Framing an Outline for Life-Change
The sermon needs a good structure to encourage your hearers to action.
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Any good sermon is undergirded by a good structure. That structural arrangement is known as the sermon outline. Those hailed as expository preachers are often heard telling us that a sermon's structure must be derived from the structure of the text we are preaching. Unfortunately, all too often the end product of that admonition leaves congregants hearing sermons that are simply an outlined commentary of information about a passage of Scripture.
Good preaching and true expository sermons must be something more than that. The more results from a reconsideration of the task of preaching, which I believe will also alter the way a sermon is outlined.
Rethinking the task of preaching
A thoughtful review of Jesus' longest recorded sermon found in Matthew 5-7 ought to sharpen our focus on what great preaching looks like. The thrust of Christ's sermon certainly does more than "aim only to clear the head" as J. I. Packer put it, but rather it truly "seeks to change the life." Consider afresh the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. (Matthew 7:24, 26 ESV)
Jesus here clearly emphasizes the principle we have all come to know from James 1:22, namely, that we are to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only," knowing that the one who puts God's Word into practice "will be blessed in his doing" (v.25).
It was no different in the Old Testament, when the heralds of God's truth were sent to preach. If the hearers responded with changed hearts and sincere action then all was good. But when the message was encountered as an informational lecture, we find the Lord lamenting the scene and comparing it to politely applauding crowds at a music recital—nothing more than a performer who sings "with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it." (Ezekiel 33:32).
This is why Spurgeon so strongly states the case when he said, "Where the application begins, there the sermon begins." Or as the famed Southern Baptist homiletics professor, John Broadus taught: "The application in a sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it, but the main thing."
It is this main thing that must not be forgotten when we structure our sermons, never neglecting the structure of the text, but always being mindful of the overarching aim of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the truth. This is why my own articulation of the definition of expository preaching describes the task as: 1) clearly deriving its content from the preaching portion, 2) accurately explaining the meaning of the text, and 3) persuasively seeking to affect the changes intended by the Spirit in the specific passage.
Much, if not all of our preaching consists of those three elements. At any given point in a good sermon we are either 1) stating, highlighting, and restating the content of the text; or 2) explaining, illustrating, and clarifying the meaning of that text; or 3) exhorting, admonishing, and pastorally seeking to prompt the changes that are called for by the text. Biblical preaching involves all three. And outlining sermons should be considered in light of this threefold task.
Whether or not your sermon outline is transparent for your congregation—broadcast on a screen, or printed on a handout—the outline will certainly always serve a fundamental purpose for us as preachers. We create them to delineate and guide the scope and sequence of our sermons. They cordon off the movements and subsets of our teaching. They help us stay verbally organized and aid us in logically distinguishing the chapters of our message. That's what outlines should always do. Outlines keep us from blathering on through a set of unrelated and scattered comments about the text.
It is my contention that we preachers spend far too little of our preparation time and effort hammering out this very important skeletal structure of our sermons. Long after the exegetical study is done and the commentaries are closed, we must labor—long and prayerfully—over how the sermon should be structured and how that structure should be worded.
Whether given a long time or short, I find it is at this juncture that most preachers fall into predictable patterns—particularly those who desire to be as biblical as possible. Usually we will find the wording of the main sequence of our sermons ends up highlighting the biblical content. Occasionally we'll find it expresses something of the text's meaning. But rarely, if ever, does it highlight anything concerning the biblical changes demanded by the text. A shift in our practice at this point can have a transformative effect on our preaching. My challenge to you is to consider a kind of outlining that, while founded on the content, and supported by clear explanation of the text's meaning, forthrightly and boldly articulates those elements which are related to making the changes intended by the text.
Some may object to this suggestion, claiming that biblical application can be present in our sermons without occupying such a prominent place in the structure of our outlines. Yes, of course, it can. But, as in Ezekiel's day, we must understand the fondness we all have to affirm biblical content without putting it into practice. As Jesus warned, when we ingest words of truth without doing what they say, it can eventually lead to catastrophic consequences. Add to that, as the Spirit said through James, when Christians begin to dodge biblical application week after week the end result is a self-deceived congregation!
So let us choose to purposefully put the applications intended by the text into the prominent light of our sermon outlines. After all, these conspicuous phrases, which function as the structure of our sermons not only guide the emphasis in our preaching, they usually end up being the words that are jotted down and remembered by the Christ-followers in our churches. So let's strategically plan for these words to effectively prompt, motivate, and encourage our hearers to actually follow him.
Consider for a moment a very simple example from Philippians 4:6-7: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." It would be common for one to outline this short text in this way:
- The Prohibition (v.6a)
- The Petition (v.6b)
- The Promise (v.7)
When it is preached with this type of wording, we can be sure these six words will be stated, restated, broadcast on a screen, and scribbled down on sermon notes by many congregants (and we can bet it is just about the entirety of what most note-takers will write down). While there is no doubt that this outlined sermon structure pithily summarizes the text's content, it arguably has no weight in prompting congregants to employ in their lives any changes that are clearly intended by this text.
Another preacher might outline this same passage this way:
- The Sin of Anxiety and Worry (v.6a)
- Our Need to Cast Our Fears on God (v.6b)
- God's Gift of Spiritual Peace (v.7)
This sort of outline may help the hearer remember (and the preacher explain) more of the meaning that is embedded in this passage, but again, this kind of outline stops short of relaying the urgent imperatives that the Holy Spirit is obviously purposing to accomplish in the lives of his people with this text.
While some preachers may bristle at the authoritative sound of an outline that seeks to aid the congregant in becoming a "doer of the word," consider how much more vital, effectual, and memorable an outline is when the highlight is on affecting the changes that are intended by the text:
- Don't Worry About Anything (v.6a)
- Pray About Everything (v.6b)
- Expect God's Incredible Peace (v.7)
Notice that this outline remains faithfully governed by the content of the passage. It will also necessarily demand a clear explanation of the meaning of the text. But its strength is that these phrases will press the preacher to carry his biblical definitions and explanations to the point of biblical application. And if these words are broadcast, printed, or written down by the hearers there is no easy way to read, or to later review these words as a politely applauding attendee at a music recital. Personal engagement in this biblical data is demanded. An obedient response to this scriptural text is stated and required.
When it comes to outlining your sermons, remember that your outline not only segments the logical movements of your material, it also reveals your pastoral expectations. It will either show that you simply aspire to be a teacher who wants, like a professor, to inform his students of God's truths. Or it will disclose your hope to be an insightful sage who can untangle the riddles of the Scripture and expound its mysteries. Or, I trust, it will reveal your ultimate goal to be an undershepherd who leads God's people to that place and time when each disciple hears from the Christ they know and trust: "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21).
Much more can be said about outlining for life-change (some of which I have said in my book Preaching That Changes Lives, Wipf & Stock Pub., 2005), but in closing allow me to set forth five of the principles I try to keep in mind as I outline sermons from week to week.
1. Use second-person pronouns
Don't be afraid to word your outline points in the second person. "Admit Your Vulnerability" (cf. 1 Cor.10:12) is more homiletically arresting than "Admit Our Vulnerability." Of course our preaching assumes our own participation in the problems, responsibilities, and vulnerability about which we preach, but the power and effectiveness of guiding each congregant to consider their own application is essential. Don't forget that we are all prone to want to squirm our way out from under the conviction of God's Word. If a congregant can find an escape from the application of the truth by employing an "L-shaped Amen" (i.e. "You're right preacher, that guy over there needs to hear this!") he or she will likely do it. Let's word our outlines so that this is more difficult to do.
2. Enlist imperative verbs
Truth demands a response. Even within the longest "indicative" sections of the Bible there are doctrines to be believed, affirmed, anticipated, and proclaimed. There are examples to be avoided, followed, disdained, and admired. There are attributes which demand our worship, principles for which we ought to be thankful, realities about which we ought to grieve. Pray and linger over the texts you study, pastorally considering and eventually crystalizing the impact they ought to have on those who will hear you preach this week.
3. Keep outline points as brief as possible
Sometimes a three-word point such as "Pray about Everything" can distill a page worth of paragraphs. Without trying to be cute or clever, always attempt to be succinct and concise with these phrases that will be remembered and copied down by your hearers.
4. Avoid metaphorical verbiage
While many of the passages we will be called to preach contain metaphors, similes, and figures of speech, attempt to word your outline points as forthrightly as possible. "Look to Jesus" may poetically work in a hymn lyric, but pastoral exhortations from God's Word should be lucid and explicit. Better to opt for a slightly longer wording such as "Turn Your Attention to Christ," than to allow for minds in your congregation to never truly capture the point you are attempting to communicate.
5. Replace loaded terms or overly familiar words
Many theological terms are rich and meaningful to the pastor in his study, but when they are stated in the pulpit or codified in an outline they fail to communicate clearly. A restatement of the outlined point: "Trust in the Sovereignty of God" as "Trust in God's Management of All Things" may be just the clarification needed not only for the new Christian, but also for the mature disciple who has allowed his vocabulary to insulate his thinking. Even points that include verbs like "Pray" or "Worship" can at times be more effective when stated as "Tell God …" and "Declare Christ's Greatness …"
Mike Fabarez is the founding pastor of Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, California. Pastor Mike is heard on hundreds of stations on the Focal Point radio program and has authored several books, including Preaching That Changes Lives, Lifelines for Tough Times, and Praying for Sunday.