Off the Cuff: A Sermon Outline You Can Use If You Don't Have Time to Prepare
There are two types of sermons—prewritten and extemporaneous. There is no particular value in one type or the other, but there are occasions when it is handy to be able to preach a well-organized sermon off the cuff. So if you write your sermons in advance, but you want to learn to speak extemporaneously, here’s a way to get started.
First you must develop a simple outline that you can memorize and adapt to any occasion. Assuming that you want to preach a simple sermon with only one point to convey, you can use my favorite outline:
This simple outline easily produces a 15–20 minute sermon. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that you can certainly develop your own outline, but I’ll use this one as an example.
The example consists of one or more anecdotes that either demonstrate the point you are trying to make or have a strong parallel to the Bible quotation that is the occasion for your sermon. Begin with the example to awaken the congregation’s interest and to draw them into your chosen topic unawares. This also makes it easier to get started, and many times your congregation will have difficulty figuring out exactly where in your discourse the sermon formally began.
The thesis is a single sentence that summarizes the truth you intend to convey in your sermon. Since the example leads into the thesis, the congregation regards your thesis as topical, relevant and probable.
The body consists of all your reasoning why the thesis is true. This is where you bring in the context of the Bible verse, the exegesis of the verse, the original linguistic and cultural setting of the verse and the believability of the biblical story. Draw parallels between your opening anecdote and the biblical situation. This makes the biblical story more immediate, credible and historical in the congregation’s ears. The body of the sermon consists of logical argumentation with an emotional appeal.
Since you began with a contemporary example and stated your thesis quite succinctly, you have essentially used the beginning part of the sermon to put yourself in the proper frame of mind for the body, and the words flow freely. The logical argumentation occurs easily and naturally to your mind, and becomes persuasive for your congregation as well. When you have finished listing all your reasons, briefly summarize them. This can give the appearance of greater organization than is actually present, and it makes your argumentation more persuasive.
The conclusion is the same as the thesis, except it may be worded differently. Your conclusion essentially vindicates your thesis. It says (in effect) “So we see that thesis is true after all.”
How to Plan an Extemporaneous Sermon
Plan an extemporaneous sermon in the order of thesis, body, example, conclusion.
First, think of what you want to accomplish with your sermon—that is, what truth you wish to derive from the biblical text. Reduce it to one sentence. That is your thesis and draft conclusion.
Second, think of all the reasons why your thesis is true. Talk them out, as if you are trying to convince an imaginary listener of your point of view. Try placing your reasons in different sequences, to see which order of argumentation is the most effective or dramatic. You should have more reasons than you can use in your sermon; you may forget some of them, you may decide to illustrate one with an example, or you may expound on one or two of them longer than you had planned. Or you might zip right through and have time left over, and the extra reasons will come in handy. You may even decide at the last moment that certain reasons are not usable and must be discarded. The expressions on people’s faces may cause you to expand, contract, discard or add things at the last minute. In any event, you must have more argumentation prepared for the sermon than it can possibly contain to allow for all these possibilities.
In the course of figuring out your reasoning (the body), you have come up with lots of modern-day illustrations which prove you right. Now consider which is the most interesting, intriguing or insightful—or the one which has the most emotional impact. If possible, the modern illustration should parallel the biblical text as strongly as possible. Use this as your example.
Now that you have your thesis, your body and your example, practice preaching to an imaginary listener in the order of Example, Thesis, Body, Thesis. Note that the thesis is repeated at the end in the place of the conclusion. The exact wording of the conclusion will come to you in the actual preaching, but you will be excited at how the sermon takes shape.
You may find yourself inventing aphorisms which you can use in your sermons. People tend to remember and believe something if it is stated aphoristically rather than in free prose, so this is a good technique. For example, you could inform your congregation that all the wisdom in all the seminaries in all the world does no one any good until it is applied, but you’ll get the point across more effectively with an aphorism:
What good is dry theology?
It does not set the captives free!
If you use aphorisms, they will enhance your message, increase your effectiveness, build your reputation for wisdom and edify your congregation. But to be truly effective, they must be repeated several times in different contexts, like the refrain in a song.
How to Preach an Extemporaneous Sermon
Now it is Saturday evening, and you’ve been practicing your sermon since Wednesday. If you have done it right, the sermon came out differently each time your practiced it—because you practiced the thought and not the wording. It is okay to find really neat ways of saying things and memorize these for use, but it is not necessary to memorize the whole sermon.
Before church, practice your sermon in the shower or the car. Pray about the sermon, and specifically that your message may be conveyed. Psych yourself out for the sermon!
How the Sermon Turns Out
The example is casual, anecdotal and breezy, but as you approach your thesis, your tone becomes deadly serious. The thesis is presented as an important matter, and the body is performed first with rigorous logic, then with growing exhilaration as you become convinced of your reasoning and its glorious ramifications. The congregation senses that you are just realizing the full impact of your thesis and shares your feelings. The conclusion is triumphant and obvious. This emotional dynamic is not appropriate for all sermons but is helpful for most.
All aspects of the sermon should be incorporated into your prayer life, but I have left that out to showcase the discipline involved. You should pray about each step that I have outlined above. Before long, you will be preaching well-organized extemporaneous sermons with little apprehension.
The Problem With Extemporaneous Sermons
I have to warn you, if you are not used to preaching extemporaneously, there is a severe drawback to this technique. One Sunday, you will preach a superb extemporaneous sermon. The response is overwhelming. People congratulate you as they file out of the church. Then a little old lady says, “That was an excellent sermon! Could I have a copy to send to my nephew?”