Category Archives: Stage 7 – Message Outline

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 31-35

Summer50bHere are another five suggestions to consider . . . September is almost here!

31. Add a Bible tip or two.  When you preach, don’t just explain the text and make its relevance clear, take the opportunity to equip your listeners to handle the Bible for themselves.  Don’t turn your message into a lecture, but reinforce the importance of understanding a text in context, the need to make sense of it “back then” before applying it to today, etc.

32. Express expectation and encouragement.  It is easy to turn application of the Bible into pressure and burden.  Mix in a bit of negativity and the hoped for life impact is quickly undermined.  Take the temperature of your application and conclusion – see if it can be increased.  Encourage and expect . . . perhaps it will help.

33. Learn the local lingo.  It is possible to speak a generic form of English and get by in England, America, Australia, South Africa, etc.  It is also possible to learn the local dialect and fit in so much better.  Maybe the same is true in the Bible.  Instead of just speaking Biblish, why not speak the Johannine dialect when preaching John, or Lukan when preaching Luke?

34. Simplify the message.  When we plan messages on paper we can easily make them more complicated than necessary.  Try making the structure and shape of the message as simple as possible.  This is not about dumbing it down, it is about helping listeners be able to follow, no matter how deep or weighty the content might be.

35. Map the message.  In fact, instead of outlining the message as you would an essay for college, try mapping it as you would a journey.  Where will we go first, and then, then after that?  I often end up with a sermon map on the whiteboard, rather than an outline.  Some people like to tie the landmarks to physical landmarks in the church space.  Somehow the sense of movement and progression becomes stronger with this approach.

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 21-25

Summer50bSummer time is a good time to tweak something in your preaching.  Here are some more suggestions as we chase the big 50!

21. Stop settling for sermon prep as Bible reading.  If you have fallen into the rut of accepting that your sermon prep is your personal Bible reading, stop.  My wife and I talk every day about church stuff and parenting stuff and house stuff and finance stuff.  That doesn’t mean we have a close relationship.  That takes heart to heart time.  Ask the Lord if He would join you on a date.  Take your Bible.  As a preacher, why wouldn’t you do this?

22. Make your points into sentences.  Simple thing, but let’s move away from summary commentary titles as points in our messages.  Paul’s Contrition.  Paul’s Consternation.  Paul’s Contribution.  These are not message points, they are titles (and not great ones).  Make the point into a full sentence that actually says something and then you’ll find it easier to actually be saying something when you are preaching.

23. Print and mark your preaching text.  Option 1 – cut and paste the passage, double space it, print it out and have at it . . . mark it up every which way to help you know it inside and out.  Option 2 – photocopy (and maybe enlarge) your actual Bible page.  Graffiti that page like crazy as you prepare your message.  When it comes time to preach it, you will find yourself leaning on the text more than your notes.

24. Adjust your proxemics. Can that be treated?  Indeed it can.  Are you raised above the listeners, on a level, or situated below them.  Each one makes a difference.  Are they close or far away?  Is there an obstacle between you and them?  Is it the size of a submarine?  All of these factors matter.  Don’t just treat your set up as a given, but ponder the possibilities and try something different and evaluate the benefits.

25. Mix up your illustration type.  Are all your illustrations from the world of sports, or from your own children’s bedtime wit, or always statistics, or always the fruit of fast google search?  Are you stick in the world of canned quotes from Napoleon and Winston Churchill?  Do you always go to another Bible passage to illustrate?  Is every illustration essentially explanatory, or supporting the truth of a point, or applying it to folks?  Mix up your approach and avoid getting stuck.

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 6-10

Summer50bContinuing my random assortment of preaching tweaks to consider before the next season of preaching begins:

6.  Target relevance in your introduction.  Try to plan an introduction that demonstrates the relevance of the preacher, the message and the text.  How can you make sure, in those first two or three minutes, that people lean forward because they know you are not out of touch with them, the message will make a difference to them, and the text is going to be on target?

7. Call on the REF as you conclude.  When you come to your next conclusion, call on the ref for a simple and effective wrap-up.  R stands for review – take a moment to survey where you have come together in the message.  E stands for encourage – end with an encouragement rather than critique or guilt.  F stands for finish – land the plane first time, don’t keep circling, and saying a bit more, and continuing on, and reinforcing your earlier points, and adding new materials, and . . . ok, enough.

8. Slow down through the curves.  Specifically evaluate the transitions to make sure they are not too sudden or brief.  Make sure your listeners can come with you and not suddenly wake up and wonder where they are!

9. Read a preaching book.  If you haven’t read a book to help you as a preacher lately, make the investment.  If you click on “Review” in the right hand column, you’ll find a selection on here, or ask your friends for a recommendation on facebook.  Books to help you preach better are typically not tomes, but usually beneficial.

10. Get some helpful feedback.  Ask certain people for certain feedback.  Ask about your content.  Ask about your personal warmth.  Ask about your delivery and mannerisms and gestures and so on.  Make sure they know they can be honest.  You will improve as a result.  Practice makes permanent, but evaluated practice makes for improvement!

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Point 3

ExclamationFinishing off the list of potential dangers that come from pouring our efforts into generating memorable outlines, rather than seeing the sermon outline as our strategic plan (which is for us, rather than primarily for them).  The strategy and the weapon should not be confused in warfare, and the strategy / arrow confusion in preaching can undermine the process.  So continuing on:

4. The potential for present impact can be dissipated by energy poured into future recall.  Let the present message mark deeply now, rather than relying on recollection later when impact may be diminished.  In fact, preach in such a way that present impact is as profound as possible, combined with motivation to get listeners back into the Bible on an ongoing basis.  (What if people don’t feel capable of finding the three brilliantly stated points when they look at the passage again?)

5. The arrow of the main idea can be lost in the listing of lower level sub-points.  Deliver one idea effectively and you will see lives transformed.  Overwhelm people with numerous sub-points and impact won’t be the description being used of the preaching.

6. The listener can develop the notion that preaching is about poor education.  You know the type of education I mean, listening for the points that will be on the test, then forgetting everything two days later.  Preaching can imply life is like that, but it isn’t.  We need to know someone, much more than we need to know lots of things.  Spirituality is not defined by taking notes or filling in the blanks.  As I’ve written before, “It’s weird, but when my wife opens her heart to me and speaks, I don’t reach for a pad and a pencil, I open my heart and I listen.”

I could add more thoughts, but will leave it there.  Feel free to add more, or disagree, of course (after all, taking away the transfer of outlines from our view of preaching is not a small move).

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Point 2

ExclamationPeriodically I like to come back to this issue of outlines and whom they serve.  The sermon outline is the preacher’s strategy, but it is not the actual “weapon.”  If we think of the message purpose as the target, and the message idea as the arrow, then the outline is the strategy.  Strategy is important, but the goal is for those on the receiving end to leave with the arrow firmly implanted in their hearts and lives.  The strategy gets it there, but if they go away with greater awareness of strategy than arrow, then something has not quite worked.

Am I suggesting that making an outline memorable is not the main goal for the preacher?  Yes.  Am I saying that a memorable outline is wrong and should not be offered?  Not at all.  If the outline happens to be memorable, that is fine.  But the preacher’s energy is better spent getting the listener into the passage and getting the main point of that passage into the listener’s heart with a clear sense of its relevance to their lives and the encouragement to respond appropriately to the God whose heart is revealed in the text.

Allow me to offer some of the potential dangers of focusing on creating a memorable outline:

1. The focus can easily be shifted from the passage to the preacher’s craft.  This is where the listener is listening for the preacher’s message based on a text, rather than looking for the message of the text.

2. The biblical passage may not be preached honestly.  This is what happens when a text is squeezed into an outline form, rather than having the message shaped and controlled by the text.

3. The listener can be drawn toward the clever preacher, rather than the wonderful God.  This doesn’t mean that we preach dull and plain so that all focus can go to Christ.  Rather, we need to beware that our cleverness doesn’t become a distraction from the God speaking in the Bible.

I’ll finish off the list tomorrow…

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Point 1

ExclamationSome quick-fire suggestions to strengthen the points part of sermons:

1. Actually say something.  Don’t settle for titles, instead write full points.  Make a statement.  Declare something.  It is better to have a full sentence than a label.  Labels and titles are written communication, but spoken communication doesn’t use titles.  When we tell a story from our day, we don’t use titles:

“So while I was filling the car at the petrol station I noticed that the tyre had a bulge in the side.  I checked it, and sure enough, a hernia in the tyre wall.  Tyre Replacement.  So I took the car into town and ended up having two tyres replaced at the place next to the car dealer.  It was not cheap, I can tell you, but safer than . . .”

We don’t speak like that, so let’s not preach like that.

2. Try to make the point contemporary rather than historical.  Why talk for several minutes about the ancient near eastern historical background to a point made by a letter writer back in the day…and then make an application before moving on.  Listeners could well have moved on long before you get to the application.  Why not make the point itself relevant to us and then support that from the text?

3. If you want to write a commentary, write it, don’t preach it.  The last two points really mean that we are not called to preach a commentary (with its historically rooted titles for sections).  So while commentaries may be useful in our preparation, they can never do the work for us.

Lots more to say, what would you add?

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Transitions 2

Spheres2Transitions are disproportionately significant.  They don’t convey the content of the message, but their critical role can significantly support, or significantly undermine the message as a whole.

Last time I looked at the introductory transitions (A on the image).  What about a transition between two movements in a message?  This is the purest form of transition.

Transitioning Effectively (B)

1. Slow down noticeably.  The sermon is an unsafe vehicle.  There are no seat belts or doors that guarantee your passengers will stay with you.  When you take a turn, make sure they are right there or you’ll leave them in the aftermath of the previous movement.  Slow down through the curves.  Listeners can seem like they are with you at a certain pace of delivery, and they might be able to stay with you in a straight line, but when you go in a new direction they may be unable to keep track and they will be left in a heap with dust settling around them.  Slow down.  Change pace.  Pause.  Make the transition clear.  Sometimes in our anxiety to press on and get through it all we can cut corners at this point (since it isn’t content at this point) and in doing so undermine the whole message.  If you must speed up, do so within a movement, not between them.

2. Look both ways.  That is to say, use the opportunity to provide both review and preview.  Where have we been so far?  Where are we going next?  Just a couple of sentences can make the world of difference.  It is the difference between an enjoyable ride in a nice car with a good driver, and an uncomfortable ride in an overpowered car with an overconfident teen at the wheel.

3. Mark physically.  Slowing down the delivery and reflecting / previewing are helpful.  But why not reinforce the shift in direction by a physical marker?  You could physically switch from one side of the lectern to the other (assuming you don’t hide behind it all the time), you could gesture appropriately, change you orientation by a few degrees, etc.  Subtle reinforcement in this way can communicate very effectively.

Notice that I haven’t suggested simply saying, “Now for my next point…”  If you have to, fine, but consider that this may have a soporific effect if the listeners don’t have confidence in you.  Good transitions should give a sense of momentum and progress.  Bad or patronizing ones can either lose people, or reinforce the sense of boredom.  Maybe a minute of your message will be taken up by this kind of transition . . . but this minute could be make or break!


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Spheres2The bulk of preparation effort usually goes into the main content of a message.  We wrestle with the text, we allow it to shape our theology, we think through how that content marks our lives, we ponder all this in light of who will hear the message.  This is all work on the points, or movements, in a message.

Then perhaps we ponder illustrative material to help make sense of those movements.  We consider how to introduce the message.  We might even give some thought to how we will conclude it.

But often there is too little thought given to the transitions between movements in a message.  These are represented by A, B, C on the diagram.  Too little attention given to these little moments will result in too great a negative effect on the whole message.  Great messages bomb because of poor transitions.

Here are some nudges to help us better transition during our preaching:

Introducing Effectively (A)

1. Emphasize clearly.  The listeners need to know that you are moving from whatever introductory material you have given into the first movement of the message.  You can do a star jump, pause for two minutes and turn to look at a powerpoint slide.  Or you can be less awkward.  Vocal variation can serve to underline your shift effectively: perhaps a pause, a change of pace, a variation in pitch.  You can say, “So for my first point…” but that is probably hinting at dullness already.  But something along those lines could be helpful: “So let’s see how the passage launches . . .” could work, as long as people catch what you just said (so think through how to add emphasis).

2. Preview appropriately.  What is appropriate depends on the type of movement that will follow.  If you are presenting a declaration and then supporting it, as in a typical deductive message, then you might be able to simply offer a preview of the point by stating it and telling what will follow (i.e.explanation, application, etc.).  By previewing and then re-stating the point as you progress, listeners will spot the entry into a section of the message.  If the point is the development in a narrative, then you may not want to give it all away at the transition.  You need to decide how to make sure people are with you as you enter in.  Perhaps a question that will be answered – some variation on “so what happened next?” might work.

3. Introduce confidently.  Whatever you are about to say, convey confidence in how you introduce it.  Don’t apologise.  Don’t downplay in some supposed act of humility.  “Oh, I guess I should probably say a few words about . . . ”  Uh, no.  “Just a disconnected story first before we get into . . .”  Again, no.  “I wasn’t sure where to start, so. . .”  No.

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Biblical Girders 4

GirderWhere does each girder go?  The Bible has a superstructure that holds it all together.  So the thematic element of the promised seed in Genesis 3:15 will work its way through multiple books and become overt in places like Galatians 3 at the other end of the canon.  But this poses a challenge.  How much should we be preaching Galatians 3 when we are supposed to be preaching Genesis 3?

Many preachers would see no problem with springing from Genesis to Galatians since that is the fulfillment and the clarification of what is first stated in the Garden of Eden.  I am certainly not going to criticize the impulse to preach Christ and it would be strange to leave listeners wondering who that seed might be (unless such suspense were part of a bigger teaching strategy).

On the other hand, I do wonder if we can collapse themes forward too easily and lose some of the strength of the steel at that point in the biblical story?  If the Bible were a building, then Genesis would be the foundation.  Steel starting there does go through the whole structure and holds the whole together.  Themes of creation, of relationship, of fellowship lost, of divine grace and rescue, of divine promise, etc. all work their way from Genesis on through the Bible.  That  steel girder seen in Genesis 3:15 later on turns out to be the spire at the top of the whole structure, the pinnacle of it all.  It makes sense to let folks know the significance of that, but at the same time it makes sense to help people see the importance of the foundation.

That is to say, instead of immediately looking up to the spire that caps off the whole building, when we are preaching in Genesis lets be sure to help people see how the foundation fits together, how the hope offered by God’s grace in the seed of the woman is such a striking promise in the context of a spurned relationship in that first senseless human rebellion.  That passage is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training, etc.  So let’s preach Genesis 3, not just bounce off it to go straight to the spire.  At the same time let’s not get our noses in the foundations and let people miss the grandeur of the whole.

It isn’t either/or, it surely needs to be both/and.  And with that both/and, I think it needs to be honouring to the earlier text in its own right, not just a token glance.



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Preaching & Application 3

No clever introduction, let the list continue . . .

9. Be mature in your application. The immature preacher will hammer out simplistic advice. The mature preacher knows that Christianity isn’t about self-help advice and tips for better living. There is a place for clear guidelines, the Bible gives us such in certain areas. But a lot of life’s issues are not effectively addressed by simplistic “try harder” exhortations. We are designed to be empowered in responsiveness, not empowered for autonomous success. How does God’s promise and God’s presence change things? How does He change us? Don’t tell me to be a better man, but show me Christ and you’ll soon see a better me.

10. Be consistent with the worship. Too often the heart-stirring devotion of sung worship leads to whiplash when the whipping from the pulpit kicks into gear. The whole package should be consistent. If it doesn’t seem right to sing hymns of good living tips – “Raise up the bar so that we might try harder to be good,” or “Amazing Effort,” or “It’s All About Me, Jesus.” If that doesn’t seem right, then maybe it is the preaching that needs to be more consistent with the worship.

11. Be sermonically fresh. When sermons are predictable they tend to lose their impact. So if you are in a rhythm of explanation followed by three points of application in the final minutes, consider whether this tried and trusted method might well have become stale and predictable. Look for different ways to demonstrate the relevance of passages to your listeners.

12. Be consistently relevant. That is to say, instead of ending with application, consider how to demonstrate relevance and application throughout the message. The opening introductory comments are an ideal place to engage listeners and demonstrate your relevance, as well as the relevance of the message and the passage. Try stating your points in contemporary and applied terms. Use transitions for exploring developing application as the message progresses. Drop in hints of relevance, even if not fully developed applications, during the telling of biblical story (avoid trite applications that mishandle the text, but even hints of contemporary awareness can make a real difference to perception).

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