Bony Outlines

How bony should you make your sermon outline?  Some people are passionately committed to having the sermon outline show through for maximum clarity.  Every point is obviously a point.  It is offered as such (my third point is…)  The points need to be equal in weight, alliterated in wording and balanced perfectly.

This kind of rhetorical approach to preaching is understandable.  It’s what we have been told is the right way to preach.  It is perhaps what we have often heard done either successfully or not.  Maybe we were taught it in seminary.  Apparently people like to take notes of the points.  Apparently parallel points are more memorable (and apparently remembering your outline is the goal of some listeners).

Can I question the point of all this for a moment?  What if the points of the sermon are actually for the preacher’s benefit, rather than for the listeners?  What if their take-away should be the main idea of the passage and how it has marked them, rather than a synopsis of your outline that they probably will never look at again?

If the only goal in preaching were clarity, then bony preaching would be the way to go.  Let the skeleton show through in everything.  But what about faithfulness to the text?  Perhaps the text doesn’t offer three balanced points, and to make it offer that would be to abuse the text?  What about relevance?  What about engaging the listener?  What about transformation that doesn’t come merely from information transfer?  Perhaps bony preaching is not the only way to go?

I do not advocate rejection of traditional outlining methodologies.  I am not saying we should go free form and nebulous in our preaching.  But I would suggest that my outline is my servant, not my product.  I outline the flow of the sermon to reflect the text and the message, but that is for my sake.  Somehow I have to find the balance between bony preaching (clear, but potentially weak in other areas), and fleshy sermons (engaging, interesting, and/or biblically faithful, but potentially less “clear” by traditional measures).

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4 thoughts on “Bony Outlines

  1. Thanks for this. It helped me put into words some things I’ve sensed before. Also, I think the way outlines are done (A.1.2.3.B.1.2 etc) is somewhat a product of western thinking and reasoning patterns, pulling apart and considering the details of a concept, giving illustrations and applications, then putting it back together, drawing conclusions. Other thinking patterns, such as European, Eastern, Middle Eastern, those of Biblical writers etc. are quite different. Some passages seem to be backwards from our way of thinking: give the conclusion first, then give the supporting arguments and at the end draw applications. Sometimes it’s a circular thing where the person or writer gives a point, then makes an argument, connecting it back to the main idea. He may make more arguments, (circle gets bigger) considering more implications and more supporting thoughts, and connecting it all back to the main idea. Sometimes I think it would be helpful to try to understand the thought pattern behind the text instead of superimposing our way of thinking on it.

  2. I’ve become mostly convinced that each text (if I meditate on it enough in the preparation process) suggests its own preaching structure. Sometimes three points really do fall out without much prodding. Sometimes, it feels like the text screams for a more inductive approach; or for retelling a narrative. I realize that some preachers need to approach each text with a tried-and-true strategy that they can count on, and they may well be smarter and holier than me in that approach, but I have decided that imposing a sermon structure from the outset more often than not causes me a lot of heartache.

    This is why I voraciously eat up discussions of structure and variant ideas, as I think that the more of this sort of ammo I have waiting in my arsenal, the more flexible I’ll be in following the Text.

    The one element of “structure” that seems consistent for me is a Chappell-esque focus on creaturely falleness and how that is addressed in the text.

  3. Dear Gordan,

    Thank you for your helpful comment. Please could you elaborate on the final sentence as I don’t know what a “Chappell-esque focus on creaturely fallenness” means? Many thanks.

    • Hi, Adam. The reference is to Bryan Chappell’s book (and on-line preaching course, through Covenant Seminary) called, “Christ-Centered Preaching.” One of the things he suggested was to determine what the creaturely “need” is in the text. In a world corrupted by sin, that can be any host of things, like separation from God, sickness, death, poverty, violence, oppression, idolatry, iniquity, etc. Once you have the specific aspect of our “falleness” that is crying out from the text, then look for how that need is addressed by God, either in that text as well, or in the larger context. This keeps the message sounding the note of redemption, or should at least help in that regard.

      As a sometime novelist myself, I recognize that focus on fallenness or what has been lost, or is in danger of being lost, is the key to drama. It’s hard to care about characters in a story for whom all things are coming up roses.

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