s “death wish” prayer in I Kings 19 and the delicate yet empowering way the messenger feeds him: “God won’t do for you what he needs to do with you.”
During a series called Royal Pains, I developed a message called “The However Kings” – those leaders like Jotham who were basically good; however (a word the texts use repeatedly), they failed to remove the high places. That failure led to this bottom line: “What you tolerate today will dominate you tomorrow.”
For the Solutionists sermon series (and the resulting Solve book), I looked at Nehemiah’s legacy in terms of the workers he empowered rather than the wall he built: “Leaving your mark isn’t about what you accomplish. It’s about who you influence.”
Finally, the Practicing The Presence series featured a sermon from Psalm 55 and called “TOs and THROUGHs.” The adventure of that Psalm and the betrayal that hovers over it led to this bottom line: To get TO trust you have go THROUGH trauma.
A second type of bottom line focuses more on exhortation and less on observation. These often take the form of a command – though a command I hope and pray I deliver with love and not with condescension. Here are three examples.
During Solutionists, we not only looked at how Nehemiah built a wall and influenced people, we explored how he solved a famine. The takeaway? Move on what you’re moved by.
As the concluding sermon of the Crash Test Dummies series (and final chapter of the book of the same name) we journeyed through Samson’s story, being careful to separate the Samson of folklore from the Samson of Scripture. His sad tale and bloody demise landed here: Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them.
Our One Sixty-Seven series dwelt on the sources of wisdom and insight to which we open ourselves during the 167 hours a week we’re NOT in church. One of the messages in that series was called “You Give Love A Bad Name” (thanks, Bon Jovi!) and resulted in this one point: You’ll give love a good name when your desires yield to his design.
During a 2017 series called Love Handles: Getting A Grip On Your Closest Relationships, I delivered a message called “What Goes On Behind Closed Doors.” After contrasting the level of kindness most of us have with people beyond the our front door with the type of cruelty many of us reserve for those who live behind our front door, I landed at this bottom line: Treat the people you LOVE as well as you treat the people you NEED.
On Super Bowl Sunday, 2018, a Good Shepherd staffer attended a Game Watching Party at the home of family from the congregation. She sent me this photo via text message:
The family had found that particular bottom line memorable enough to design, frame, and mount on their kitchen wall as a household motto. The power of clarity … and the force of an imperative bottom line.
I have found it highly effective to offer a question – specific, lingering, even painful – as the recurring bottom line. I suspect that “Inquisitive” bottom lines make up about 10% of my sermons. Here are a few of the strongest.
As the concluding message of a series (and subsequent book) called The Storm Before The Calm, I dwelt on drunk, naked Noah in a message titled “After The Storm.” After examining the mess Noah left for his sons to deal with, I asked simply, “Who cleans up after you?”
During our 4U series, I picked up that memorably phrased question from Romans 8 and riffed on it throughout: If God is for us, who can be against us?
One of the messages in the One Sixty-Seven series dealt specifically with cell phone use and addiction. The sermon landed with this plaintive question: Why be captive of the urgent when you can be captured by the ultimate?
These, then, are the kinds of bottom lines you can use to design and deliver that kind of sermons that people from across the country remember five years later and that eleven year olds from across the street use to preach up their own mothers: Declarative, Imperative, and Inquisitive.
The preceding is an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact, released in 2020 by Abingdon Press and available here.