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My Formula for Preaching (part 2)

How to outline your messages so they retain a relational quality
My Formula for Preaching (part 2)

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 is part two of a two-part article. In part one, Stanley told why his outlining method is important, and discussed the Me and We sections of a message.


Now for the meat. The Bible part. The God part. The text! The goal here is to resolve the tension, or at least some of it, by pointing people to God's thoughts on the subject at hand. One of my well-worn transitions goes something like this:

Apply the tension to as many areas as you can so as to spark an emotion in as broad an audience as possible.

"Well, the good news is, we're not the first people to struggle with this. The people in Jesus' day did as well. Turn with me to … ."

Similarly: "The good news is that we're not the first group to have doubts about God's goodness—King David did as well. Turn with me to. … "

Or: "God must have known we would struggle with this, because Jesus addressed this very issue one afternoon on his way to. … " You get the point.

When it comes to handling the text, communicators tend to move toward two extremes at this point. They either skip along the surface of a few verses without really explaining or engaging the text, or they go down so deep and stay there so long everyone in the audience is gasping for air. The first extreme leaves the audience biblically illiterate. The second extreme reinforces many audience members' assumption that they could never understand the Bible on their own.

On one hand, you don't want to skimp on the Scripture. On the other hand, you don't want to get bogged down in the text. This is where sermons lose momentum and get boring. I think it's the fear of losing the audience that motivates so many young preachers to be Scripture-light and story-heavy. But there's a third option: Engage the audience with the text. Don't just read it. Don't explain it to death. Engage the audience with it. Take them with you. Make this part of the journey. Make it so fascinating that they're actually tempted to go home and read it on their own. This isn't easy, but it's worth the effort.


This section, as I mentioned earlier, is typically referred to as the application of the message. This is where we tell people what to do with what they've heard. This is where we answer the questions "So what?" and "Now what?"

My preference is to find one point of application that I can challenge everybody to embrace. I rarely ask people to make a life-altering commitment to anything. I don't think that's realistic. But I often challenge people to try something for a week, or even a day. Occasionally, I'll ask people to commit to something for a month.

As we're about to discover, finding one application that everybody can get on line with sets you up for the We aspect of your message. But more importantly, it allows you to stay focused and concise in your communication.

When it seems necessary to broaden the application, I find it helpful to think through the concentric circles of relationships. You were probably taught this somewhere along the way:

  • How does this apply to me?
  • How does this apply to my family relationships?
  • How does this apply to my relationships in the community of faith?
  • How does this apply to my relationships with those outside the faith?
  • How does this apply in the marketplace?

Another way to mine for application is to think through the various stages of life:

  • How does this apply to teenagers and college students?
  • How does this apply to singles?
  • How does this apply to newlyweds?
  • How does this apply to parents?
  • How does this apply to elderly folks?
  • How does this apply to empty nesters?

I'm not recommending that you walk through all these categories in every message. But by taking the time to think through each of these on your own, you'll surface some angles that you might have otherwise missed.

There's a third list to think about as well: Believers and unbelievers.

I often address unbelievers at this point in the message. If there's an application for them, I make it. After all, a principle is a principle. Many biblical principles work for anybody. Unconditional love makes an impact regardless of your theology. So do honesty and dozens of other biblical virtues. If I can get an unbeliever to apply a biblical principle and he or she sees results, that's progress.

When a message doesn't apply to an unbeliever, I let them know that as well. In fact, I usually let them know up front. I often say something to the effect of, "If you're not a believer, you're off the hook today. Just sit back and relax. You're in a 'guilt-free zone.' In fact, today's message may give you another reason to put off becoming a Christian."

The last category I might apply a message to is the person who's not there. Every time you speak, somebody's sitting there thinking about someone who really needed to hear what you had to say. Go ahead and address the person who is there but who knows somebody who should have been there. Suggest ways for them to get your message in front of that person, tactfully.


Like you, I love to wrap up a message with an emotionally charged story that punctuates the main point in a way that leaves the audience gasping for breath and reaching for their Kleenex. And every once in a while, God graces us with those closing illustrations. But for the other 51 weeks of the year, we need something else. That's where We comes in.

This final component of the message is an opportunity for you to rejoin your audience as you did in the beginning of the message when you circled up around your shared frailty, questions, misgivings, or temptations. We is really about vision-casting. It's a moment of inspiration. It's the point in the message when you paint a verbal picture of what could be and should be. In this closing moment, you call upon your audience to imagine what the church, the community, families, and maybe even the world would be like if Christians everywhere embraced your one idea.

Imagine a church where "love one another" was the theme rather than a memory verse for children. Imagine a community dotted with homes where husbands really loved their wives like Christ loved the church. Imagine what would happen in the culture if thousands of teenagers abandoned the lie that purity was optional and basically irrelevant. Imagine what could happen in one week if everybody here treated everybody they came in contact with like someone for whom Christ died. Imagine what would happen if, for three months, we all managed our money as if everything we own and all of our time really belonged to God.

Dream on behalf of your church families, singles, kids, churches, and the kingdom. This is when you remind your audience that the Scriptures were given not just as a means of making our individual lives better. They were given so that as a body, corporately, we could shine like a beacon of hope in our communities, our neighborhoods, and in the marketplace. Imagine what We could do together.

Getting Started

Okay, that's it. But that's a lot. And I imagine the MWGYW outline process is different from the way you're currently outlining, so let me close with a couple of suggestions.

Take your last message, or even one you're working on now, and write these five words in the margin where they apply in your current way of outlining. For example, if you typically start your messages by diving right into the text, write God out to the side of that section or sections. Write You out beside your application. When you're finished, take a shot at rearranging your material around this approach. Use your current numbering system. But just rearrange the parts so that they follow the MWGYW paradigm. Now go back and add the ones you're missing.

Once you've done that, turn your paper over and see if you can think through your message one section at a time. I bet you can. People ask me all the time how I preach without looking at notes.

Now you know. But don't tell anybody.

This article is adapted and used 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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