by David Cox
How many points should a good sermon have? You could say that as many as you want, but that would be totally wrong. Some people say don’t use points. Just use them internally for the preacher, but don’t tell the people what they are.
Having no points in a sermon
First of all, let’s take on having no points, or revealing no points.
A sermon outline is like a person’s skeleton, it is essential but should never be seen. (I believe Dr. Bob Jones Jr was the person who said this)
No. He is wrong. A sermon skeleton is a guide to what you are doing linguistically with your audience. It is an audio guide. Question: Do you want your people to follow you or wander around thinking about all kinds of things that don’t contribute to them getting to your same conclusion? If you want them to stay with you, then give them help as to where you are going and how you are going to get there.
If you use a written outline that you give to your people at some point, then that is best. Most pastors don’t like that because they are afraid that the people will “skip ahead” in the paper and read what the points are before the preacher gets there. That is a problem. They have some great revelations somewhere hidden in their sermon, and they want to “spring” these on them.
First of all, it hurts nothing to them as much as possible. It reinforces what you are saying to them. Second of all, most people get lost in the typical sermon and multiple times. Consider the mom that their kid wants to go to the bathroom, or is constantly asking for gum, pencil, kleenex, etc. Every time, the mom loses her train of thought in the sermon. Somebody sneezes, somebody comes in late, somebody knocks their hymnal on the floor, his stomach hurts and he wonders what is for dinner, the pastor mentions pretty flowers and a woman thinks, “so-and-so had a pretty floral dress on today, wonder where she is?”, (and the pastor sometimes goes off on a tangent), and a person comes back totally lost. As a preacher, I have been totally thrown out of the sermon by somebody coming in late or somebody making an interruption. If I didn’t have notes, I would have been lost for a while.
But notes, outline notes, are necessary. They help us keep on track, and get through with the sermon in time. If you drone on in a sermon boring everybody, the only thing they are thinking, “How do I get out of here? If I get up and leave, would people think ill of me?”
Having too few points in a sermon
Many sermons are simple. They have 3 points, no subpoints, and they are very well delivered and received. You do not need a whole lot of points for it to be good. But in general, they are audio place-markers. You say, “I am going to cover A, B, and C.” A typical sermon is between 30 minutes and 45 minutes. If you normally preach 45 minutes, every 15 minutes you should be moving to the next point. People unconsciously look at their watches to mark time. How much time does the preach have left? If you have two points or one point, you might as well have no points. The points don’t serve their purpose of marking time.
What you want to train your people to think is this. “I am going to cover 5 topics about x subject today. Point one is A, Point 2 is B, etc.” You have no subpoints. That is okay. As you move from point A to B, to tell them. One-fifth of the sermon is over. Two-fifths, three-fifths. This is flying by. If they are even a little interested in what you are saying, you say, “now in conclusion to the sermon…” they start to think, hey this thing is over and time flew by. I would like to listen to another one of this guy’s sermons. They want to come back.
On the other hand, a preacher stands up and reads a passage, and then follows his outline without announcing any point, not before, not during, not after. To announce it afterward in the conclusion is dirty pool. Why not until then?
The person is bored. They didn’t follow your sermon, and they don’t want to come back. Well, they do, but they don’t want to sit through another one of these things.
Having too many points in a sermon
Okay. There are books written in outline form that have main 100 points and 5 levels of sublevels. So what happens if you make a sermon like this?
Number one, you can never get through this in one sitting. Maybe you have 1 sermon that you are going to preach over an entire year, taking each point separately, one per Sunday. Why not just announce each major point Sunday when you preach it?
People have a hard time doing anything with an outline. It is great to follow what you are saying, but the point of an outline is to structure and proof a proposition (the theme or topic). -David Cox
So how does it serve the sermon? I have heard and preached a sermon with 20 points. The 20 points of why once saved always saved. They work well. But note that you have to have a single verse or at most two verses under each point and you have to fly through it. It is very difficult to not get bogged down in explaining these points. If you can read the verse and summarize well the argument, it works. If you get too talky, you lose.
As a preacher, you should study what makes an excellent sermon. What is its structure? Most books recommend this basic model as an excellent structure.
Okay. Let’s use that. I would suppose that you have at least one verse or part of the verse under each subpoint, so you are going to treat around 9 verses. That is doable but hard.
But you have a total of 16 elements that you will execute in this sermon. If you take an hour for the sermon (60 minutes), that is around 3.75 minutes per element. Not going to work. Why? Because your verses points are going to get mostly eaten up by reading the verse. “Jesus wept” no problem. But when you read 5 verses, not gonna happen. You won’t finish the sermon or you will go 1.5 hours and still not finish it, and you definitely will not do it well.
Try figuring this out in your sermon sometime, and then at home in the preparation of the sermon write the times beside each point. Sermon start at 11:30. 11:34 start point 1, 11:45 start point 2, etc. Wow! What a torturous sermon to preach (if you try to hit all the points)!
I actually did this for a while. My sermons were too long. Our people were frustrated although they loved the content. So I tried to fix this. The point is that you have to convince the people of your proposition (sermon topic or theme or title). How best do I do that?
At this point, many preachers just decide to dump outlines altogether. They get 3 points and a few verses and have no subpoints and don’t even pretend to tell their people where they are going. I fell that is very wrong.
What you need is to use the outline to your benefit, to the benefit of your people, and most of all, make the outline servant to the sermon, not an evil taskmaster. How?
Instead of making points that are parallel, or using subpoints so much, just make 5 points and go through them dealing with each one. No subpoints. No long explanations of one point. Balance them according to importance to your theme or proposition. How important is THIS POINT to proving my proposition and convincing my people? Give it more time and verses. Sometimes a very major point can be proven quickly because a verse is so clear. Give it less time, but make it a major point.
Where is the principle as to how many points you should have?
Really, what I was saying above is the principle. The structure of a sermon has to serve the proposition of the sermon. What are you trying to prove, and how best can you tailor make the structure to serve that purpose. How can you convince your people of the proposition, and how can you fix it in their minds so that they remember it?
Using written out outlines that you pass out
Here I would like to recommend using written out outlines or notes, or something with the major thrust of the sermon in written form. Most will throw them away or leave them in the pews. Of those that take them home, most will lose them or throw them away. But a few will hang around, and people will reread it. They will make your teaching more permanent in their understanding. Good!