Keep It Complicated

Posted by on Sep 3, 2012

I am sometimes told, when discussing how to present the gospel to a non-believer or how to formulate a sermon or Bible study, to make sure to, “Keep it simple.” Sometimes the admonition is “to keep the cookies on the lower shelf.”

If the promoter of simplicity elaborates, he’ll tell me that, if we “make things complicated,” people may get confused, reject our message, get lost in unimportant issues, not remember what we said, or fail to benefit from the Bible’s teaching, the gospel’s power, or the truth’s beauty.

But what if “keeping it simple” is really distorting the message? What if our message isn’t really simple? What if the gospel is complex, rich, multifaceted, nuanced, far-reaching, and touching upon an infinite number of other aspects of life? What if the Bible isn’t really a simple book after all? What if God’s word points us to its inspirer – the God who is beyond comprehension, beyond finding out, beyond our finite reasoning, and beyond all we can pull together?

What if “keeping it complicated” really did justice to the subject matter and “making it simple” misrepresents it? What if we can’t “keep” it simple because it never was simple to begin with? What if we’re not “making” it complicated but reflecting the truth as it really is?

Have I made this argument complicated? Good.

I certainly see the need to find ways to state things concisely and easily. Sometimes, you only have a few minutes to articulate what you believe to a sincere inquirer. In those instances, a short booklet or a diagram drawn on a small napkin is the best vehicle for telling people the message of salvation.

But it’s one thing to draw that diagram or read that booklet and say, “This is one way for me to express my faith in a concise way. There’s obviously more but this is a helpful introduction.” It’s another thing to say, “There. That’s all there is to it.”

I have often pondered the best-selling book title, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Apparently, given its popularity, a lot of people think it’s the only book they need to read. But I remain unconvinced. All I really need to know? Really? I have found that the dramas of life, the complexities of marriage, the trials of disease, the confusion of evil, the pain of death, the ever-evolving challenges of parenthood, not to mention the wonder of beauty, the joy of music, the blessing of laughter, and all the delights of worship to be just a few of the things my kindergarten teacher left out of the syllabus.

Do I think the lessons I learned in kindergarten were helpful, foundational, crucial, and building blocks upon which to learn many of the lessons that would follow? Absolutely. Am I thankful for kindergarten? Remarkably.

But am I glad there was also a first grade and a second grade and every other learning experience I’ve encountered since kindergarten? Increasingly so.

If I reflect on this tendency to “keep it simple” vs. “keep it complicated” from a missional perspective, I would have to say, “keeping it simple” hasn’t served the church all that well – at least, not lately. Our world is complex and people know it. In fact, people love it. They reject (rightly, I believe) simplistic answers to complex questions because those answers haven’t worked. Formulas haven’t helped them make relationships work. Short explanations haven’t helped them grapple with long problems. And the people who insist, “it’s really quite simple” seem to be out of touch with reality.

More and more people wonder about the complexities of life and want to explore them. They long to see how seemingly unrelated topics intersect. They are not surprised by mysteries that keep unfolding, revealing more and more levels of wonder. They like movies like Inception.

Maybe we should try to “keep it complicated” because God’s word and his gospel are complicated – not in the “confusing” sense of complicated but in the rich and beautiful and intellectually fulfilling and aesthetically pleasing and awe-inspiring ways. I think it’s worth the experiment – both for the deepening of our faith and the challenging of our friends’ searches.


  1. Herb Miller
    September 3, 2012

    I love reading your blogs. It makes me think. It makes me appreciate you and your ministry – and Jesus. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Mickey Garverick
    September 3, 2012

    Hi Randy –

    Maybe the best reason to keep the message factual, thorough and even complex is that the listener often thinks they understand the simple milk. We are admonished to chew on the meat and taste it to see that it is good food to live by. Paul’s message to the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:1-3) tells us “1Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”

    I think the only way to get men to act like men is to feed them meat and then they will realize that their lives cannot remain in the flesh. We have too few teachers of the Word who are willing to serve meat. Praise the Lord you are one!

    Blessings, Mickey

  3. Henry A. "Hank" Zimon
    September 3, 2012

    Great message, Randy, and I believe you are right — AND WRONG. Probably a little biased in my response, since I spent my entire life being indocrtinated with KISS — Keep It Simple Stupid. Understanding that many things as you say are complicated, I would argue the real answer is BOTH — keep it simple AND complicated. For communications, messaging and ministry purposes I would argue lean in the direction of KISS. If we initially confront many individuals — and many of these being those who really need to hear the Good News — with a complicated message, I fear we will lose them in the first round. So I believe the first objective should be to prepare the first message to be as simple, easy, inviting, etc as possible, designed to capture their interest and attention. Then, imbed in that message that many parts of the Good News is, indeed, complicated and will take some time to understand fully because we do not want to distill the complicated parts and try to make them simple (prodigal son being a good example). And I do believe there are important initial messages that are quite simple (Campus Crusades Four Points a good example here). Thanks for everything you do and say, good friend; you remain in my prayers every day. Hope the comment helps! Hank

  4. Heather Holleman
    September 4, 2012

    Great post! I love the idea that mystery and wonder bring people into amazing gospel conversations. Sometimes we leave out the complicated, and that’s the very thing that captures a heart. I think about the sublime a lot–that combination of fear and wonder–that people have when approaching a holy God. Maybe if we make it too simple, we lose the sublime. Or maybe not. Maybe the simple can be sublime, but I hear your point!

  5. Brian
    September 10, 2012

    I agree that we shouldn’t shy away from the complex nature of the Bible. We would all agree that there are doctrines we don’t fully understand and the worst thing to do is try to sum it up in a lame analogy. However, we shouldn’t mistake complex for confusing. God gave us His word so that we could know him. There is an element of simplicity in that. I don’t think (or I hope) you aren’t making the argument that we should feel free to unload all of our theological language on the lost. The gospel should not be made more complex or more concise, but it should be clear. The people that I hear saying “keep it simple” often don’t intend to loose the intricate details of the gospel, they just want people to communicate in a simple, clear manner. I do agree that where the Bible is complex, we should let it be complex, but we must be clear. I’m pretty sure you’re on the same page here, but many well trained people I know aren’t able to communicate the gospel not because of it’s complex nature but because of the complex nature of their language (using Christian insider jargon).

  6. Alisha Jenkins
    September 10, 2012

    I think at times people who disagree with you, think you mean teach theology to people who don’t know the gospel. In other words, have seminary level conversations with them and let them see complicated theological issues that are really deep and hard to understand. But, that is missing the point you are trying to make all together. People are asking complicated questions, they have complicated lives, they have complicated pasts, and keeping it simple in order to be clear and concise doesn’t do it for them. They need help to see how the Gospel connects to their crazy lives and most of the time, that isn’t simple, not any more. It takes time, philosophy, deep understanding of truth, prayer, and sometimes it takes wrestling together over complicated issues in their lives and the gospel for them to start to get it. That doesn’t seem simple to me.

    Thanks for sharing — I could not agree more!

  7. Jennifer
    September 27, 2012

    Randy –
    Thanks for this post. It’s inspired me to think about the gospel and living into that more fully, and I’ve written about it here:
    Hope that is helpful, and look forward to your next post.

  8. Dawn D
    November 3, 2012

    Thnk you for your insightful blog–I believe that “those who have ears to hear” will hear, and the truth of the gospel can penetrate the heart, soul, and marrow of a man if he does open his ears to hear.
    It is the Word of God, after all–the bread of life, living water, sustenance. It is alive and active. The Word is powerful. It may seem complicated to some and simple to other’s, but to those who know HIm, we know that He spoke light into the darkness, still in existence to this day, light is…. riding on the breath of God. “And the Word was God” who are we to even discuss whether it is simple, or complex? Our Creator God, spoke it, inspired it’s writing so we would have it to share with other’s, and brought it through the ages, all so we would not do what the Pharisees did, twisting it into a rule book of do’s and don’ts!
    It is Grace, grace, and more grace not complex, or simple … it just is.


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