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Step 4: Organize the Sermon

Have the Big Idea? Now here's how to find the structure that will most effectively deliver.
Step 4: Organize the Sermon

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great preacher of London in the mid-twentieth century, knew that organizing the sermon is one of our most difficult homiletical tasks:

The preparation of sermons involves sweat and labor. It can be extremely difficult at times to get all this matter that you have found in the Scriptures into [an outline]. It is like a … blacksmith making shoes for a horse; you have to keep on putting the material into the fire and on to the anvil and hit it again and again with the hammer. Each time it is a bit better, but not quite right; so you put it back again and again until you are satisfied with it or can do no better. This is the most grueling part of the preparation of a sermon; but at the same time it is a most fascinating and a most glorious occupation. (Preachers and Preaching, 80)

This article can't (and shouldn't) stop the "sweat and labor," but it can help you strike skillfully. Four procedures help us structure our sermons so that they reflect the passage's flow of thought and make that flow clear to the congregation.

First procedure: state the 'exegetical outline'

In Step 3 you articulated the passage's big idea, and to do that you had to comprehend the passage's flow of thought, so as you begin Step 4 you already have a good handle on what we call the "exegetical outline." This is the movement of ideas in the passage. Write them down in complete sentences. Be clear and thorough as you summarize the conceptual "hunks" of the text (Don Sunukjian's term, Invitation to Biblical Preaching). This component of our study is part of basic exegesis, so if you have gotten away from that discipline, get back to it. Charting the flow of thought with a mechanical layout, grammatical diagram, or semantic structural analysis, is an indispensable step in creating an expository sermon. Identifying only a general theme is not enough to reveal authorial intention. You need to lay out the major ideas and how they relate to the big idea.

As you outline the text's flow of ideas, you can expect to see these patterns of thought, common to the ways we think:

  • Problem-Solution.
  • Cause-Effect.
  • Contrast (Not this, but this).
  • Chronology (First this happened, then this, then this).
  • Promise-Fulfillment.
  • Lesser to Greater.
  • Argument-Proof.
  • Explanation-Application.
  • Principle-Example/amplification.

Other patterns exist, and once you train your mind to think in logical categories like these, discerning flow of thought becomes second nature. The first six patterns use inductive reasoning as they start with particulars and move toward a conclusion or principle. The last three patterns use deductive reasoning, starting with the conclusion or axiom and then explaining, proving, or applying the idea.

We will use Psalm 19 to illustrate each of the procedures of Step 4.

Example: exegetical outline
Psalm 19

The flow of thought in this psalm is pretty straightforward because it has three distinct sections all dealing with communication—the heavens' silent communication, the Torah's verbal communication, and the psalmist's personal communication (his prayer of response, "May the words of my mouth be acceptable … .") The challenge of Psalm 19, in terms of organization, is the seams, the connections, between the three sections. The psalm lacks transitions. No words link the sections, so the exegete must discern the connections. Why did the author weave these three descriptions of words into one fabric? What was his intention?

  1. The heavens proclaim a silent word—God is great. (1-6)
  2. The Law blesses the one who heeds. (7-11)
  3. The psalmist responds by asking God to justify and sanctify his actions and words. (12-14)

As stated above, the challenge of this psalm is discerning the connections between the sections. The common feature is communication/words. In the procedures below, I'll suggest how to show your people that flow of thought.

Clear structure of the sermon depends on crystal clear understanding of the flow of thought in the passage. Do not rush this foundational procedure in your exegesis—stating the exegetical outline.

Second procedure: rephrase (and possibly re-order) the points as a 'homiletical outline'

Using John Stott's metaphor of "standing between two worlds," the exegetical outline resides in the world of the text, and the homiletical outline resides in the world of the listener. Compare:

Exegetical Outline Homiletical Outline
Past tense Present tense
Third person First or second person
Summarizes the author's thought Summarizes and applies the author's thought to the congregation
Follows the textual order exactly Usually follows the textual order, but can also follow "thought order"

I'll illustrate the last item in this chart using a passage from 1 Thessalonians, but first let me illustrate the top three items. In the examples that follow, notice that the outline no longer sounds like a commentary—"The psalmist said such and such." Rather, it sounds like a living soul addressing living souls.

Examples of homiletical outlines
Here's a homiletical outline of Psalm 19:

  1. The silent word to us: The heavens show us the glory of God. (1-6)
  2. The written word to us: The Law promises blessing when we obeys. (7-11)
  3. Our personal words in response: Lord, deliver us from sin. (12-14)

This outline reveals the gravitational center that holds the psalm together (communication/words), demonstrates the flow of thought, and shows its relevance by using first person pronouns and present tense. It is the skeleton of a sermon, not a lecture. It flows inductively, paving the way for the big idea which occurs in the last point: "May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord."

Here's another exegetical outline I used for a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8:

  1. The Command: Avoid sexual immorality. (1-3)
  2. The Means: Three instructions show us how to avoid sexual immorality. (4-5a)
  3. The Rationale: Four reasons tell us why we should avoid sexual immorality. (5b-8)

To return to the issue above—the issue of "textual order" and "thought order"—Donald Sunukjian gives this helpful example (Invitation to Biblical Preaching, 56-64):

Textual order: "Don't get mad when the paperboy throws your paper in the bushes." The arrangement is Effect (don't get mad) to Cause (the paperboy throws your paper in the bushes).
Thought order: A sermon from this "text" could rearrange the textual order into the more natural thought order of Cause-Effect. This would help the listeners follow the sequence of ideas. Thus:
(Cause) Sometimes the paperboys throw your paper in the bushes. (Response) When that happens, don't get mad.

Although expository preachers usually adhere to textual order, rearranging the points of the homiletical outline can clarify the meaning of the text. Here's an example is 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 arranged in a different order:

  1. The Command: Avoid sexual immorality. (1-3)
  2. The Rationale: Four reasons tell us why we should avoid sexual immorality. (5b-8)
  3. The Means: Three instructions show us how to avoid sexual immorality. (4-5a)

The logic of the second outline is "What, Why, How?" I believe that that flow of thought is more psychologically effective than "What, How, Why?" Listeners do not ask, "How can I obey this command?" until they are convinced, "I need to obey this command." When I preached this passage I opted for the second outline because it reflects the thought process of most people. It is deductive, stating the big idea early ("Avoid sexual immorality"), then proving and applying that idea in the rest of the sermon.

The examples above demonstrate that expository preachers have latitude when it comes to structure. Our normal procedure, once again, is to follow the exegetical outline when creating the homiletical outline, but pastoral wisdom will sometimes suggest that we rearrange the points into a different order.

Third procedure: link the points with clear transitions

Oral discourse occurs in time. It starts at, say, 11:20 and ends at 11:49. It is a river of words that, once spoken, pass on never to return. The words fade when the echo fades. In contrast, written discourse occurs in space. You are reading this article on a spatial object, your computer screen or sheets of paper. This gives you the ability to read the same sentence three times, ponder it, underline it, discuss it with the person next to you, skip it, or lay it aside and return to it next week. With written communication, the receiver controls the flow of information.

Clear structure of the sermon depends on crystal clear understanding of the flow of thought in the passage.

Not so in oral communication. The sender controls the flow, and communication breakdown occurs when speakers state key concepts only once, as if they were writing, not speaking. They believe that one utterance is sufficient, but in reality key concepts are quickly submerged in the current of words sweeping over the listener. Experienced speakers know that repetition and restatement are essential to avoid communication breakdown.

When we apply that axiom to the topic of this article—organization—we see that transitions must be stated and restated. A good transition is likely to feel labored and redundant to the speaker, but listeners will be grateful that you briefly freeze the river of words with deliberate redundancy, giving them time to catch up. Most listeners have only a foggy sense of what we are talking about as we preach. Blessed is the man or woman who links points with clear, direct, fulsome transitions. A good transition reviews the previous point and then directs the listeners to the next point. Using questions often works well.

An example of transitions—Psalm 19

I. The silent word to us: The heavens proclaim the glory of God. (1-6)

Transition: The first part of the psalm has showed us that the heavens silently proclaim the glory of God. Without a word they tell us God is great. Now we shift our attention to written words, THE written Word, the Word of God, what the psalmist called the Torah. Here's the announcement: the Word of God blesses us when we obey. That's right, the holy Word of God revives our souls.

II. The written word to us: The Law proclaims blessing for the one who obeys. (7-11)

Transition: Silent words, written words, and now our own words. What words should we speak in response to the glory of God revealed in the heavens and the promise of God revealed in the Torah? We respond in prayer: forgive our sins and deliver us from evil. May our actions and our words be acceptable to you, O God.

III. Our words to God in response: Deliver us from sin. (12-14)

These transitions use various techniques to carry the listeners forward: review, redundancy, questions, and blunt phrases that signal a change or focusing of thought, such as "Now we shift our attention …" and "Here's the announcement … ." Good transitions are pedestrian. Save your artistry for other portions of the sermon.

Fourth procedure: write the introduction and conclusion

A good introduction gains attention, surfaces need, and introduces the big idea. If the sermon is deductive the entire big idea is stated in the intro, but if it is inductive, we state only the theme (that is, the subject of the big idea without the complement). Here are two condensed examples.

Examples: introductions of Psalm 19
Here's a deductive introduction to Psalm 19:

When a character saw Hamlet walking through the castle while reading a book, he asked what he was reading. Hamlet replied, "Words, words, words." Just words. Just empty rhetoric. Just a lot of blah blah blah. Talk is cheap, right? [pause] Well, no. Some words might be cheap, but other words are silver and gold. Words can be powerful, life changing, soul enriching. The words of God are not cheap. His Word is a hammer that breaks up stony hearts, fire that burns away dross, water that washes, milk that nourishes, a mirror that shows us our true selves, a light for the path, and a sword that pierces our thoughts and intentions. We can dismiss some words—blah blah blah—but other words bring life.
This morning we are looking at Psalm 19, a poem about words: the silent words of the heavens, the written words of the Law, and our words of prayer in response. When we hear the proclamation of the heavens we know that God is great. When we hear the promise of the Law, we want to obey. But when we examine our hearts and see our hidden faults, we pray, "Deliver me, save me, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord." Let's start with the silent words of the heavens.

Here's my report card on this introduction:

  • Does it gain attention? I give it a B+. Beginning with Hamlet might cause some listeners to tune out immediately, but for my audience in hoity-toity Massachusetts, I think it would work. The reference to Hamlet is brief and immediately raises mild tension about the power of "mere" words. The tension would be even greater if the power of words was illustrated with a quick personal example ("Last week my children said to me … .")
  • Does it surface need? I give it a B. See the comments above about "mild tension." How would you give the intro more zap? How would you raise the theme of words/communication in a way that rivets the congregation? Surface need and you will have all the attention you desire.
  • Does it introduce? Yes. I give it an A. With deduction, it is easy to state the big idea and even to preview the main hunks. One aspect keeps it from receiving a solid A. The first paragraph with its brief metaphors and parallelism imply that the theme of the sermon is the Word of God. That is partially true, but not precisely true.

Now for an inductive approach to the same text:

When a character saw Hamlet walking through the castle while reading a book, he asked what he was reading. Hamlet replied, "Words, words, words." Just words. Just empty rhetoric. Just a lot of blah blah blah. Talk is cheap, right? [pause] Well, no. Some words might be cheap, but other words are silver and gold. Words can be powerful, life changing, soul enriching.
That can be true even if the words are unspoken. Yes, unspoken. Non-verbal communication. A master strokes his dog. No words, but lots of affection, lots of communication. The musician creates music. No words, but it stirs us. The artist creates with color, shape, and texture. She uses no words, but she prompts us to meditate.
Psalm 19 says that God is an artist. The heavens are his canvas, and they speak to us. The skies above us are silent, but they communicate. What do they communicate?

Report card: Gain attention—B+. The intro uses concrete language and is thought provoking. Surface need—B. The intro creates some tension over "mere" words and raises curiosity, but it doesn't do much more than this. Curiosity is enough to get a sermon underway, but it is minimal. Touching felt need is better. Introduce—A. The intro leads nicely into the first move of the sermon.

Example: conclusion of Psalm 19
The purposes of the conclusion are to summarize and drive home the big idea. These goals are often accomplished with techniques like a simple review, an epitomizing illustration, or a well- conceived prayer. The conclusion wraps a ribbon around the entire message to demonstrate its unity and move the listeners toward a specific response. I find that most pastors do well with introductions but are spotty with conclusions. This happens because we run out of time and energy in preparation, or we ourselves do not perfectly understand the unity of the message and its implications for everyday life. While application should be made throughout the sermon, the conclusion should bring the application to a burning focus.

A silent word from the heavens—God is great. An encouraging word from the Torah—blessing for those who obey. A personal word of response—Lord save me! In light of your greatness, in light of your radiant Law, help me! May the words of our mouths, and the musings of our hearts be an acceptable sacrifice in your sight. May the words of our mouths and the silent motivations of our actions, subterranean and unknown even to ourselves, please you. We need a rock, don't we? Someone we can depend on. We need a redeemer, don't we? Someone to rescue us not only from this world but also from ourselves. Thank God, he has provided a redeemer. His name is Jesus. He is our rock and our redeemer.

Report card:

Summarize—A-. The conclusion efficiently summarizes the three points of the sermon and demonstrates the unity of Psalm 19 one final time.

Drive home the big idea—B. The style (parallel phrasing) helps heighten affect. Pointing to Jesus helps prompt the listeners to worship our Kinsman-Redeemer. The conclusion uses singular and plural pronouns, thus making the application individual as well as corporate, although this is probably too subtle for much impact. The application could be more pointed with a few concrete images that show "words" and "meditations": "May our words honor you—our words to our kids, our words to the boss, our words to our teammates. Our meditations when the paycheck doesn't last until the end of the month, our meditations when our co-worker takes all the credit. May our meditations honor you."

Expository preaching involves "labor and sweat," especially the wearying work of organization, but four procedures help us shape our sermons with clarity and relevance.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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