Outlines That Work for You, Not against You
How to write sermon points that follow the way people think.
Twenty students and two professors stared at the handwriting on the wall. One by one, students in a seminary preaching class were to project on overheads their first attempts at a sermon outline from an assigned passage. I waited apprehensively for my turn. My friend, Rod, was up first. Rod looked at his transparency and read aloud his main points for a potential sermon on 1 Samuel 17, the David-Goliath story:
I. Goliath Challenges God's People.
II. Saul Cowers with God's People.
III. David Conquers for God's People.
After a pause, Haddon Robinson, the lead professor, growled: "That sounds like it came out of a book called Simple Sermons for Sunday Evening." The class erupted with laughter. Nervous laughter. Sympathetic laughter. "Nobody talks like this anymore, except in the pulpit," he continued. Duane Litfin, guest professor, chimed in: "What Haddon is saying is that he's afraid you might go out and actually preach that sermon!" More laughter.
The outline stage in sermon preparation is, for some, the most intimidating step in the process. Homiletics author Bryan Chapell says, "In the classroom and in seminars around the country, I find that preachers have more questions about structure than they do about any other aspect of preaching."
How do we write sermon outlines that are not trite, communicate in a natural way, and present our ideas clearly? Here are three strategies.
One of the key purposes of a sermon outline is to track the sermon's flow of thought. Out of this purpose flows the first strategy: State your outline points in full sentences.
Haddon Robinson says that since each point in the outline represents an idea, it should be a grammatically complete sentence. When words and phrases stand as points, they deceive us because they are incomplete and vague. Partial statements allow thought to slip through our minds like a greased football.
Writing an outline is a way of thinking. You will short-circuit the thinking process if you do not write out your points in complete sentences. You can't evaluate clarity of thought or the logical progression of your ideas if all you see are lone words.
The second strategy is: Don't try to create outlines people will remember. It took me years of preaching to figure this out. I sincerely believed that listeners would be better for taking my outline points home with them — either in their heads or, better yet, on paper. Without a "captioned survey" of either the passage or the principles in it, how would people get the text into their lives?
The problem is modern listeners are not used to getting information in a captioned survey format. Neither Dan Rather nor Dan Patrick communicate information like this. Their presentation follows a conversational flow.
A few months ago, Lisa, a close family friend, called and asked me what appendicitis pain feels like. Her husband, Eric, was on a business trip in California and was feeling an excruciating pain in his lower abdominal region. Because I had my appendix removed about three years earlier, Lisa wanted my input. Imagine how canned my reply would have sounded if it had followed this outline:
I. The character of appendicitis pain
A. It is an excruciating pain.
B. It is an enveloping pain.
II. The context of appendicitis pain
A. Its locus is abdominal.
B. Its focus is appendicital.
III. The cancellation of appendicitis pain
A. It requires reflection by the doctor.
B. It requires removal of the organ.
C. It requires rest for the patient.
The advantage of this kind of presentation is that Lisa could easily follow it. Alliterating the three main points with the letter C (character, context, and cancellation) provides a memory aid. But obviously, this kind of communication is unnatural. It's boring, and it doesn't work the way conversation usually flows.
As a preacher of God's Word, your goal is to communicate the ideas in a text and to point out the controlling thought or "big idea." Ideas gel in people's minds through words and pictures. I want people to go home with God's truth in mind, and particularly a picture of what that looks like when lived out in their lives. I need my outline to help me communicate the ideas and pictures. But hearers don't need to see my outline any more than they need to see the two-by-four studs supporting the sheetrock wall in my living room.
In fact, when I preach, I may or may not say the statement exactly as I have it worded in Roman numeral I. The key is, by the time I'm done with Roman numeral I, the idea it expresses will have formed in the hearers' minds.
Like a map, an outline gives directions. It provides a preacher with a communication plan. It says, "Here's the concept to communicate first; here's the concept to communicate second," and so on. Writing an outline for yourself helps produce a flow of thought that is logical. As you look at an outline on a page, you'll be able to spot any muddled thinking. You'll be able to evaluate whether your sermon has a sense of movement or progress. You'll see gaps or inconsistencies in your thinking.
In the following outline from a sermon on Psalm 137, notice the two main points:
I. Unfair experiences leave people who are designed to praise God wondering how they can ever praise him again (vv. 1-6).
A. The believer's life is supposed to be a life of praise (Psalms 135 and 136).
B. But unfair experiences ruin a person's appetite for praise (vv. 1-3).
C. This puts believers in a dilemma since what they can't do is what they should do (vv. 4-6).
II. (Big idea) Trusting in God's justice restores a ruined appetite for praise (vv. 7-9).
A. The psalmist's solution (for restoring an appetite for praise) appears to be vindictive.
B. The solution is trusting in God's vindication.
The first point states the idea I want to communicate from verses 1-6, but I don't state it directly when I begin developing the idea. The idea will emerge by the time I'm done developing this section of the sermon. At some point I may say, "Verses 1-6 teach us that unfair experiences leave people who are designed to praise God wondering how they can ever praise him again." However, I won't try to make this statement prominent. I'll communicate the idea by restating this concept in various ways. For example, I'll say something like, "The operative question in verses 1-6 is, how can I restore my appetite for praising God when he allows unfair experiences into my life?"
The second major point is a statement of the sermon's big idea, so I will state it verbatim two or three times, and then I'll find a couple of other ways to restate it. However, I won't preface it as "point number two." I'll simply work the statement into the flow of my material. The trick to keeping people on track when your sermon is more conversational is to craft effective transitions. Transitions stitch blocks of ideas together, showing relationships between them.
Now having said this, there may be times when you want people to remember the points in your outline. This happens when the biblical writer offers a list. Usually a sermon giving "four keys to a strong marriage" or "three ways to avoid anger" reflects the preacher's convention, not the Bible's. However, a passage like 1 Peter 4:7-11 certainly contains a list. The writer begins by saying, "The end of all things is near." Then he uses the word therefore to introduce some implications. The main idea of the paragraph is: Last days living requires God's people to get serious about prayer, love, sharing, and serving. The main level outline points for a sermon on this text look like this:
I. Last days living requires God's people to get serious about prayer (v. 7b).
II. Last days living requires God's people to get serious about love (v. 8).
III. Last days living requires God's people to get serious about sharing (v. 9).
IV. Last days living requires God's people to get serious about prayer (vv. 10-11).
Here's a final strategy for creating sermon outlines that help a sermon, without taking on a life of their own: Sometimes view main points as endings, not beginnings. Use this whenever you want to present your material inductively. In an inductive presentation, you deal with the details first and then present your conclusion at the end. The advantage is the creation of suspense.
Typically a preacher will move out of an introduction and state point I. After stating point I, the preacher moves to subpoint A, then to subpoint B, and so on. However, in an inductive presentation of point I, the preacher will move out of the introduction into subpoint A, then subpoint B, and so forth. Only at the end of the subpoints does the idea or point in Roman numeral I emerge.
This is precisely what I do when I preach Psalm 137 according to the above outline. Go back and look at how the subpoints build to express each of the two main points. When you prepare your outline, indicate which main points will be developed inductively. Put "develop inductively" — in parentheses and in italics — after the statement of the main point.
Try out these strategies as you prepare your sermon outline this week. You should end up with an outline that makes for a clear and conversational message.
Steven D. Mathewson is senior pastor of Dry Creek Bible Church, Belgrade, Montana.
Steve Mathewson is pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Libertyville, Illinois, and teaches preaching for the doctoral programs at Denver Seminary and Western Seminary, and the Master of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.