Resume: This article explains the thinking and strategy of using a sermon outline when preaching sermons.
Sermon outline, What is it?
A sermon outline is simply a guide to where you will logically “go” (speak) during a discourse. The options here are limited. (1) You use some kind of guide (a sermon outline). (2) You speak without any guide, just entering with a general topic to which you do not hold alliegance to follow, but rather wander from topic to topic.
Some preachers actually think that the later is somehow “being guided by the Holy Spirit”, and that is the only valid way to preach. We have no evidence really as to public speakers using or not using these “topical guides”. Dr. Bob Jones Jr. used this later strategy, and his defense was, “A sermon outline is like a skeleton. When you see a person’s bones, something is very wrong.”
While this thinking is actually popular among a lot of preachers, and many preachers who use sermon outlines actually break from their outline regularly holding this thinking as “a moving of the Holy Spirit”, the thinking is really not that great. It is flawed, and has a lot of problems. First of all, Dr. Bob Jones Jr had a lot of preaching experience and exposure (his dad was an evangelist so he grew up in the element of preaching). People like that have from where to draw from. Experienced preachers who have more than 10 or 20 years of preaching “under their belt” can preach extemporaneously and can “pull it off”. Most others fail when trying, and even experienced preachers have their problems when preaching without thinking through what they are saying. Not that last comment. Preachers that have preached on salvation hundreds of times can stand up without notes and do fine. But that is not to say that they did not prepare, it is to say that after preparing and preaching so many times on the same topic, to comment on it from memory is very easy and can be done very successfully.
A sermon outline is simply a prepared list of thoughts and verses that the preacher uses to guide his presentation.
There are two key issues to clarify in using a sermon outline: (1) Does an outline hinder the Holy Spirit? (2) Is an outline necessary and serve an essential purpose?
(1) Does an outline hinder the Holy Spirit?
Of all things that hinder the Holy Spirit when a preacher preaches, having an outline is not one of them. Sin and disobedience, and a life full of not seeking God’s will are the principle hinderances. When a man prepares a sermon, the Holy Spirit can work just as well in the preparation as in any lack of preparation. Praying before the sermon, and meditating on it, using an outline to guide what we think God wants us to say, is a very necessary part of every sermon. Therefore using a sermon outline does not push the Holy Spirit out of the sermon, but pushing the Holy Spirit out of the sermon by your will is what does that.
Offsite: How to prepare a sermon
Reflection and meditation of the passage as well as what commentors have said about a passage helps the Holy Spirit to bring key thoughts to mind in our presentation. Here the lack of a guide is equal to entering the pulpit with a lack of preparation. This cannot be held as good. God’s work deserves better than this. What the issue breaks down into (in a lot of cases) is simply that we are lazy, and sitting down and making a clean, clear, ordered presentation of God’s Word is not what many preachers want to do. Just standing up talking, and cultivating an audience of “Amen-ers” is what they want. These preachers usually rehash the same few sermons over and over throughout their ministry, and their people are very shallow, and their churches are not doing the work of God nor pleasing God.
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(2) Is an outline necessary and serve an essential purpose?
The simple answer is yes. Even when the “guide” is written on the back of a nakpin, it is still a guide to the sermon. The guiding of the speakers thoughts is what is key here. In the case of almost every preacher out there, if something doesn’t guide and restrain the speaker’s thoughts, he is liable to wander, and distract and give a very poor presentation of any presentation of Scripture. Again, greatly experienced preachers that have worked for years disciplining their thoughts, sermons, and presentations very well can take a single passage of Scripture and preach through it without any notes. That is a great talent if you can do it well.
In the next section we will examine the “why of using a sermon outline”.
Why use a sermon outline
In this point, we want to clarify and emphasize that there are good rules for presenting any passage(s) of Scripture, and these rules make the transfer of information complete and good (think effective). A sermon outline is essential in a good sermon presentation. But we must keep clear in our minds what the guide is for.
(1) Keep the sermon outline limited to only a single (or very few, but related) thoughts.
One of the key points in any public speaking is to not distract, confuse, and bore the audience. If you stand and speak on eternal security, repentance, creation, and Paul’s trip to Ephesus all in the same sermon, your audience just will not get the gist of what you are talking about. In other words, all of those points are valid sermons, but by mixing and jumping from one topic to another in the same sermon, you frustrate your audience instead of edify them. Stick to a single topic. This is the point. Edification calls for clarification, revelation, and explanation of God’s Word.
A preacher should never begin a sermon preparation with an outline. While this will surprise many preachers, it is just wrong. You begin a sermon with a topic, or thesis. This thesis must rule over the sermon outline from beginning to end, and it must “throw out” unrelated items. When I say throw out, I mean that even good topics and verses are not used in this sermon (maybe in another more closely related to their theme).
The key error of most preachers is to allow the good to destroy the best. In other words, there should be a theme or a thesis that is very narrow and focused on a specific “thing” that the speaker wants to convince his audience of.
For example, a bad start for a sermon. “Eternal security”.
A good start, “eternal security is biblical”.
A better start, “our salvation is eternally safe, but that shouldn’t let us be slack on our Christian life.” If you will note, the more exact and detailed the concept the easier it is to filter material and Bible verses “into” the sermon, or exclude them “out of” the sermon. Literally, you can have a simple sermon on eternal security and probably find hundreds of verses that would refer to it in one way or another. This is good (means your proof from Scripture is abundant, so probably is biblical), and it is bad (you must sift through all of that, and only choose or use what is best to prove your thesis).
The more focused and specific we can make a sermon the easier it is to work up, and the more effective it will be. Note that making a specific thesis is difficult, and there will be times when a specific thesis is just not biblical. At times (commonly) you will have to modify the thesis, change it, change the biblical defense of it, or even scrap it altogether because in the study you find it is just not true, or you cannot prove it with the verses you find at that time.
For example, I have sought a verse to just say, “Be faithful”, but while faithfulness is extremely important in Scripture, there are few verses that command it. I do have sermons on faithfulness, but the evidence in Scripture is not as abundant and clear as many other topics.
Practically, you should put your theme or thesis before during the entire sermon preparation, and always refer each part back to it. If some comment, verse, exposition, illustration or other material does not directly and excellently make a supporting point to your sermon, you should exclude it and find what does the job best.
The error of a wandering preacher can be fixed by observing this principle. Simply put, don’t say anything at all about things that are not directly supporting your thesis.
As a side comment here, I recognize that preaching is world’s apart from teaching. In teaching we take a single subject like “salvation” and we dissect it explaining it’s parts and essence, making explanation of each part, and relating all parts to the central overarching subject. Under “salvation” we can deal with “eternal security”, and then list its biblical evidence, the opposing view’s attack and our defense of it. This is legitimate. But I would insist that in any biblical church, there should be both, sound teaching, “line upon line”, and an equal part of exhortatory preaching. The two are complementary and both are necessary.
Plan on accomplishing little things each sermon, but extremely important things. Then accomplish them the best you can. This is better than doing 3 half-way jobs and doing none of them well.
Offsite: 7 steps to sermon preparation
“The main thing is to make the main thing, the main thing.”
(2) Points in a sermon outline should be integral to the theme, and related to each other.
Here we need to understand that there is (should be) a relationship between the parts of a good sermon. Are the points related to each other in some integral way? Do they unify under the sermon topic or theme(thesis)? First of all, Each subpoint should give evidence and support for the sermon topic. When you inject illustrations or comments about politics into a sermon on eternal security, there is hardly any validation for doing that. What is not integral to the message should be left totally out of it. Preach a sermon on human government and talk about politics all you want, but don’t go inserting your favorite hobby horse topic into everything you say.
Basically there are two different ways this relationship between points would play out. First supporting points. For example, eternal security is biblical because of A., B., and C. Secondly a sermon’s main points can be complementary. In other words, eternal security. A. Biblical evidence. B. Lose your salvation verses. C. Answers to loss of salvation verses. Both forms are totally okay.
What is important to understand is that you are not just up there talking, your thoughts are logically “going somewhere”. Where you take the listener is to your thesis. You begin by telling them where you are going, and you mention it frequently in the walk/talk, and when you arrive with your listeners, they are convinced as you are of the reality of your thesis, and you summarize by restating the thesis again. At any time during your sermon, your listeners ask themselves, how did he get from the sermon topic to this? then you have ruined your sermon and it is a bad sermon.
By the way, the last point should be your strongest and most convincing point.
(3) Sermon outline elements should mark time and progress.
I have never seen in print or heard somebody say this, but I deeply believe this is a key aspect of good sermons. My opening comment about Dr. Bob Jones Jr, that an outline is like a skeleton and should not be seen is just wrong in my opinion. When a preacher starts his sermon, there are some key elements that make the sermon excellent or mediocre. The first is a title and related to that is the sermon’s thesis. They can be the same. But by declaring the topic, it prepares the audience for what comes next instead of leaving them guessing. As speakers we must understand that a person does not come “fully charged” into the sermon. Most come into the sermon “listening and interested” within the first 5 minute after they start listening. Mothers dealing with babies, fathers asking their wife where his Bible is, or giving stern looks at their children, etc. Many things distract people from the first minutes of a sermon. They have to “tune in” to what the speaker is saying, and the best preachers focus and use this time to give an overview of what they will hear in the next hour or so. Typically public speakers call this an introduction. Most preachers don’t use them, and they sermons are worse because of it.
What does a good introduction do? It first of all awakes the person to what is coming. It should cause interest in the sermon. If the preacher gives a simple 2-4 points of the sermon in the introduction, then the listener has a good grasp of what is coming, and why he should “tune in” for the entire sermon.
When a preacher states his points (both in the introduction, in the conclusion, and during the sermon on each point, he should repeat all points), he is “marking time and progress”. One of the most discouraging and painful sermons I have ever heard was a sermon (typically by young preachers) where you have no idea what he is talking about, and you get the idea that he doesn’t either, and he just stands up and talks about whatever comes into his head, and worse, he doesn’t get many chances so he is going to take all the time he can until somebody kicks him out of the pulpit.
What makes this kind of sermon so painful? First, there is no end. Moreover, we know that, and we know that he is just jumping and wandering wherever he wants to go, and finally, somebody tells him to shut up, or people start getting up and leaving because he has gone so long. The difference between that kind of sermon, and the kind where people look up at the preacher when he announces the topic, and he talks, and it seems like he just started and it is over, is that of progression in the sermon.
When a preacher has 3 points, an introduction and an outline, and then he quits, that gives an outline that will “mark time” throughout the sermon. At each point in the sermon, the listener knows that about a third is done with. If the points and talk is interesting, they will get lost in the presentation, but their mind notes the progression. That somehow assures them the end is coming.
I know that many modern expert preachers (especially those on radio and tv) do not reveal their outlines very often. Notwithstanding, their sermons would be better if they revealed and progressed through them. It is a rare sermon that would not benefit greatly from this element of marking time. A very few speakers are so energetic and intensive that they can get by carrying the audience with them on their personality, but in the end, the thing that sticks with audience is the speaker’s personality, not his exposition of Scriptures. A preacher should meditate long and hard on that point, and we need to decrease and Christ increase.
Offsite: How to write a sermon
(4) Sermon outline elements should move to a conclusion.
Before anything, note that I did not say, “Sermon elements should move to an end.” Ending something is different than concluding it. If you sit in a trial to convict somebody of murder, you don’t go to all the individual sessions for the judge to “not decide”. He has to conclude, Innocent, or Guilty. We can even take a “mistrial”, but just not announcing anything is frustrating.
There should be a movement (of logic) in a sermon. In other words, there is a proposition set forth (our thesis), then there is support for the thesis, maybe even opposition and why it is not valid, and then a conclusion. This movement from beginning to end is what gives us a good feeling of accomplishment in listening to the sermon. Edification happens when the person knows more, is convinced more, and is clearer on something after he or she leaves the church than when they came in. They are “better” spiritually. Even rebuke, conviction, and repentance is acceptable here. A sermon is sorry when the preacher poorly presents the bulk of his talk, and at the end tries to tack on an altar call.
Where I have seen this violated much and gravely is in young preachers that simply throw out information without really convincing or explain how convincing the information is. Because you read a list of 50 verses which you say affirm eternal security does nothing for me. You need to pick convincing examples, actually the most convincing verses, and then take the time to read and explain each one of them.
Without true logic supporting the evidence and linking each point and subpoint into the thesis, there is no reason anybody should accept anything you have said. This logic which binds the evidence to the thesis is essential in a sermon. The difference between a boring talk and a great moving sermon is that the sermon “makes sense” (the logic is solid) on the basis of Scripture (evidence is solid), and it makes the thesis easy to accept.
(5) Good sermons don’t have fluff nor flutter.
Let me define that a little more for you. A good sermon does not have extra stuff in it that is unrelated to the thesis. This is fluff. Nor does a good sermon have “flutter” which I define as stuttering on the evidence.
Fluff – In other words, the ball game scores have nothing to do with a sermon, leave them out. This point is a repeat of what I said about.
Flutter – Here when we can prove a point we are making by 100 verses, why do we need to read these references off to the audience. First of all, without reading and explaining them, nobody will believe that they really support our point/thesis. Secondly, it wastes time and insults our listeners by badgering them. To say that there are a lot of verses that support the concept of eternal security is sufficient. You don’t need to put a number on it, nor do you need to actually list them in part or all of them.
But this point needs to be drilled home further. In a good 3 point sermon, you may have 2 or 3 subpoints under each main point. The objective is to convince the listener of the thesis, not overwhelm him by your knowledge. Nobody cares how great knowledge you have, they want to hear what the Bible says. Therefore in subpoint should be basically limited in its support verses to what can be easily managed by the speaker. Here we would think that 2 or at most 3 verses should suffice any subpoint, and maybe 5 to 7 verses if the main point has just supporting verses instead of subpoints.
There is a point of too much becomes a negative load on the sermon. I would also add that too little or poorly exposited verses equally are bad for a sermon. There is a maximum limit that an audience can take of exposition in a sermon, and a good preacher should be choosing the absolute best and most convincing evidence to convince his listeners. It is like a jury and trial. A lawyer that extends and belabors a point, giving poor evidence will not convince the jury. All material in a sermon should be concise and convincing.
(6) Context should not be ignored nor belabored.
It is unfortunate that Satan comes at us with every thing he can. Many preachers rip a verse from its context, and some even belabor the context to the point that they lose the point of the verse. You should read and study the context of any verse you use in your sermon, but you should not force that on your listeners. Context should be summarized quickly by the preacher, and you should not take the time to distract your listeners by reading 4-10 verses before and after the verse in question you are citing. This causes a distraction, and if it is absolutely necessarily to do, the preacher should understand that upon ending his comments on that verse, he will need to reset the listener into the scheme of things again. He needs to conclude what is the key point of the key verse (trying to play down all the extra information he has just introduced into his sermon), and then fit the verse back into his sermon.
After all that, it is simply better to put a quick contextual summary of what is happening in this passage and then textually read the verse. Anything that distracts from the thesis should be eliminated and avoided.
(7) A sermon should enhance, broaden and deepen your listeners’ relationship with Jesus Christ.
Teaching facts does not help anybody, it only hurts them. As preachers, we need to understand that everything that we teach and preach HAS to RELATE to our relationship with Jesus. It must be alive, vivid, and causing closeness with Jesus. If a sermon does not do that, then it is ineffective. There is a desire in man for communion with God, but that desire can be and often is very easily fulfilled by “religion” instead of a personal relationship with God. That religion is what Satan peddles. So a good sermon must cause the person to relate to Jesus in some way.
The first way is to rebuke over sin. This is a good sermon. The second way is to exhort to justice. Justice or righteousness is simple to do what God expects a good Christian to do.