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Some preachers alliterate their outlines, making all their points begin with the same letter. Sometimes just the main points are alliterated; other times the sub-points are alliterated, and still other times the sub-sub-points are alliterated. At one point it was taught as a great way to organize your message and really get your listeners to remember. "To make it stick, alliterate!" was the mantra. But we don’t see as much alliteration anymore. But does it make a difference? Alliterate or not, does it matter?

Here’s why alliterated outlines are almost always absolutely atrocious:

1. They make your message seem contrived. Alliterated outlines can appear forced, as if the preacher just needed a matching, neat outline, so he grabbed whatever word fit the others, regardless of whether it was actually the best word that communicated the meaning he wanted. Like this:

God wants three things from you:

a. Surrender

b. Service

c. Supplication (Seriously? “Prayer” would work just fine here, and more people would know automatically what it means.)

2. Some alliterations can seem crowded and overly complicated. I’ve read pulpit commentaries that teach pastors how to alliterate several words in a line and make each subsequent line a parallel matching line. Here’s an example from a sermon I heard once:

A genuine disciple is:

a. Committed to a pure life.

b. Consistent in their personal life.

c. Constrained by the purpose of life.

d. Convinced of their position in life.

In addition to seeming painfully contrived, this is a complicated mess to navigate through. If we can learn anything from companies like Google, simplicity rules the day. A wordy, crowded, alliterated outline makes it difficult to navigate what is most important for your listeners to remember. 

3. They do not communicate authenticity. This is because it doesn’t seem like a real conversation. We don’t speak to each other in neat, alliterated sentences. As a preacher delivering a sermon, you have to work hard to seem connected to your audience. Don’t make this harder on yourself by developing an outline that doesn’t seem real.

Every rule has an exception. Alliteration is not technically the problem. Overuse of alliteration and forced alliteration is the problem. Sometimes it can be very helpful. Other times it is a huge distraction. For me, what makes the difference is whether memorizing it will help your audience when they walk away. If memorizing the outline is not something that would help them, there is no need to alliterate.

If you were preaching on three ways God wants us to love him, your outline could be "Head, Heart and Hands": “God wants us to love him with our minds (head), he wants our full emotions (heart), and he wants us to serve him (hands).” It’s simple and could be very useful to your listeners.

But this can be overused, too. And, if done too much or in a forced way, it can also be a distraction. So I am careful not to use something like that too much.

Do you alliterate? Why? Why not? What have you found to helpful when organizing an outline?



Lane Sebring is a teaching pastor, speaker and author. He leads The Current, a worship gathering of young adults, in Northern Virginia. He created PreachingDonkey.com, a site to help preachers communicate better.  He has a B.A. in Communication from the University of Central Oklahoma and a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. He lives in the Northern Virginia / DC area with his wife Rachel and their daughter, Olive. You can connect with him at twitter.com/PreachingDonkey and facebook.com/PreachingDonkey

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Richard Scotland

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I enjoyed this article! I agree is can be contrived and forced but when done properly it can be helpful. It is not something I do and not something I have heard recently either. Is it an "older preachers" thing?

Jason Smith

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I think this depends on the audience listening. I have had some in my congregation say it is helpful to them because it helps them remember all three points, especially when one of the three does seem contrived. They may think another word works better, but they do remember the word. I agree that this can be overdone though.

Lawrence Webb

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I agree alliterations can be contrived, corny, and counterproductive! I rarely use them -- except just now. I had an exception recently that seemed to emerge as I developed the message. Probably my last point didn't really fit, but I kept it anyway. To be honest, I usually don't have an obvious outline of any sort. Maybe that approach is called narrative preaching, building toward one major point, unless the text suggests two or three distinct ideas. Of course, some people say my sermons have no point. But let's not go there. I suspect an outline of any sort is more for the preacher's benefit than for the congregation. How many people remember our brilliant outlines after they leave the service? They mainly remember stories that relate to something in their lives.

Robert Thangasamy

commented on Oct 13, 2014

Why not? When I alliterate my sermons (both in English and my native tongue Tamil), I have seen people becoming more attentiive and curious. People remember your sermon and you, even after a long time.

Gilbert Toquero

commented on Oct 13, 2014

Good points to say. However preaching is communication and an art as well. The preacher or pastor has his own personality and style of writing and presentation. Some are gifted and some learn them by experience and not discounting the notes they have from other preachers. I think the key for alliteration is simplicity. I agree that we should not alliterate when we just force a word for the sake of rhyme I would just go ahead and break it. Thank you for your article, it help us preachers who alliterate our outline. Sometimes alliterate outline are 1. They are CONTRIVED 2. They ate COMPLICATED 3. They lose CONNECTION. that is a good alliterated outline for the article just my style and personality.

Chaplain Shawn Kennedy

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I am neither pro nor con in regards to alliteration- but the author in point 3 refers to it as not being a real conversation. Most, if not all preaching is a lecture, not a conversation.

Henry C. Jaegers

commented on Oct 13, 2014

Sometimes alliteration sounds artificial but the one who does it best in my mind is Adrian Rogers. I see outlines when I study the scriptues and I think them necessary to simplify the message. Sometime I use alliteration because it flows so easily from my thought process.It is suspect if I do it often because it is forced.When I was going to school (Back in 1966, those who used it were held in high esteem. Teachers used it a lot but having been in the ministry I think alliteration should only be uses as the occasion calls for it. Sometimes it might be a refreshing approach to the congregation. Henry

Will Allen

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I alliterate most of the time but while preparing a message I always keep in mind words of one of my heroes, Dr. Stinnett Ballew "Never deviate just to alliterate!"

Charles Higgs

commented on Oct 13, 2014

Adrian Rogers would have been in trouble. He was a great preacher and still people listen to him on the radio. Alliteration was his foretaste.

Charles Higgs

commented on Oct 13, 2014

Adrian Rogers was a great preacher and still being dead still preaches. Alliteration was a mainstay in his preaching.

Rev. Larry West

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I totally disagree. Some the best preachers I know alliterate. It can help the congregation remember points.

Doug Knox

commented on Oct 13, 2014

A potently powerful polemic on a perennial predicament among preachers. I agree with you fully, Lane. With RARE exception, I see alliteration as an attempt by the speaker to sound clever. Contrary to the old saw, I have never been able to remember the outline of an alliterated message, and certainly not one with multi-level alliterations. But judging by the other comments, we occupy the minority. We must ask what the Bible does. To my knowledge, alliteration was not a common occurrence in Greek-speaking times, and only appeared rarely in later Roman works. We cannot speak from silence. But we have a form of alliteration among the Hebrew acrostics in the poetry and laments. The two most notable are Psalm 119 and the book of Lamentations. The former contains a complete alphabetical acrostic, while the latter contains five separate acrostics (one per chapter). They are neither cute nor clever. They do not draw attention to the authors. They do elevate the poetry to an art form, and draw the readers to consider deadly serious subjects.

Gary Greene

commented on Oct 13, 2014

But the examples you cite, Doug, are poetry. Even when all iterating preachers aren't presenting poetry.

Terry Phillips

commented on Oct 14, 2014

As Doug points out, Psalm 119 alliterates, but other psalms don't. So use that literary ploy when it is helpful, but not when it seems artificial.

Tom Lambert

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I enjoyed the article because it describes potential drawbacks of a time-honored style and makes us think about how and why we speak at all. I have used alliteration as the situation dictated, never to be showy or draw attention to myself, but to create interest and also make points easier to remember. Do people remember other styles better? It is also important to use methods that work in the age we live in. What worked many years ago might not be the most effective now. It's a personal choice. We should always be open to improving how we communicate.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Oct 13, 2014

An article guaranteed to touch the raw nerve of those "poor preachers" who alliterate (including Yours Truly). Is it not an experience of those of my genre that alliteration leads to greater God-dependence in Sermon preparation, even as they diligently search to find the right words? Do not the Words of the Biblical Preacher himself justify alliteration? He used "Words of delight" to spice-up his message (Eccl 12:10-ESV) without ever compromising on the seriousness of the same. Needless to say, alliteration should be done in a balanced manner...talk of jam content being never more than that of the bread!!! Finally alliteration or no alliteration, without anointing of the Holy Spirit, the sermon would be as bland as an ice-cream without any flavour. Talk of writing without ink in a pen...

commented on Nov 29, 2014

Hahaha! Yes you right! Well said Suresh!

Jeff Glenn

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I love 'em and use 'em as often as possible!

Tim Davies

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I use it sometimes, when it works and abandon it when it doesn't. I believe we should all preach from a heart that seeks to bless those that are listening. If we can make it easier for them to remember, then great! But in the same token, we should not be afraid to try something different once in a while. I know a pastor who always opens with a joke or a "cute" story. I do not think this is always appropriate or wise. We should let the scriptures lead our hearts and our sermons more than a set of rules we have arbitrarily applied. And in that sentiment, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater! Blessings to all.

Sherm Nichols

commented on Oct 13, 2014

I have to say, guys, that I have never heard anyone say, "Wow! That outline change my life! I ran into a tough spot this past week, and I just remembered those 3 points!" But I have heard people refer to one thing they took away from a message, and how that one thing helped them. How much more is the Lord served if our hearers put an important truth into practice rather than being able to recite something "catchy" that they heard. Where is the evidence that alliteration is actually more memorable, and then that this makes God's truth more doable?

Bob Eaton

commented on Oct 13, 2014

1 Corinthians 1:26

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Oct 14, 2014

Keeping all other points constant of my previous post, I honestly would like to know from Brother Lane himself as to what inspired to come-up with a title which is oozing alliteration albeit being strangely critical of it...I can count 6 words beginning with "As'" in a title bearing containing 9 ...Boy that is 67...an act that demands an explanation (sic)??? Let readers' decide...

Doug Lapointe

commented on Oct 15, 2014

I believe he did that on purpose as a clever tongue-in-cheek approach to the topic.

Charles Waters

commented on Oct 14, 2014

I like alliteration as a memory aid for myself not necessarily for the congregation. I rarely emphasize the outline in my delivery. I prefer expository preaching. I do believe there are times when the Scripture lends itself to alliteration. I agree that sometimes alliteration seems to be the goal. Maybe it really is an "old preacher" thing but then, I have a great respect for old preachers who have been faithfully preaching God's Word since some of us were still in diapers. As long as it is faithful to the text, I can't criticize it.

Roger Lewis

commented on Oct 14, 2014

I have been preaching for more than 40 years and at one time used a lot of alliteration because it worked, but for today's audience I don't think it makes us better. I'm sure it harmful, but not helpful. I think simple statements or questions usually work fine. Saves me hours of prep not having figure out alliterations. It never came easy for me.

Tony Bland

commented on Oct 20, 2014

love to know why you think it is harmful and not helpful

Jesse Roland

commented on Oct 14, 2014

Agreed but for me personally it helps to remember my sermon as I'm preaching it sometimes.

Tony Bland

commented on Oct 20, 2014

and the it help the people remember

Doug Lapointe

commented on Oct 15, 2014

Alliteration makes the minister feel his message is coming off as organized and neat but alliteration is not creating either of those qualities in our message. If anything, instead of organized and neat, alliteration is making us look trite.

Tony Bland

commented on Oct 20, 2014

no it makes me believe they have a better chance to remember what i said.

Sylvester Herbert

commented on Oct 16, 2014

I committed the almost always atrocious practice of using alliteration in my sermon last Sunday. It was Breast Cancer Awareness Sunday and I addressed the congregation on the theme: ?Beating the Odds with Faith in God.? John 11 was my text. I dared to challenge them to beat the odds in their life (whatever they might be) with these three things: 1. Prayer (you should send a message to Jesus as Mary and Martha did) 2. People (you should be willing to both give and receive help as evidenced by the neighbours and friends who came by to comfort the family) 3. Perspective (you need this especially when God delays or denies the response you are looking for). One of my congregants sent me the following text later that day: ?I think that God and you were talking about me as He helped you craft the sermon. All the points addressed my past struggles and/or present realities. Hmm!? Here is my take on alliteration a) There is still a place for it, not as the only way or even the best way to outline a sermon but as one of several. The worst kind of outlining is the one you always use, whichever one that is. Variety is still the spice of life. b) Does it suit your overall style as a communicator? For some people using alliteration may be as incongruous as David using Saul?s armour to fight in. c) No amount of cleverly devised alliterations or any other stylistic device for that matter can substitute for prayer, sound exegesis, relevant application etc. d) Know your congregation and tailor your outlining style so what you say is appealing to them. e) There are still people who take notes during a message. An alliterated outline helps. f) When preaching without notes as my context sometimes requires, a simple alliterated outline is a great help to me the speaker and hopefully to the hearers as well. The KISS rule seems to work well with alliteration (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) g) To come up with le mot juste is no mean feat and a good outline including an alliterated one demonstrates that thought has been put into the sermon. This is a necessary corrective for the disorganized jumble of ideas and catch phrases which often pass as good preaching these days. I have heard many sermons where the outlining ? both alliterated and un-alliterated ? made me wince. Conversely, there have been some memorable ones where their immediate effectiveness has been indisputably evident. May God grant us the wisdom to know which style to use when we deliver His message. Remember, our preaching should be 'ad majorem Dei gloriam' .

Tony Bland

commented on Oct 20, 2014

lol.... I better write that down. Committed, Consistent, Constrained. I love it especially after someone posted a comment on facebook from my sermon The Botanist, The Butterfly and The Bee. it let me know they remembered what was said and applied it to their day. At the end of the day is not that what we want...them to remember

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