Rescuing the sermon from dead outlines

Skeletons in the pulpit and cadavers in the pews.  –Warren Wiersbe

Have you ever read something and all the bells went off inside you? The author has been reading your thoughts.

That happened to me.

Dr. Warren Wiersbe’s  book Preaching and Teaching with Imagination is autographed to me, but I have no memory of the occasion when that happened. Mostly, I wonder why I delayed reading this incredible book.

Briefly, what he told was this:

Grandma Thatcher sits in church with a number of hurts and spiritual needs. Although she’s lovingly known throughout the congregation as a saint, she gets nothing but harassment and trials at home for her faith. When she gets to church, she needs a word from God.

On this particular morning, the pastor stood at the pulpit and preached from Genesis chapter 9, the main thrust of which was his outline, with all the points beginning with the same letters. The outline — pastors take note! — was excellent, as those things go:

Creation Presented — Genesis 9:1-3

Capital Punishment — Genesis 9:4-7

Covenant Promised — Genesis 9:8-17

Carnality Practiced — Genesis 9:18-23

Consequences Prophesied — Genesis 9:24-29

As she departs the sanctuary, Grandma mutters to herself, “Last week it was all S’s. Today it’s all CP’s.”

She walked out the church that day with her spiritual hunger unabated and returned home to face a hostile husband and endure another week of trials.

Not long after, the pastor had to be out of town and invited a missionary to fill the pulpit. By an odd coincidence, he preached from the same text, Genesis 9. But he took an entirely different approach. Here’s what happened.

The speaker began his sermon by describing a rainstorm he’d experienced while on a missionary trip in the mountains. The congregation chuckled when he said, “I wish Noah had been with us. We could have used him!”

Then he started talking about the storms in human lives, and the compassion in his voice convinced the congregation that he’d been through more than one storm himself. “Storms are a part of life; God made it that way,” he said. “But I’ve learned a secret that’s helped me all these years, and it’s still helping me: Always look for the rainbow. The world looks for the silver lining and sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ but we Christians have something far better than that. Did you ever meet the three men in the Bible who saw rainbows?”

His outline and the message that morning centered on Noah, who saw the rainbow AFTER the storm (Genesis 9), Ezekiel who saw the rainbow IN THE MIDST of the storm (Ezekiel 1), and John, who saw the rainbow BEFORE the storm (Revelation 4:1-3).

He closed his Bible, smiling at the listening congregation, and said, “Dear friends, you and I will experience storms until we are called to heaven, and then all storms will cease. Expect the storms and don’t be afraid of them, because God is always faithful. Just remember God’s message to us today: Always look for the rainbows. Depend on the faithfulness of God. Sometimes He’ll show you the rainbow after the storm, sometimes during the storm, and sometimes before the storm. But He will never fail you.”

Now there, Grandma Thatcher thought, was a word from the Lord that nourished her soul.

What was the difference in the two sermons? I mean, other than the fact that one fed the spiritual needs of the congregation and the other lay there as lifeless as a pile of bones.

Here is how Dr. Wiersbe analyzes the difference.

In his preaching ministry, (the pastor) took skeletons into the pulpit and ended with cadavers in the pews — undernourished saints who had nothing to chew on but outlines. The guest missionary speaker took both concepts and images into the pulpit and wove them together in such a way that his listeners’ ears became eyes and they saw the truth. In seeing the truth, their imagination was cleansed and nourished; and they were spiritually satisfied and encouraged within.

I can’t prove it statistically, but I have a feeling that many, if not most, of the people in our churches suffer from starved imaginations. (The main evidence for that) is the great gulf that exists between what the church preaches and what the church practices…. (After all), religious sin and starved imaginations go together.

For those who do not know, Dr. Warren Wiersbe was one of the outstanding expository preacher-teachers of  the last half-century. After pastoring Chicago’s Moody Memorial Church, he followed Theodore Epp as the teacher for the Back to the Bible international radio ministry. His commentaries on every book of the Bible (the “BE” series — e.g., Philippians is “Be Joyful”) belongs in the library of every pastor and Sunday School teacher.

As a young pastor trying to find my way in the ministry, I quickly found that I despised those neat little sermon outlines all beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. Had you asked, I could not have told you why. I bought several books by El Paso’s Herschel Ford with their “simple sermons for simple preachers” (that was the joke at the time).  His outlines were huge on power, plan, procedure, promise, etc etc.  I found them completely useless.

Without knowing exactly why, I found that a message on the Principle of something, the Power of that thing, the Purpose of it, and the Practice of it seemed lifeless. The dictionary will give you another dozen P’s for points of that sermon. Doubtless, untold numbers of pastors have done that very thing, and felt they were giving their flocks great preaching.  Not according to Dr. Wiersbe.

Wiersbe says rather brutally that “skeletons in the pulpit (produce) cadavers in the pews.”

When I’m preaching, I suggest that audiences take notes not of the outline I’m using but whatever the Spirit says to them, something they want to remember or look up or do afterwards.

My favorite sermon outlines are statements of principles or insights, but definitely not “points.” For instance, in the well-known story of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus and tore up the roof to get him into the room (Mark 2), this is my outline–

–People are more important than things. (So, they tore open the roof.)

–The spiritual is more important than the physical. (So, Jesus forgave the paralytic before healing him.)

–A demonstration is more important than a profession. (So, Jesus backed up His words with the demonstration of His power.)

Each statement is memorable and can stand alone.  That kind of outline gives your people something solid to carry into the next week.

We will not all preach alike.  Nowhere close to it. And that’s good.

The God who created us made us individuals and made each of us creative. He gave us imaginations and minds to use them.

I have two suggestions for the pastor who wants to improve on his sermon outlines:

–1) He should begin sermon preparation early, even weeks in advance.

–And 2), he should  reflect on that message frequently, always with notebook handy.

“I can’t give weeks to preparing one sermon,” I hear a pastor say. My answer is: sure you can. You can begin thinking and studying and praying about that message weeks in advance, just as you will all the other messages you’re working on at the same time.

Remember who you are praying to: The Most Creative Force in the Universe. If you doubt this for a second, look around at the marvelous world He made. Consider the varieties of flowers, of animals, of humans, of trees, of anything. God clearly does not like to repeat Himself. He loves variety.

So, ask Him to help you see that Word He has given you in a new light. After all, when you ask the Holy Spirit to assist you in preparing a message, you are in contact with the Head Librarian of all the sermons ever preached. He knows and remembers every single sermon anyone ever delivered on that text. The Holy Spirit is the Ultimate Source.

When you ask the Lord for help, you are going straight to the Top.

Give God time to work, time to get through to you. After all, the best sermons you will ever preach are not microwaved, but marinated.

Be prepared for Him to answer. Be ready to jump out of bed in the middle of the night and jot down that great insight the Holy Spirit sends your way. Why didn’t He send it earlier that day when you sat at your desk or computer? Perhaps your spirit was not quiet enough to listen. Now that you are in bed with your mind relaxed, He penetrates your subconscious with that insight.

Cut yourself some slack now. This is a lifelong learning process and the results will be spotted, especially at first. Don’t be surprised if some of your sermons are duds while others impress you as the best things ever said on that text.

Never lose sight of all the Grandma Thatchers who in your congregation. They appear saintly and may be adored as the godliest members of your flock. But inwardly and privately, they fight battles unknown to all but a few. Grandma came to church today not for a neat outline, but for a word from God.

Let’s agree that we will bring no more skeletons into the pulpit.

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