A sermon outline is simply the structure of a particular passage of Scripture designed in an organized fashion to help communicate more smoothly the exposition of the text. Plain and simple. Just because someone has an impressive outline doesn’t mean the outline is expositionally correct, neither does it guarantee quality preaching. In his book, Power in the Pulpit, Jerry Vines comments, “Structure is not what preaching is all about. It is a vehicle meant to allow the substance – the content – of the sermon to be more effectively communicated. It is a means to an end.” An expositional outline is essentially the sermonic structure of the scriptural substance.
Granted, without the power of God, without the unction of the Holy Spirit, without a proper understanding of the text, without a spirit of prayer, and without discernment in the heart, an outline is simply organized drivel. But when the preacher and congregation understand its function and purpose, an outline will serve as a critical sail in the expositional voyage.
There is nothing biblical about outlining a message, but for me, the outline helps ensure that the message is biblical. Depending on preaching style, culture, background, and personality, an outline may or may not be part of your study and preparation. I have many friends in the ministry who do not approach the pulpit with outlines or notes. This doesn’t mean they have failed to prepare, but again, for me, I have discovered several benefits in the outlining process:
- It sets the pace and tone of the message. For example, if I am preaching on “The Characteristics of the Love of God” from John 3, I would announce there are seven qualities of God’s love in the act of Him sending His Son. As I reveal each characteristic from the text, this would help the congregation know where we are and where we are going.
- It provides unity for the message. The outline keeps the message on point and in proper sequence as permitted by the text. It pulls everything together as pronounced in the initial proposition. By the time we get to the end of the characteristics of the love of God, the seven qualities of His love function together as a cohesive package.
- It helps the expositor remember and the congregation retain. Again, the outline is not the message, it is simply “a means to an end.” That “end” is to expound God’s Word in an honorable, accurate, and presentable fashion with the intent to see lives changed. In keeping with the above example: The characteristics of God’s love is manifested in that it is a Divine Love (For God); it is a Deep Love (so loved); it is a Directed Love (the world); it is a Demonstrated Love (that He gave His only begotten Son); it is a Decreed Love (that whosever believeth in Him); it is a Defending Love (should not perish); it is a Durable Love (but have everlasting life). Having John 3:16 outlined in this fashion will not only help the preacher remember the characteristics, but will bring the congregation to the exhaustive nature of God’s love.
There are many other benefits to consider, but I think the point is clear: creating an outline will give greater clarity, flow, pace, understanding, unity, and effectiveness to the delivery of the exposition. So here are a few tips to remember as you formulate an expository message.
An Outline Should be Formulated from the Expositional Discovery of the Text
Implementing the process of exegesis and the principles of hermeneutics, the expositor is to take truth from the text. The honest expositor of God’s Word does not come up with an outline in hopes to find a passage of Scripture that’ll fit his points. His points MUST come from the passage. We are bringing out truth from the text, we are not reading our own opinions into the text. This means the preacher must study, dig, and understand the meaning of the text in its grammatical, historical, and literal (when applicable) context.
Do not Force Invalid Points or Divisions in the Outline Just to Make it Sound Complete
Years ago, I preached at a church that was not used to hearing outlined messages. After the service, an older gentleman came up to me and said, “Well, I guess you are one of those ‘point’ preachers?” I replied by saying, “To be honest, Sir, I wouldn’t listen to any preacher who didn’t have at least one point.” For all of us “point preachers” we tend to structure our outlines in expected ways. You know what I mean…at least three points, additional subpoints, all of them alliterated, etc. I typically organize my messages in this fashion; however, in doing so, there’s a temptation to make something “fit” into the outline that doesn’t necessarily make sense. You don’t have to have three divisions, you don’t have to alliterate, but if that is your style, make sure it is scriptural before it is structural.
Avoid Heavy Alliteration in Subpoints
If you use alliteration be cautious as to not overdo it. For example, if you have three alliterated, main points in your outline, and underneath those points you have five alliterated subpoints, people can and will get lost in the delivery. I have heard (and preached) some sermons that created more confusion with its organization than it did understanding. Remember, simplicity is the secret sauce of structure. The purpose of the outline is to help people along, not overwhelm them in an alliterated avalanche of abundant admonishments (see what I mean, it can be obnoxious).
Do not Allow the Outline to Outshine the Message
Some sermon outlines are like high-dollar chrome on an old Ford Pinto…bright and shiny, but not much under the hood. If the expositor is not careful, he can get so caught up in cute phrases, sensational titles, and catchy alliteration that he completely forgets about what makes the “motor run.” To be honest, there have been some messages that I preached when the title was much better than the actual message (I say that to the detriment of the sermon). For example, years ago I preached about Esau trading away his birthright to Jacob. The title was, “The Swap that Flopped.” It was a great title, one that brought a smile to people’s faces. But there was not much content there. By the time I finished the message, I wish I had swapped the title for more scriptural exposition.
Secure the Flow of the Outline with Natural and Authentic Transitions
Having an outline will certainly give you structure, but the last thing you want is to stand behind the pulpit reading a three-point summary in a hard-line, segmented, rigid tone. The outline is to help the message flow, and if that is to happen, good transitions are needed. This makes the sermon fluid and cohesive. The right transitions provide logical development of the sermon. It also gives evidence that the expositor is moving from one thought to another. Jim Shaddix said the idea of the transitional statements are designed to “carry the weight of the sermon’s structure.” The rule of thumb is to keep transitions simple, brief, interesting, and unremarkable. The point is not the transition, the transition takes you to the point.
When Using Illustrations Make Sure They are in Place Only to Support the Central Theme of the Passage
Stories and illustrations are powerful forces. They take people to emotional places. When making application from your sermon outline, make sure you are not preaching an illustration, but rather your illustration is just a tool used in your preaching. I have heard some heart-warming illustrations in my life, but nothing is greater than the Word of God. Make illustrations available only to accentuate truth from text.
Give Space to Adequate Introductions and Conclusions
My homiletics professor said that a sermon should be formatted in this simple way: tell your audience what you are going to say (introduction), say it (main body of message), and then tell them what you just said (conclusion). I will admit, there needs to be a little more than this for a proper introduction and conclusion; but the overall idea of that maxim is correct. Introductions need to properly state a proposition; the main body of the outline needs to validate that proposition; and conclusions need to show how that proposition applies to the hearer. Introductions and conclusions are powerful pieces of the puzzle, make sure they are interesting, brief, and, most of all, supporting of the structural framework of the message. I typically work on introductions, conclusions, illustrations, and titles only after my exposition of the text if finalized and my divisions are in place.
Preach the Passage, Don’t Just Outline it
In the book, Preaching: How to Preach Biblically, Professor Donald McDougall said the following, “Concentrate on the communication of the message, not just its outline. We have a penchant for nice, pat outlines. Having an outline is not bad…but neither is it preaching.” An expositor can labor intensely in his studies, gain the main thoughts of the passage, organize it in an easy-to-understand fashion…he can do all of these things without ever preaching the text. The apostle Paul did NOT tell Timothy to “Outline the word.” He said, with a succinct and emphatic voice, “Preach the word!” This is our responsibility; the outline is there just to help facilitate that command.