The Sermon’s Skeletal System

Warren Wiersbe calls the sermon outline the “recipe” for the message. If you have that and nothing more, he says, you do not have a meal for your people; you have a recipe for them. Still lots of work 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 of all, it needs the breath of life to be breathed into it. And, let us not make the mistake of thinking the first part–the fleshing out of the message–we can do on our own while the second part–giving it life–is God’s. 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. (Notice that I’m not naming him or the magazine. If you’d like to know, send me a note–joe@joemckeever.com. We should not get hung up on whether we agree or disagree with a pastor on everything in order 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. The fact is, sometimes you’ll have trouble finding one in my sermons. Instead, consider jotting down anything you want to remember, something you want to look up, or something 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 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 which you want the people to do.

After all, numerous 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, ever (etc) 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 us when we hear the Word, believe the Word, discuss it, love it, memorize it, quote it, preach it, distribute it, or dissect it. God’s blessings are given only to 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.”

Okay, 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. If you wrote them down and walked away, you would be carrying nothing with you.

The preacher/writer says, “Make your points ‘action steps.'”

Finally, my brethren, try different ways of outlining a message.

Experiment with it. They used to say about Clarence McCartney that once you read his exposition of a scripture, you either used his outline or took another text. I’ve said that about Warren Wiersbe, a precious brother gifted with seeing the shape and outline of a text that somehow eludes the rest of us.

The only trouble with that is that no one–not Spurgeon, not Stott, nor 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!) So, He surely knows the full range of what can be done with a text, knows 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.

For that, you will want to give prominence to sermon preparation, allow time to mulling 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 keep reminding yourself that the Lord wants you to succeed in preaching His message far more than you can imagine; so take advantage of that.

* * * * * * * * * *

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 8ff) 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 less clever that will feed our people. Thank you, Gary Wilkerson.

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