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Building a Stronger Outline

Building a Stronger Outline
Image: Mayur Kakade / Getty

This is the first in a series of clinics to appear in coming months based on the sermon Overcoming the Influence of Affluence. In this installment I evaluate the overall structure of the message.


Clarity. The macro-structure is clear and easy to follow. The preacher clearly states his three movements and their subpoints. Here is the outline:

Myths of the American Dream
1) Being good at making a living is the same as being good at making a life.
2) Money should be able to solve all my problems.
3) I deserve more and better.
4) I'm not keeping up with my peers.
5) Being able to afford it is reason enough to have it.
Four necessary changes in our perspective if we are to pursue the good life of God (1 Timothy 6:17-18)
1) To fight arrogance, cultivate humility. (v. 1 Timothy 6:17a)
2) To fight materialism, cultivate godliness. (v. 1 Timothy 6:17b)
3) To fight dissatisfaction, cultivate enjoyment. (v. 1 Timothy 6:17c)
4) To fight selfishness, cultivate generosity. (v. 1 Timothy 6:18)
Action Plan
1) Be open to a radical change in lifestyle.
2) Cap your income.
3) Become an underconsumer.
4) Get out of the suburbs and serve the poor.
5) Become a consistent giver.
Conclusion: Restatement of the main points of movement 2 and a brief challenge

Addresses real needs. Each movement addresses specific needs of the audience. Movement one analyzes the problem. Movement two offers biblical response relevant to hearers. And movement three gives practical suggestions on how to 'take hold of the life that is truly life.'

Explains Scripture well. Notice how the preacher broke vv. 1 Timothy 6:17-18 of 1 Timothy 6 into four components to enhance understanding. As a result, we know that to fight the evils of arrogance, materialism, dissatisfaction, and selfishness we must cultivate the virtues of humility, godliness, enjoyment, and generosity. Each subpoint comes from an accurate interpretation of Paul's statements and is stated in a way appropriate to a contemporary congregation. Thus, not only did the preacher make the biblical text the source of his authority but he also did a fine job of explaining and proving its truth to his listeners.

Specific application. The audience may not remember all five parts of the "Action Plan," but most, I suspect, found it difficult to ignore them. This is particularly true of the suggestions to consider "a radical lifestyle change" and "cap our salary." Because these ideas are countercultural and yet developed and illustrated in a striking way, they would certainly get the attention of most middle- or upper-middle class congregations in North America.

Ways to Improve

More tension. While the preacher does a fine job of explicating the myths inherent in the American dream (movement one), he does not create a strong enough sense of tension to make the audience want to hear the biblical solution (movement two). What he says in the first movement is true enough, but because the culture is saturated with such thinking, listeners might either turn him off or think, Not another sermon on money! I'm just trying to make ends meet!

I recommend giving only one or two myths and then, through the use of an illustration or story, show the audience how the American dream can end in a nightmare. That may whet the listener's appetite for the "better life" that the rest of the sermon provides. This seems to be the method Jesus used in Luke 12 when he told the Parable of the Rich Fool (v. Luke 12:16-21).

Stick to one idea and develop it. Social science research compiled over the past three decades confirms that sermons are more memorable and appealing when dominated by one key idea. This sermon takes more of a shotgun approach. A sermon, to be maximally effective, should embody one vigorous idea.

The dominant idea for 1 Timothy 6:17-19 could be: Truly rich living comes from following God's vision of the good life, not the American dream. The preacher can develop cycles of tension around that one idea — explaining, proving, and applying it.

Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.

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