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My Formula for Preaching (part 1)

How to outline your messages so they retain a relational quality
My Formula for Preaching (part 1)

Editor's note: The following article is adapted from the PreachingToday.com Book of the Year , Communicating for a Change (Multnomah, 2006), by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones.

This outlining method is built around the communicator's relationship with the audience rather than content. After all, the way we organize material on paper is very different from how we process information in a conversation. (Try outlining a conversation with your spouse.) For that reason, this method allows the message to retain a conversational quality. The outline revolves around five words, each of which represents a section of the message. They are: Me, We, God, You, and We.

With this approach, the communicator introduces a dilemma he or she has faced or is currently facing (Me). From there, you find common ground with your audience around the same or a similar dilemma (We). Then you transition to the text to discover what God says about the tension or question you've introduced (God). Then you challenge your audience to act on what they've just heard (You). And finally, you close with several statements about what could happen in your community, your church, or the world if everybody embraced that particular truth (We).

It's difficult to receive challenging information from someone who seems to have no clue as to what it's like to be you.

Each of the five components plays a specific and important role in facilitating the communication journey. Me orients the audience to the topic. It answers the question, "What's he or she talking about?" We assures the audience that this is a relevant topic. It allows the communicator to identify with the audience. The God section serves as illumination. This is where we bring a new perspective to or shine fresh light on a specific tension. You is simply application. We is the placeholder for inspiration.

Perhaps an example would help. Let's assume your topic is marriage. There are dozens of things you could say about marriage, but you've narrowed it down to one thing: "Submission is the best decision"—the idea being that our first response should be to put the needs and desires of our spouse ahead of our own. With that in mind, here's how the MWGYW outline might look:

Me: Sometimes I find myself wondering how to respond to situations in my marriage.

We: I imagine you've found yourself in situations where you weren't sure what to do either.

God: The Bible teaches that we're to submit to one another, to put the desires and needs of our spouses ahead of our own needs and desires. In a marriage, submission is generally the best decision.

You: Next time you're not sure what to say or do, ask yourself this question, "How can I put the needs and desires of my spouse ahead of my own in this moment?"

We: Imagine what would happen in our community if all of us began to model that kind of mutual submission before our friends and neighbors.


By starting with a statement or story about myself, I'm able to introduce myself, as well as the topic, to the audience. This is especially important when addressing a new audience. But Me isn't really about me. Me is about finding common ground with them.

Common ground is an essential to any relationship, especially a communicator's relationship with an audience. An audience has to buy into the messenger before they buy into the message. You know from your own experience that if there's something that bugs you about the communicator, it's difficult to engage in the content. This is especially true if they don't seem genuine. A lack of genuineness makes it difficult to trust a speaker. You may even catch yourself resisting and arguing with their content.

What's easy to spot from the audience is usually difficult to see from the stage. Speakers aren't usually arrogant or insincere or slick on purpose. But it happens all the time. And in most cases the communicator never knows that it's happening. Five minutes into a talk, the audiences sense the speakers' arrogance—and turn them off. And the speakers don't have a clue. Or if they do sense something's wrong, they don't know why.

Recently, I received some very negative feedback from a talk I gave at a Youth Specialties conference. I was really surprised by the reaction. The talk I had given was one I had done on many occasions, and had received overwhelmingly positive feedback. So I was shocked to hear that "hundreds of student leaders walked out in the middle." Some actually booed me.

Intrigued, I contacted my host at the conference and asked for a CD of the talk. He graciously sent me one, along with his comments. He assured me that, on most occasions, he really enjoyed my leadership messages, but this particular one was not one of his favorites. And he went on from there to tell me why. Again, I was really surprised. I knew what I'd said. And again, it wasn't anything I hadn't said before.

But soon after I started listening to the CD, I knew what had happened. I had assumed a relationship with this audience that I didn't have. Specifically, at the beginning of my talk, my microphone went out. So for the first few minutes, I was trying to get the mic to work while a guy from backstage fiddled with my belt pack. A bit unnerving in front of 5,000 student pastors. I'm very committed to staying within the allotted time, especially in an environment that's heavily programmed. So as they continued to mess with my microphone, I was watching precious time slipping away. The sound gurus decided the headset wasn't going to work, so they handed me a handheld mic. By this time, I was so distracted that I made a huge communication blunder. Actually two. First, I skipped my introductory remarks and went right to the notes. Big mistake.

In my introduction, I was planning to talk about the tensions I faced as a student pastor working in a church that was not student friendly. That was my connection with the audience. That was about my only connection with that audience. I'm 48 years of age, but most of the men and women in attendance were in their late 20s. I skipped Me and consequently it was difficult to convince them that there was much We. Without meaning to, I positioned myself as a highly opinionated speaker who had little or no empathy for what the average student pastor was dealing with back at home.

The second mistake I made was that I rushed through the material. When a communicator rushes through material, it sends a very specific message: I'm more concerned about covering my material than I am about communicating with my audience. The emotional message it sends is, I'm more concerned about Me than You.

In my case, when I rush I have a tendency to over-communicate my point. I can come across as very dogmatic. After listening to the message, I understood the response. The negative feedback I received focused on my content. But I'm confident the problem was my lack of connection with the audience.

It's difficult to receive challenging information from someone who seems to have no clue as to what it's like to be you. That's why the Me component of any talk is so important. When handled correctly, audience members find themselves shaking their heads in agreement and thinking, "Me too." (Or in southern vernacular, "You got 'dat right.")

How you handle Me will be somewhat determined by your audience. Whenever you're speaking to a new audience, it's critical that you begin with something about yourself because they don't know you. However, if you're talking to a group that hears you on a regular basis, Me is not as critical. They already know you.

Having said that, I always look for an opportunity to insert my personal struggles with the topic of the day at the front end of a message. After all, on any given Sunday, there will be people in the audience who don't know who I am. And by nature of the fact that I'm a preacher, there will be people in the audience trying hard not to like me. Why? Because if they can build a solid case against me as a person, they have an "ironclad" excuse for ignoring everything I say. So I go out of my way to share my humanity and frailty. Doing so tears down walls. Besides, if you preach from your weakness, you will never run out of material.


Having made it clear to our audience that we're wrestling with a particular tension, the next step is to broaden our tension so as to include everybody listening.

For example:

"Sometimes I wonder why I even bother praying (Me). I bet you've wondered about that as well (We)."

"Sometimes I wonder why I am overcome by the same temptations over and over (Me). But that's probably something that only I wrestle with, right (We)?"

"There are just some people I don't get along with (Me). Can anybody here relate to that (We)?"

In this section you need to spend some time applying the tension to as many areas as you can so as to spark an emotion in as broad an audience as possible.

For example, one Christmas I addressed the issue of unmet expectations that seems to be bigger than life during the holiday season. I talked briefly about my family situation and my frustration of not being able to be with both my parents at Christmas. That was Me. Then I spent a few minutes poking around in just about every family dynamic imaginable, hoping to spark an emotion in as many people as possible.

I addressed the blended family, the single who only has a few days off, the teenager who has to split the holidays with two sets of parents, the prodigal who probably wouldn't show up at all, the loved ones who've gone to be with the Lord since last Christmas. My goal was to surface the issue of unmet or unrealistic expectations at Christmas. I struggle with it. You struggle with it, too.

If you're reading this article with a highlighter in your hand, I encourage you to highlight this next sentence. Don't transition from We to the next section until you've created a tension that your audience is dying for you to resolve. In other words, assume no interest. Focus on the question you're intending to answer until you're confident that your audience wants it answered. Otherwise, you'll spend 20 or 30 minutes of your life answering a question nobody's asking. I imagine you have better things to do.

You've probably heard or read differing opinions on how much of a message should be allotted to application. If you've ever heard Chuck Swindoll, Bruce Wilkinson, or Rick Warren speak to this issue, they all believe that 70 to 80 percent of the gospels and epistles are application-oriented. I agree. (I bet these guys will be relieved to know that.)

One of the advantages to this approach is that it wraps the entire message in application. Unlike some methods where the application is tacked onto the end, this approach allows the communicator to introduce a topic within the context of application. If you can get your audience to question something, say, "Yeah, me too" about something, or simply wonder, "What should I do about that?" you've already crossed over into the realm of application.

Application isn't a section of the message; it's the context of the message. The MWGYW approach addresses the issue of application in the beginning as well as at the end. If you open the message with your struggle (Me), and relate it to their struggle (We), you're already in the arena of applied truth.

But enough about us.

This is a two-part article. In part two, Stanley addresses the God, You, and We sections of his sermon-writing formula.

This article is adapted with the permission of Multnomah Publishers from Communicating for a Change (Multnomah, 2006), by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones.

Andy Stanley is the founder and pastor of North Point Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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