The Memorable Outline Myth

I think this post will tread on some toes.  I do it in love.

I think there is a myth among preachers and among listeners, a myth that may be distracting energy from and dissipating the potential impact of the preaching event.  It is the myth of the importance of conveying a memorable outline.  It goes something like this:

Everybody knows that good preaching will offer a memorable outline of the points of the message, a set of “hooks to hang your thoughts on,” as it were. With this memorability, listeners will be able to go away and recall the message later in the week, thereby being changed by an encounter with God’s Word throughout the week.  In fact, this is so important, why not project the outline on the screen – it seems silly not to.

A couple of quick challenges, then I’ll suggest what may be lost in this pursuit of memorability.

A. How often do those who actually write down the outline go on to review and benefit from it, let alone those who walk out of church with just their memories to rely on?

B. How often do preachers actually make their points applicational so that remembering the outline will be life changing, rather than offering labels or titles for content that functions essentially as a set of poor commentary headings?

Now I know that this post is throwing a couple of grenades into a pretty sacred space for many preachers.  Let me offer a token caveat – if a text yields a clear, memorable and applicational sequence of points, praise the Lord and preach it!

I do believe every sermon should have an outline.  I am not promoting confused preaching.  But I think the outline is really the servant of the preacher.  The outline is for my sake, not theirs.  There are other things that are much more important for them to feel the impact of and walk away with.

Next time I will finish the post by suggesting various aspects of preaching that may be being undermined by this memorable outline myth.  And I won’t wait until Monday, I’ll post it tomorrow.

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5 thoughts on “The Memorable Outline Myth

  1. Peter,

    I am with you. Outline doesn’t change lives, biblical ideas and concepts do. I have never heard any body says that an outline changed him. Biblical preaching is communication. Communicating a biblical idea in the preacher’s mind to the listeners’ mind. The outline is there to remind the preacher how he has organized his thought and let him see the flow of his sermon. Outlining is a tool, not the ultimate concern of a sermon.

  2. I agree. I have never had anyone talk to me later about one of my sermon outlines. Many times, however, someone has reminded me of a single statement I made in a sermon that had a lasting impact for them (I may not remember making the statement at all). Maybe I’m just not good at coming up with memorable outlines, but maybe the Holy Spirit isn’t as concerned with impressing outlines on the hearts of our hearers as some people think.

    I do think that an outline can be a helpful teaching tool, especially on a macro scale. If I can help people understand the general structure of Romans, for example, it will help them later in their personal Bible reading/study to understand what they are reading in context. But I would be foolish to expect them to retain it and profit from it simply because I’ve come up with memorable wording.

  3. I find outlines hugely useful in written material, especially when I can flip back and forth between the table of contents and main text. But when you’re speaking, that’s a linear process, so whatever structure you use has to serve the sequence of points made. As a result, a narrative (i.e. story) is much more important than an outline.

  4. Peter,
    I agree as far as it goes. But I think that this post fails to appreciate the value of a good outline for the audience. I started to explain here, but it got to be too lengthy so I have decided to respond on my own blog and have readers link back to this post.

    • Charles, thanks for your comment.

      I read your post and agree wholeheartedly with your first two points – that an outline demonstrates the sense of direction and progress to the listener and therefore helps the listener know where the preacher is and is going. It is so important for listeners to have confidence in the preacher and a sense of where they are and are going.

      I agree, in principle, with your third point too, that clear outlines communicate the methodology of biblical studies in order to equip the listener (this was the focus of my DMin dissertation). I would suggest that outlining is only one element in biblical studies and shouldn’t become the one defining feature of accurate exegesis (I have seen many preachers produce what seems like a good outline, but really miss the nuances of the text, forcing it into paralleled and equally weighted points).

      However, my post is not arguing against outlining. I think every sermon should have an outline. I am arguing against the idea that as a preacher, my goal is to get across a memorable outline so they can remember it. This is not part of my critique, this is my critique.

      Perhaps I should have been more explicit, but I think my post does convey the goal of preaching as life transformation, rather than memorability. The problem I am addressing is that some preachers put so much energy into communicating a memorable outline that they undermine the sermon’s energy for transformation both immediately, and secondarily, continuing through the following days.

      Thanks for engaging with the post, Charles. I hope our interaction can be helpful to other preachers too.

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