The Best Way to Put Meat on the Bones of Your Sermon
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Pamela D McAdams
Warren Wiersbe called the sermon outline the “recipe” for the message. If you have that and nothing more, he said, you do not have a meal for your people; you have a recipe for them. Still much to do before they can be fed.
I like to think of the outline as the skeleton. It will need fleshing out, and then, most importantly, it needs the breath of life.
No preacher should make the mistake of thinking the first part—fleshing out the message—can be done on our own while the second part—giving it life—is God’s business. It’s all about His presence and power and equally about our faithfulness.
An influential pastor, writing in the most recent issue of a popular preaching magazine, shares some great insights regarding the sermon outline which I’d like to pass along and comment on. For good reason I’m not naming him or the magazine. We should not get hung up on whether we agree or disagree with a pastor on everything to learn from him.
1. The notes your people take in church will be mainly your sermon points.
Frequently, I will tell the congregation toward the start of my message, “May I suggest for you who are taking notes that you not worry about writing the outline. In fact, sometimes you’ll have trouble finding one in my sermons. Instead, jot down anything you want to remember, something you want to look up, or whatever the Holy Spirit tells you to do later.”
That said, I know the writer is correct. In most cases, in most churches, what people write down are what the pastor throws on the screen. And what he throws on the screen will almost always be the points of his outline.
2. The worst outlines are those that divide the text but do nothing more.
Take the four chapters of Jonah, the writer suggests. They easily divide into Jonah running, Jonah repenting, Jonah returning, and Jonah ranting and raving. That may be cute, but once your people write it down, they still don’t have anything.
Instead, the points of the outline should be actions you want your people to do.
Experiments have proven repeatedly that people recall only 5 percent of what they hear, a much higher percent of what they hear and write down, and almost all of what they hear and write down and then do.
As a young pastor trying to get a handle on sermon-building, I bought those books of sermon outlines. Why, I kept wondering, do I find them so unhelpful? The answer was that they were dead bones, unconnected to anything worthwhile. The author would introduce a subject, then give as his outline something like:
The Principle Defined.
The Principle Defied.
The Principle Deified.
Like that? I made it up (smiley-face goes here.) It’s so catchy, don’t be surprised if someone who reads it decides to use it. Fine. Just don’t let it be you. You’re smarter than that. You care for your people more than to use some dumb little gimmick like this.
3. Put a verb in every sermon point.
You’re looking for action from your people. Never forget that our Lord said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).
The blessing of Heaven is not promised to those who hear the Word, believe the Word, discuss it, love it, memorize it, quote it, preach it, distribute it, or dissect it—even though each of those carries a certain joy.
Mostly, God’s blessings are on those who do the Word.
When I was a youngster, a lot of us learned a song called “Be Ye Doers of the Word.” The catchy tune accompanied the words of James 1:22, “Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
Case in point: Look at the three outline points in this article so far. Each point stands by itself, each is a truth, independent of anything else. We could have built this little essay around a set of bones like so:
The people and the sermon outline
The problem of the sermon outline
The power of a sermon outline
But there’s no content in those words. All they do is point ahead to something inside the paragraphs to follow. The reader who jots them down and walks away is carrying nothing of value; just words.
The preacher/writer says, “Make your points ‘action steps.’”
4. Finally, my brethren, experiment with different ways of outlining a message.
They used to say about Clarence McCartney that after reading his exposition of a scripture, you either used his outline or took another text. I’ve said the same about Warren Wiersbe, that brother gifted with seeing the shape and outline of a text in ways that somehow elude the rest of us.
The only trouble with that is that no one—not Spurgeon, Stott, McCartney or Wiersbe—has the last word on a text. That is the domain of the Holy Spirit.
The fun thing about that—about the Holy Spirit having the final word—is that He knows every sermon ever preached, and inspired many of them. (Not all, alas!)
No one knows better than the Holy Spirit the full range of what can be done with a text and the needs of the people who will be hearing your message, and is capable of revealing to you the ideal structure of your sermon. After all, correcting myself here, it’s His sermon.
So, ask Him how He wants it built.
That’s called prayer.
Bottom line: You will want to give prominence to sermon preparation, allow time to mull it over in your mind and heart, and be on the lookout for the insights and applications He will be sending your way in the days and weeks leading up to your delivering that message.
It helps to bear in mind that the Lord wants you to succeed in this more than you do. So, take advantage of that.
Do you want just clever sermons, or sermons that feed your people?
A sermon by Gary Wilkerson in the World Challenge Pulpit Series (a ministry of the Times Square Church founded by the legendary David Wilkerson) on Gideon’s victory over the Midianites (Judges 8) provides a perfect illustration of the best way to outline a sermon. Verbatim, here is his outline:
I see four great lessons for us today in Gideon’s story.
Lesson 1: Limited resources never limit God. (Judges 7:3)
Lesson 2: Discouragement can hinder—but never halt—God’s ultimate plan for victory. (Judges 8:1)
Lesson 3: Grace for victory is extended to the exhausted. (Judges 8:4,5)
Lesson 4: God doesn’t stop at half a victory. (Judges 8)
Each point states a great truth for God’s people, each point is well worth writing down and remembering, and each statement stands by itself.
We preachers are going to have to decide whether we prefer a catchy outline that looks clever in print or something perhaps less clever that will feed our people. Thank you, Gary Wilkerson.
Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.