Writing an article on something so obvious as “it’s good to outline a sermon” is akin to announcing “life is good, trees are tall, flowers are pretty.”
But for the right-brainers (like me) out there who struggle with this, things are not quite so obvious or simple. Anyone who ever heard the Granddaddy of all Right-Brain Preachers, the inimitable Calvin Miller, has seen up close and personal the two great sides of “out of the overflow preaching” which occupied this space last time: a) It’s a delight to hear; b) it’s impossible to follow. That is to say, you love the experience but could not reproduce it in a thousand years.
Pastors know the experience of listening to a sermon with a perfect outline and then — sooner or later, to one degree or other — preaching that same message to their people in the same way. Preachers with massive followings have sometimes heard their own sermons coming back at them from well-established pulpits, using their own outline and stories. The legendary J. Harold Smith, whose sermon “God’s Three Deadlines” was about as well-known as was R. G. Lee’s “Pay Day Someday,” once preached his sermon in a church where some lady told him afterwards, “That is our preacher’s sermon and he delivered it better than you.”
No one, however, does that with an “overflow” sermon, the kind more related to William Faulkner’s “stream of consciousness” style than to any seminary class on hermeneutics. In fact, even the preacher cannot repeat the sermon in the same way if he wishes to preach it again.
An outline is the only way to go if you would preach a sermon a second time. Otherwise, you are lost in the woods.
I have a sermon which the Lord literally gave me some ten years ago and which I have preached perhaps twenty times since, titled “Five Things God Wants You to Know About the Rest of Your Life.” That’s what makes it so preachable to me: Five things. Here they are:
- God has big plans for your life: earthly and heavenly.
- He’s not going to tell you what they are. The bad (really tough) you couldn’t handle and the good (really wonderful) you would mess up.
- He’s getting you ready for the future right now. Which explains the boot camp you may be going through.
- Your job is to be faithful today where He put you. To bloom where you were planted.
- He will not force His plans on you. You have to choose every day of your life that “today, I will live for Thee, O Lord.”
Having that outline allowed me to type all that without digging into files for notes. Those points are tattooed on my heart, the results of over 60 years of following Christ and a half-century of ministry. Speaking those 5 points is like naming my three children and eight grandchildren. They are part of me and I of them.
I have a sermon on fellowship in the church, based on Acts 2:41-47, titled “I’ve Come for Fellowship.” The primary point is that 95 percent of the first-timers through the doors of your church on a typical Sunday are not there for the good preaching or to “find God.” They’ve come for fellowship. Which is to say, they are looking for a people who love the Lord, love one another, and will love them and bring them into the interior life of the church family.
After telling a story to establish that “95 percent of the first-time visitors to your church are looking for fellowship,” my four points are:
- They don’t necessarily know it themselves. In fact, if you visit them next Tuesday, they will tell you they are looking for a church with a great program of music or preaching or missions or something else. But the church they join ends up having something far more going for it than those programs: great fellowship.
- The church doesn’t seem to know it either. We keep doing the wrong thing to get people in. “Pastor, I just feel that if we built a family life gym, the community would come.”
- The world knows it. The tavern, the sporting events, concerts — all know the main event is not the only event. People want social interaction.
- God knows it. He made us this way, and said “It is not good that man should be alone.”
That, obviously, is not where the sermon ends, but the outline drops me into the heart of the message where I can preach on what goes into making up great Christian fellowship and tell my story (or two) to drive the point home.
None of these outlines would impress Dr. Adrian Rogers. That wonderful friend, now in Heaven, was the best I ever saw at producing alliterative sermon outlines. I recall him saying the difference in a believer and an unbeliever regarding sin is that a Christian lapses into sin and loathes it, but the unsaved will leap into sin and love it. And, to prove the point that a great outline makes the sermon easier to follow and simple to remember, here it is 30 years later and I still recall those words.
But I’m not Adrian Rogers and you’re not either, pastor. Nor am I Calvin Miller, another precious friend. These men were both used of the Lord to build great churches and teach generations of young preachers. Yet their styles were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Be yourself, pastor.
Find the way of outlining a message that works for you. Get a great outline for your sermon and it will accomplish those two wonderful feats: your hearers will find it easy to follow and you will find it simple to remember.
Perhaps we’re through here, at least for the moment, but I can’t leave the subject of sermon outlines without making a point on the worst kind (because it is the least effective) kind of outline. Simply stated, the worst kind is the type we see most often, that looks like this:
- The power of prayer.
- The people of prayer.
- The point of prayer.
Three Ps, three phrases, none of which say anything. That outline goes nowhere, but lies there like deadwood. Pity the poor church member taking down every bone of the sermon skeleton. Even when she writes this down, she doesn’t have anything.
It’s a thousand times better, pastor, to turn those phrases into memorable sentences which are worth preaching and infinitely worth remembering. What if your points were something like this:
- Prayer is how we connect with the living God: it is our power connection. See Luke 18:1.
- Only those who pray are used of God: which explains why some of us drop out. See Luke 18:1b.
- Prayer demonstrates faith: that is the point of prayer. See Hebrews 11:6a.
That’s for starters. As you preach through that sermon on prayer — preaching it alone as you walk through the neighborhood or drive down a country highway, I’m talking about — you will refine it and find stronger ways of expressing the points, possibly adding one or two or even dropping one. Each sermon is different because it is the result of the Holy Spirit doing His work through a one-of-a-kind disciple — you! That’s why you have to be true to who you are in Christ.
Question: What if you had a 12-point sermon? How would you remember it to preach it? And how would the people hear it?
I don’t have one, but I have a point inside a sermon on “Love is something you do,” based on the “love your enemies” text of Luke 6:27-35, that goes: When we do this — when we return loving acts to those who are working to do us harm — 12 great things happen.”
And the 12 things? “God is honored, Jesus is pleased and the Holy Spirit is liberated to do whatever He wanted to do in that situation. The devil is infuriated, the enemy is puzzled and the critics of the church are silenced. The church itself is blessed, Christians going through similar hard times are encouraged by what they see you doing, and outsiders are drawn to Christ when they see your Christlike behavior. You yourself are strengthened, your anger disappears, and according to Luke 6:35, your reward in Heaven is great and your reputation goes through the roof.”
I do all that in one breath (practically) in order to drive home the unity of it, that all of this results from your single act of doing something loving toward the bad guy.
Invariably, people come up later asking for “those 12 things.” I point out that remembering them is simple. The first three have to do with God, the second three with the enemy, the next three with the church and the last three with you yourself.
A good outline, if you ask me. (You didn’t, but hey, it’s my article.)
Thanks for staying with me all this way. You are a trooper. BTW, if you are looking for an outline of this article, save yourself the trouble. I told you I’m right-brained. I do have good scriptural precedent for this, incidentally. Have you ever tried outlining Paul’s epistles? Good luck with that. (The proper response to that is: “Yes, but he was writing letters, not sermons.” Indeed he was.)
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