Chapter 91

The Power of Sequence

Parallel Points vs. Sequential Points

The sermon form I cut my teeth on uses parallel points. Every point in the sermon bridges out of the transition in the introduction, and so all the points are parallel.

For example, in a sermon on Luke 12:22-34, the transition sentence could be "Jesus gives us five reasons not to worry." The keyword is reasons. Every point offers a reason not to worry, and so every point is parallel in logic, bridging from the one transition. Here is a possible outline:

Listeners stay interested when one point flows into the next.
Jesus gives us five reasons not to worry:
  • God intends life to be much more significant than just getting food and clothing.
  • We can depend on God to provide for us better than he does for plants and animals.
  • Worry accomplishes nothing.
  • Worry makes us like those who do not know God.
  • God promises to provide for those who seek his kingdom.

This form of preaching—keyword with parallel points—has the advantage of clarity. In addition, it suits texts that have parallel ideas or lists.

But not all texts have that shape, especially narratives, psalms, and longer sections of epistles. When we try to force a text without parallel ideas into the grid I describe above, we may distort the text. Or we may neglect important ideas in the text that do not fit the logic of our parallel points (or may shoehorn them into our outline).

In my example above, what can I do with an important idea in the text that does not give a reason to avoid worry? Verses 32-34 do not provide straightforward reasons not to worry, but they climax what Jesus says. Life is not just food and clothes; life is ultimately about experiencing the kingdom of God. In the satisfying life of the kingdom, we are so free from seeking food and clothes that we can actually seek ways to give our things away!

If I feel bound to my parallel points, I might not include verses 32-34 in my sermon text, which would truncate this Scripture's full intended message.

Another downside of parallel points can be predictability. Once we have given the transition sentence in the introduction, everyone knows where the sermon is going. What we gain in clarity we may lose in suspense. If hearers are passionately interested in every reason not to worry, predictability is a positive; if they are not interested, it is a negative. Whatever is predictable can bore both us and our hearers.

But there is an alternative.

Sequential Points

Our points don't have to be parallel; they can be sequential. Each idea can flow into the next, rather than all flow out of the transition sentence in the introduction. Point 1 leads to point 2. Point 2 leads to point 3. Point 3 leads to point 4. It's simple, logical, compelling.

Here is a topical sermon with points that follow sequential logic:

  • God loves every person.
  • But not every person responds to God's love.
  • People can reject God's love because God gives people the freedom to choose.
  • Our free choice has consequences.
  • And so, I urge you to respond to God's love.

Notice how each point in this topical sermon flows out of the preceding point and leads to the next point. The points cannot be rearranged, as they could be in a parallel structure.

Here is a sequential outline based on the exposition of a single verse, 1 Peter 4:10.

  • Each of us has received a spiritual gift from God.
  • These spiritual gifts come in many forms.
  • No matter what our gifts are, they place on us the responsibility to be faithful managers of them.
  • Identify and use your gift!

Again using the longer Luke passage above as an example, if I develop points in sequential logic I might have the following outline:

  • Sometimes we are tempted to worry about our daily material needs. (v. 22)
  • Such worry can make "making a living" the primary focus of life. (v. 30)
  • Jesus says life is more than making a living. (v. 23)
  • Worry actually prevents us from experiencing what God intends life to be. (v. 29–30, 34)
  • We can trust God to provide for us. (vv. 24, 27–28)
  • We find real life in seeking and experiencing the kingdom of God. (vv. 31–34)

One great advantage of sequential points: they keep the interest of listeners. Sequential points follow patterns that people instinctively respond to, such as a problem-solution or question-answer pattern. Notice in the Luke example that points 1, 2, and 4 explore the human problem, creating interest. Point 3 hints at an answer, and 5 and 6 give the full answer to our human need. The sequential approach follows an inductive rather than deductive logic, delaying the full discovery to the latter part of the sermon.

Overcoming Challenges

One significant difference between preaching in parallel points versus sequential points is the transitions. With parallel points we typically transition between the points by numbering them and repeating the keyword. "The first reason not to worryThe second reason not to worry" Calling attention to parallel points in this way brings clarity. It is simple for people to follow our structure because we mark points with a flashing light.

With sequential points, on the other hand, things get foggy if we do not carefully highlight the shift between points. Numbering and key words do not suit this form as well. (Although sequential point sermons can use the often-heard keywords principles or points or "things I want to say," and number those, this usually makes for awkward transitions.)

The solution is to repeat and rephrase points. As we conclude each point, we should repeat or rephrase the point, then state the next point and repeat and rephrase it two or three times before proceeding to develop it.

For example, in the Luke sermon above, after I finished explaining and illustrating point 1, I could say, "And so we do worry sometimes about our daily material needs. Now, such worry has a huge drawback. Worry can make 'making a living' the primary focus of life. We live to earn a paycheck. Our reason for being is nothing more than paying the bills." Then I can develop the idea.

After I have developed point 2, I can bring closure and move to point 3 by saying, "Because worry consumes our thoughts, it makes 'making a living' the primary focus of life. But Jesus says life is more than making a living. God created us to set our hearts on more than money, food, and housing payments."

This is a natural, conversational way to transition between points.

One additional thing to watch for with sequential points: Be sure to stay on one subject. If we are not careful, a sequence of ideas can begin on one subject and three points later end on another subject. This is especially likely in a topical sermon drawn from various texts. For example:

  • God loves us.
  • We should love others.
  • We may not feel like loving others.
  • Our feelings can lead us astray.
  • False teachers can also lead us astray.

All points must be subordinate to one overarching subject. In the Luke text above, my overarching subject is "How to experience God's highest purpose for your life."

You will probably not use sequential points in every message, but for many texts they produce interesting, biblical sermons. If parallel points has been your only form of preaching, sequential points can open a whole new sermon world.