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Organizing (Outlining) the Sermon­2

By Jess Hall

religion, articles, christianity

The outline is to the sermon what the skeleton is to the body-each bone is connected to the next and it holds the whole thing together. Before beginning the outline, the preacher must have firmly in mind the one idea (or, if you please, the theme, controlling idea, thesis, proposition, focus) that he wants the congregation to remember. If the preacher does not know what he wants to say, how can he determine how he wants to say it? Stated differently, if there is mist in the pulpit, there will be fog in the pew.

A good outline has unity. Every point is controlled by the main idea. Each main point must support or advance the main idea. Each sub point must support or advance the main point to which it is subordinate. All other points should be eliminated, no matter how valid they may be. Expository preaching is often poorly done because the sermon, though based on a single passage, has no single theme, but three, four, or five unrelated points. Unrelated points in the same presentation are not a sermon, but a collection of sermonettes. The hearers are more confused than edified. The connection between the points may be logical, chronological, thesis/antithesis/synthesis, narrative, problem/solution, cause to effect, or effect to cause, to name a few, but the connection must be present. Further, it is insufficient for A to connect to B. B to connect to C, and C to connect to D, if there is no connection between A and C, A and D, and B and D. For example:

A. God is love. 1 John 4:8.
B. Love is patient. 1 Corinthians 13:4. (A and B connected by "love.")
C. Patience is a Christian grace. (B and C connected by "patience.")
D. Christian graces make us fruitful. 2 Peter 1:8. (C and D connected by "Christian graces.") Each point is a valid point supported by scripture; however, there is no theme that ties all points together and leads to a single focus that the hearers will remember. Points related only because they are in the same sermon take the hearers on a journey, but they never bring them home.

A good outline has harmony. The main points should echo each other. The best procedure is for the main points to be full sentences with parallel construction. The main points will then be "road signs" for the hearers - signals that they have arrived at a new division in the sermon. While alliteration, assonance, or some logical or chronological pattern may help the audience to remember the sermon, the points should not be so cleverly stated that the hearers wind up admiring the menu rather than the meal.

A good outline has balance. Each point receives approximately equal development. A preacher who has three points and spends fifteen minutes on the first one must either preach too long or neglect at least one and probably both of his other points. If one point requires inordinate attention (related to the other points in the sermon), that point probably justifies a sermon devoted exclusively to it.

A good outline has progression. It moves in appropriate and connected sequence. "For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, and after that the full corn in the ear" (Mark 4:28). There is instruction before exhortation and explanation before application. The hearers thoughts and understanding advance as the sermon advances. If the points are too much alike, the sermon either spins its wheels or goes around in circles. If the sermon does not advance, the hearers lose interest. Few things are more irritating than a Sunday driver with nowhere to go and all day to get there, unless it is a sermon with the same characteristics.

A good outline has brevity. This does not mean that an outline must be only a few lines. It does mean that an outline must not have too many main points. Too many points will get lost. They will not be remembered. A sermon with too many points is all skeleton and no flesh - not very appealing.

A good outline has a conclusion. Points that are related and move in meaningful sequence lead to a conclusion. Unrelated points with no meaningful sequence leave the hearers wondering what the whole exercise was about. The preacher who aims at nothing is apt to hit it.

While outlining is not the only factor involved in determining the effectiveness of the sermon (e.g., language use, illustrations, and delivery are also important), every well­organized sermon is prepared with an outline. Developing outlining skills is a must for the preacher who wants his audience to remember his sermons.

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Published June 1997