The Memorable Outline Myth – Part 2

So yesterday I did the unthinkable.  I pulled the pin from a grenade in the sacred space where the notion of a memorable outline is revered as the chief end of preaching.  I suggested that people might not be best helped by a set of textual labels that typically lack applicational relevance.  I even suggested that people might not review what we have made so memorable!

As I wrote yesterday, if the text yields a clear and applicational sequence of thoughts, by all means preach that.  But I fear that in many cases a pre-commitment to paralleled alliterated points may undermine the following aspects of preaching:

1. Is the text being presented authentically?  If you are dissecting and squeezing the text into an outline form, you may well be doing it an injustice.  Very few texts are actually written as equal paralleled thoughts.  Don’t give people a clever outline at the expense of really opening up the inspired text.

2. Is the listener motivated to return to this text, and the rest of the Bible?  If they feel incapable of “finding the three points” in a passage, they are less likely to be opening their Bibles (which is what they really need on Thursday, not just a vague memory of three uninspired descriptive labels from Sunday).

3. Is energy poured into future recall being lost from present impact?  Would it be better to have them feel the full force of the text’s impact at the point of preaching, and then be motivated to read more later in the day and the next day, rather than striving to cram in uninspired labels as a memory aid to help them remember a message that may have been only somewhat impactful on Sunday?

4. Is the main idea being undermined by a commitment to a longer list of lower value statements?  If you put your energy into one carefully crafted applicational representation of the main idea of the text, that single sentence summary would be more memorable and reach further and make more of a difference than a set of well-stated points that reflect smaller segments within the text.  Let the whole strike home to the heart in a single thought.

5. Is the projection of the outline teaching listeners bad listening habits?  That is, are we communicating to them that the point of preaching is primarily education, that the goal of listening is recall and that the measure of spirituality is the taking of notes?  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.

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9 thoughts on “The Memorable Outline Myth – Part 2

  1. Peter,
    Thanks so much for this post. I couldn’t agree more.
    One of the major problems I see with preaching in general, is the expectation of the preacher and the congregation, that every sermon fit a certain formula. Transparent or memorable outlines is one of the formulas that predominate homiletic books. Retention is desirable, but as you say, NOT the goal! Worship is the goal of all preaching.
    However, I find that many of my listeners are so trained in a certain “formula” that they have great difficulty listening to a sermon if they discern it verging from their expectation.

  2. Neat idea this note taking. I’ll try it next time my wife speaks to me 🙂 I hope Mrs M does not know you think she is delivering a sermon each time she speaks to you ;-).

    Trust it OK to be a bit lighthearted on this otherwise serious blog.

    But as I pondered the simile whilst working on the garden shed all afternoon I thought how apt it was. When we preach we are doing much more than expounding a text, we are introducing our listeners to a person – Jesus; the incarnate word, the incarnate way, the incarnate truth, the incarnate life … God incarnate. Not exactly Peter M talking with Melanie M; but Jesus does call us friends, brothers. Its a fairly close relationship, I find.

    (‘introducing’? I wish I could find a more subtle word to cover the situation since for most listeners it is not a first encounter.)

  3. Peter,

    Concerning number 5, I don’t think that projecting an outline is necessarily teaching listeners bad listening habits. To be honest, I am not much of a note taker when I am listening to sermons. But, what a projected outline does for me is to help me process and follow what I am hearing. By the way, I question your analogy. You state that, “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.” Yes, but if you are truly listening, you are likely doing more that processing sounds. You are probably picking up non-verbal clues. You are watching her facial expressions, posture, etc. Or in other words, visual clues may actually help you to hear better. In a similar way, I would suggest an outline can provide visual help to hear better. I might add, that although I have already admitted that I am not much of a note taker, I would note that the kinesthetic learners in your congregation might actually hear better if they can perform a physical action such as taking notes.

    • Thanks for your well thought out comment, Charles. I am not totally opposed to the projection of the outline, but I do want to raise the issue because so many assume it is the right thing to do. You are right that a projected outline can help the listener process what they are hearing and I would add, give them a map to know where they are in the message. However, when I hear clear preachers, I never need that projected outline to know where I am.

      I also do not deny that taking notes may be helpful for some listeners, and I am very happy for people to do so if they choose. In our church there is a space on the notice sheet for them to take notes if they choose to do so. As a preacher I certainly wouldn’t tell them not to, but equally I would never want to imply that that is the measure of true spirituality or even the “right” thing to be doing during a sermon. (In reality, studies show that the best approach to note taking is for people to listen and watch the speaker, and then have some space at the end of the message to write down some highlights/notes.)

      I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about listening to not only my wife’s words, but also her expressions, her body language, etc. Human to human communication is much more intricate than simply hearing words. This is one of the main reasons I hesitate to project the outline or other things during a sermon. Whatever value it may add, that has to be weighed against the loss of listening caused by the distraction of looking at something else. They may hear the words, but along with whatever good is done by what they see, they are also missing out on the complete communication of the speaker’s expressions, body language, etc.

      Thanks so much for interacting with the blog, I really appreciate it.

      • “In reality, studies show that the best approach to note taking is for people to listen and watch the speaker, and then have some space at the end of the message to write down some highlights/notes.”

        Very interesting! Do you have references for these studies?


  4. Peter,

    Your second point is one that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately myself. If we are preaching a passage appropriately the outline and notes we use should be universally attained. I may be wrong in this assessment, but we have created a spiritual gift that Bible does not list, the gift of Bible interpretation. It seems that we have ascribed this gift to the pastor/teacher and to him only. The reality is that he has been given the ability to teach more than someone else, not to understand the Bible more. To often pastors are teaching outlines that are not consistent with text and indirectly teaching their hearers that the Bible can only be understood by people who saw the outline “in the text” previously. Consequently, people in the pew are discouraged and do not return to their Bibles during the week because they think that they are not gifted to read and understand. God help us to grow in humility as we sit under a passage and try to explain it feebly to our brothers and sisters.

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