4 Questions for Your Sermon Outline

You have worked in the text, and worked on the message. You have a main idea, and an outline. Now take the opportunity to evaluate the outline.

Remember, the outline is for you, not for the listeners. You are not an educator seeking to transmit an outline to their notes or their memory. You are a preacher and the outline is an overview of your strategy for communicating the biblical idea relevantly to the hearts of your listeners.

Here are four questions to interrogate your outline and strengthen your sermon:

1. Does this message have unity? Considering all the elements – the points or movements – is the whole idea covered, supported and developed? Is the whole biblical text sufficiently covered in the message? Do the points of your message cohere? Is anything missing, or is anything present that doesn’t seem to fit?

2. Does the message order make sense? The elements of your outline should advance in a logical order. Typically, although not always, this will be the order of the text.

3. Do the sections of the outline feel proportional? It is tempting to just look for a rough balance in the number of verses covered by each point, but that is a bit lazy. You really need to know the passage well to answer this question. Do the points of the sermon carry the freight proportional to their relative weight in the passage? And from the listener perspective, will each point feel like an achievable step in the progression of the sermon?

4. Does the sermon progress? Each point should generate forward movement. Listeners don’t feel comfortable circling forever, or going backwards, or standing still. The order has to make sense. The progress has to be felt.

The outline is an important overview of your sermon. Personally I wouldn’t generally suggest it is helpful to give the outline to your listeners, or even to take it with you into the pulpit. However, it is important in your preparation to be able to evaluate the message before you progress to preaching it through.

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…

It’s Not the Technique That Counts

There are technically correct ways to write an outline for a message.  But more importantly, there is a point to having an outline.  Some people can do a perfect outline in form with every indent and numerical marker correct.  However, some people who can do a perfect outline, still don’t achieve what the outline is meant to achieve.  It is designed to reflect the shape of thought.  It’s purpose is to give a visual representation of the flow and shape of thought.  It is supposed to present visual ratios of spoken content, relative importance of message elements, etc.

If you have perfect outlining technique, great.  But make sure your outlines are helping you preach.  Ultimately it’s not what you have on paper that matters, but what is said in the message.  However, this does not mean we can dismiss outlining altogether.  If your technique is not perfect, but it accurately reflects what you plan to say, perhaps that is good enough.  If your technique is perfect, but somehow it doesn’t represent the message well, that is not good enough.  If your preaching is good, but you have no idea how to outline well, then it would be worth learning in order to augment the preaching.

There are many such supportive techniques associated with preaching.  It’s good to learn them well and it’s good to use them.  But it’s even better to make sure that our preaching is the best it can be, and not have a false confidence from skill in supportive techniques alone.