Let's start with a typical Sunday as a family returns home from church. The question posed to the children is the same every week: "So what did you learn today?" And the response is too often the same: (Silence.) "Ummm..." (More silence.) "Ummm..." (Still more silence.) "Ummm..."
Parents have tried to think of different ways to word the question for their kids, but it always comes out the same: "So what did you learn today?" It's not the most enticing question, but it's the question that gets asked millions of times every week during the car ride home from church. And the truth is, if our kids asked us, we might give them the same response: (Silence.) "Ummm..." (More silence.)"Ummm..." (Still more silence.) "Ummm..."
How is it possible that so many people, young and old, can respond with nothing but silence to such a simple question after spending an entire Sunday morning in church? Is it too little teaching? Is it too little Scripture? Is it too little application of Scripture in the teaching? What's the problem?
Well, let's review a typical experience at church. Is it too little or maybe too much? The average churchgoer is overloaded every week with scores of competing little ideas during just one trip to church. Let's try to keep track.
1. Little idea from the clever message on the church sign as you pull into the church parking lot
2. Little idea from all the announcements in the church bulletin you are handed at the door
3. Little idea from the prelude music that is playing in the background as you take your seat
4. Little idea from the welcome by the worship leader
5. Little idea from the opening prayer
6. Little idea from song 1 in the worship service
7. Little idea from the Scripture reading by the worship leader
8. Little idea from song 2 in the worship service
9. Little idea from the special music
10. Little idea from the offering meditation
11. Little idea from the announcements
12. Little idea from the first point of the sermon
13. Little idea from the second point of the sermon
14. Little idea from the third point of the sermon
15. Little idea from song 3 in the worship service
16. Little idea from the closing prayer
17. Little idea from the Sunday school lesson
18. Little idea from (at least one) tangent off of the Sunday school lesson
19. Little idea from the prayer requests taken during Sunday school
20. Little idea from the newsletter handed out during Sunday school
Twenty and counting. Twenty different competing little ideas in just one trip to church. Easily! If a family has a couple of children in junior church and everyone attends his or her own Sunday school class, we could quadruple the number of little ideas. So this one family could leave with more than eighty competing little ideas from one morning at church! And if we begin to add in youth group, small group, and a midweek service, the number easily doubles again. If family members read the Bible and have quiet times with any regularity, it might double yet again. And if they listen to Christian radio in the car or watch Christian television at home, the number might double once more. It's possible that this one family is bombarded with more than one thousand little ideas every week explaining what it means to be a Christian. No wonder when the parents ask their kids, "So what did you learn?"the answer goes some-thing like this: (Silence.) "Ummm ....” (More silence.) "Ummm …” (Still more silence.) "Ummm …”
MORE INFORMATION = LESS CLARITY
We have bombarded our people with too many competing little ideas, and the result is a church with more information and less clarity than perhaps ever before. But the church is not alone in its predicament. Businesses also get distracted with lots of little ideas and forget the Big Idea. Many marketplace leaders are relearning the importance of the Big Idea in regard to advertising. It was a multimillion-dollar sock-puppet ad during Super Bowl XXXIV that epitomized the absurdity of the advertising during the dot-com bubble. This same era brought us commercials with cowboys herding cats, singing chimps, and a talking duck— all great entertainment, but they didn't convey a thing about the brands they represented.
Brand consultants Bill Schley and Carl Nichols Jr., in their book, Why Johnny Can't Brand: Rediscovering the Lost Art of the Big Idea, tell us this type of advertising is not effective branding. Schley and Nichols exhort companies to redefine their products in terms of a single, mesmerizing Dominant Selling Idea. They go on to explain that somewhere along the way, "Johnny" forgot the basics of revealing the Big Idea in an easy, everyday way that cements a brand as top dog in the hearts and minds of consumers without resorting to puffery and shallow glitz. What are businesses learning? That "more" results in less clarity. (And less money!)
Don't misunderstand — this is not a rant against entertainment or churches that are entertaining. This is a rant against churches (and businesses) that don't discipline themselves to create experiences that convey and challenge people with one Big Idea at a time. Why? Because the lack of clarity that we give our people impedes the church's ability to accomplish the mission of Jesus. "More" results in less clarity.
Haddon Robinson, in his classic book Biblical Preaching, recognizes the simple truth that more is less and challenges teaching pastors to communicate with crystal clarity "a single idea." He says, "People in the pew complain almost unanimously that the sermons often contain too many ideas."1 Robinson is right on. And it is good news that people are complaining. Their complaints about too many ideas tell us that people in the pew want clarity, direction, and guidance in how to live out the mission of Jesus Christ.
We can no longer afford to waste another Sunday allowing people to leave confused about what to do next. So let the change begin! But this change can't be relegated only to the preaching. It also must happen in the teaching of children, students, adults, families and in the overall experience of church life. How? The Big Idea. And it is one Big Idea at a time that brings clarity to the confusion that comes from too many little ideas.
MORE INFORMATION = LESS ACTION
In 1960 when John F. Kennedy was elected president, more than $20 million was spent on the presidential campaign for the very first time. The money was spent so the candidates could deliver their political ideas to the people in a compelling way through the new medium of television. Every year since then, more and more money has been spent to better communicate each candidate's political ideology, with the amount increasing more than 400 percent to $880 million in 2004.
You would think that with all that money and all those ideas being communicated in every imaginable format, people would be better informed and more convinced to take action and cast their vote for the candidate of their choice. Wrong! More has resulted in less action. Although the 2004 presidential election saw a slight increase in voter participation from the 2000 election, overall, there has been a forty-year trend of declining voter participation in national elections for U.S. president. Why?
In Thomas E. Patterson's book The Vanishing Voter, he asks, "What draws people to the campaign and what keeps them away?" He discovered after the 2000 election that despite almost a billion dollars spent to communicate lots of ideas, when surveyed on election day, a majority of people flunked a series of twelve questions seeking to ascertain whether they knew the candidates' positions on prime issues such as gun registration, defense spending, tax cuts, abortion, school vouchers, prescription drug coverage, offshore oil drilling, and affirmative action. Patterson concludes, "I don't believe that voters are more apathetic than they were 40 years ago. I think they are more confused than they were 40 years ago."2
Sure I vote, but do you know one of the primary reasons I vote? It's so I can say, "I voted." Seldom have I gone to the polls with a strong conviction that I really knew the ideology of each candidate. The main feeling I have in connection with voting is confusion, and confusion does not produce positive action.
Around the Ferguson household you can see how "more" results in less action. Having friends over for the evening usually means a scramble to clean up the house and get things presentable for company. So my wife, Sue, and I start barking out orders to the kids: "Vacuum the family room, dust the railings, put away your coat, pick up your shoes, shut the door to your bedroom ..." What happens next? Usually they stand there staring at us and say, "What?" They are willing to help, but after our barrage of requests, they are overwhelmed and do nothing. Now, my wife says that just the boys and I have this problem and that girls can multitask. Maybe. But I think it's another example of the fact that more results in less action. Experience has taught me that if I want the kids to get something done, I'm farther ahead to give them one task, ask them to check in with me once it's finished, then give them the next task. This is the Big Idea approach. It provides clarity and produces action.
I know that as church leaders we can't control the media and the barrage of information that comes at our people — and we don't want to control it. But what we do want is to challenge our people with the truth of God's Word and insist that it be lived out missionally. When we contribute to the bombardment of little ideas, we are implicitly telling our people that not all of God's truth has to be accompanied by obedient action. We are implicitly telling our people that just because they hear the truth doesn't mean they necessarily have to live it out. We are telling our people that what is really important is saying it and not doing it.
ONE BIG IDEA = MORE CLARITY AND ACTION
I was in a graduate class when I heard the Big Idea explained for the first time. The professor, Jim Pluddeman, challenged my classmates and me by saying that the Bible was written to be understood and applied. He said, "The effective teacher is like a person who takes a strong rope, ties one end around the big ideas of Scripture, ties the other end around the major themes of life, and then through the power of the Spirit struggles to pull the two together." I was just beginning to understand that accomplishing the mission of Jesus would mean focusing on one Big Idea, not trying to juggle competing little ideas.
Jesus did not confuse people with a lot of little ideas. Instead, he presented one Big Idea with a clear call to action: "As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. `Come, follow me,' Jesus said, `and I will make you fishers of men.' At once they left their nets and followed him"(Matt. 4:18-20).
I can't help but notice that Jesus didn't say to Peter and Andrew, "Come, be Christians." When Jesus met someone for the first time, he challenged them with one Big Idea: "Follow me." A Big Idea that was simple but not easy. If Peter and Andrew were asked, "What did Jesus teach you today?" there is no way they would respond like this: (Silence.) "Ummm ..." (More silence.) "Ummm .. " (Still more silence.) "Um mm .... And if they did, it would not be because they were confused and didn't understand, but rather because they were stunned at the boldness and size of Jesus' request.
This Big Idea was very clear, and the call to action could not be misunderstood. The simplicity and clarity of that Big Idea, "Follow me," was what catalyzed a movement of Christ followers into action. And these Christ followers knew what was expected of them and would do anything and everything, including trade their very lives, to accomplish the mission of Jesus.
What about "deeper teaching"? That is what the rich young ruler wanted. He came to Jesus and began to explain that he already knew the commandments — "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother" (Mark 10:19) — and that he had obeyed these commands since he was a boy. He wanted more. He wanted a midweek service. He wanted graduate-level teaching.
With clarity and simplicity, Jesus challenged him with one Big Idea when he said, "One thing you lack.... Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Mark 10:21). The message was clear. It was a call to action. It was a Big Idea that was simple but not easy.
What would happen if we challenged people in the same way? What if we gave people one clear and simple Big Idea and asked them to put it into action? That is exactly what we have been attempting to do at Community Christian Church and the New Thing Network for the last several years. Every week, we give all of our people of every age and at every location one Big Idea and ask them to put it into action. The challenge is simple and clear — but never easy. That's the Big Idea.
Recently we were in the middle of a Big Idea series titled "Get in the Game" for the adults and "U Got Game" for our Student Community and Kids' City. Kids' City puts every Big Idea into one concise statement, and this time it was "God uses his teams' offering to change the world." It was a powerful series. I received the following email from a mom in our church:
I just wanted to let you know that my kids really, really got a lot out of this week's large group time in Kids' City. It made such an impact on them to know where their offering money goes every week. Each week when they get their allowance on Saturday, 15 percent automatically goes with them to church, but they've never really understood where that money goes. (I guess I haven't been very effective at explaining what "giving back to God" means!) Anyway, when they came home this week after experiencing the Big Idea, they both went in and emptied their piggy banks into the offering bags they made and said, "We have to give it all to church. There are orphans in Rwanda that don't have homes. We have to help those kids get a home!" Never mind that we talk about "poor people" around this house all the time, but for whatever reason they "got it" in a way they never had, thanks to the way you presented it in Kids' City.
I asked Jen Pedley how the Big Idea impacted her. Here's what she said:
The Big Idea was the first time in my life that God's Word applied to my everyday, ordinary life. It helped me in a practical, "meet you where you are and don't worry, I'll still love you" way. No one had ever spoken so clearly about what it meant to be a Christ follower (I mean, come on, everyone in my hometown claimed to be a "Christian," but I saw firsthand how much that really meant in many people's lives), why you would even want to live this way, and how to do it.
I never heard the Word of God speak to me personally until coming to CCC. I never saw the point until then. Big Idea teaching touches on so many basic truths that even though I had gone to churches my whole life, I had never heard before. When you put God's Word into where people are at today — whew, I was blown away. I still am.
Jen came to Community Christian Church in 2000 and soon made a commitment to be a Christ follower. She was baptized, began doing life with a small group of believers, and joined one of our vocal teams. In 2004 she and her husband, Ken, packed up their kids, leaving behind a job and home to move with a group of people from Chicago to the Detroit area to start 2142 Community Church. Why? They were committed to the Big Idea of selling all they had and following Jesus to accomplish his mission.
THE POWER OF THE BIG IDEA
So what if we took that same trip to church, and instead of hearing lots of competing little ideas, our whole family was taught only one Big Idea?
One Big Idea is displayed on the church website.
One Big Idea is on the cover of the church bulletin you are handed at the door.
One Big Idea is projected on the screen as you listen to the prelude music while taking your seat.
One Big Idea is introduced in the welcome by the worship leader.
One Big Idea is the focus of the opening prayer.
One Big Idea is the theme of song 1 in the worship service.
One Big Idea is supported by the Scripture reading by the worship leader.
One Big Idea is the theme of song 2 in the worship service.
One Big Idea is at the heart of a secular song used as the special music.
One Big Idea and how you can understand it further in a small group is the only announcement.
One Big Idea is explained in the first — and only — point of the sermon.
One Big Idea is reinforced through a video.
One Big Idea is the theme of song 3 in the worship service. One Big Idea is the focus of the closing prayer.
One Big Idea can be explored even more deeply by going to the "next steps" table and picking up a recommended reading list.
One Big Idea and how to have a conversation with your kids on this topic is the theme of the Kids' City handout given to parents.
One Big Idea is the central topic of discussion at small group during the week.
One Big Idea is the focus of the prayer time during small group.
One Big Idea is reinforced by a phone call (by your request) from the teaching pastor at the end of the week.
(Silence.) "Ummm" would not be your response if you were asked, "So what did you learn?" What the church needs is one unmistakable Big Idea. A crystal-clear Big Idea that calls everyone to act on the Jesus' mission.
So why does the church in the United States have 247 million Christians and not nearly enough Christ followers? And why is it that we have access to the best and most thoroughly thought-through theology in all of history yet still aren't gaining ground in accomplishing the mission of Jesus? Could it be that we have forgotten the Big Idea and gotten lost in too many little ideas? Is it because the church of Jesus Christ has not challenged people the way Jesus challenged people — with one Big Idea, simple and clear?
Dave Ferguson is Lead Pastor of Community Christian Church in the Chicago area.
From The Big Idea by Dave Ferguson, Jon Ferguson and Eric Bromlett. Copyright ©2007 by Dave Ferguson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Used by permission.
1. Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 35.
2. Thomas E. Patterson, The Vanishing Voter (New York: Knopf, 2002), 84.