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O Is For Outline :: Warren Wiersbe

Ask the average preacher what he does all week and he will probably reply, "I work on my sermon outline." When we are not being interrupted by other demands on our time, we study the Word, meditate on it and pray for the Lord to give us the message (or messages) we need for the Lord's Day.

But some preachers would be shocked to discover that many of the people who attend worship services pay little attention to the packaging. What these saints want is the message, presented in such a way that they can turn learning into living and enter the new week with confidence. An outline is not a message any more than a menu is a meal or a road map is a journey or a blueprint is a building. Like themenu, the map and the blueprint, the outline has an important role to play, but it takes more than the outline to produce a message from the Lord. In fact, the wrong kind of outline might actually hinder the people from understanding what the preacher is trying to say to them.

We learned in Homiletics 101 that there are four characteristics of a good sermon: unity, clarity, honesty and vitality. All of these can either be expressed by the outline or suppressed because of the outline. The difference is up to us.


Unity

Unity means that there is a single important purpose and theme governing the material, whether you call it the purpose statement, the proposition or the Big Idea. Of course, we always seek to magnify Jesus Christ and tell people how to be saved (1 Cor. 2:2), because Jesus Christ is the theme of all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27). If you have a problem doing this, read Charles Spurgeon's sermons and follow his example. "The grand object of the Christian ministry is the glory of God," he told his ministerial students. "Our great object of glorifying God is, however, to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls." (see chapter 23 of Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students.) The preacher must look at each sermon outline that he prepares and ask, "Where is Jesus? Where is the cross?" Once that is settled, he must then ask, "What is the backbone that holds this skeleton together? What am I really trying to say? Is it worth saying?"

It's amazing how much "clutter" gets into our sermons, material that has nothing to do with the purpose of the message. Some preachers are gifted at going on detours. While preaching, they suddenly get an idea and begin to pursue it, and the needy sheep wait patiently while the shepherd is off chasing rabbits. The preacher usually misses the rabbits and finds himself in a homiletical swamp from which he finds it difficult to escape. Spurgeon used to say, "Suddenness leads to shallowness," but sometimes it leads us into water over our heads. There are many good things we can say in our sermons, but we must be selective and use only that material that contributes to the purpose of the sermon. The outline can help us stay on track and avoid those time-wasting detours. While responding to a cry for help, the lifeguard doesn't first walk to the snack shop and order a cup of coffee. The preacher, like the lifeguard, is involved in matters of life and death, and sermonic detours are very costly.


Clarity

Clarity simply means that the presentation is clear and our listeners understand what we are saying. The Holy Spirit uses the development of the message (the outline) as well as the preacher's vocabulary and style of delivery to get the congregation's attention, hold it and influence the people to want to do God's will. The pulpit is no place for idle chitchat, stand-up comedy or complicated theological jargon. We preach to express, not to impress. Nor is the pulpit a place for outlines that call attention to themselves and distract from the truth of the message. It is possible for people to get the outline and completely miss the message! Instead of leaving the sanctuary saying "We have such a wonderful God," they are remarking, "That was a clever outline."

This is the place to put my head in the noose and warn against one of the most serious diseases known among preachers - "alliteration addiction." In our salad days, most of us were fascinated by alliterated outlines and the preachers who prepared and preached them. But as we matured, we discovered that we were spending more time with dictionaries and thesauruses than we were with the Word of God. In our attempts to be clever, we are often prone to wrap what we think are attractive "preaching packages," but there is nothing in the box to feed the people. The closer a sermon is to everyday normal conversation, the easier the message will be understood and the more effective will be its impact. Thankfully, I have no friends who use alliteration when they phone me, and I'm glad my doctors just explain things to me in a simple manner and don't prepare alliterated speeches.

Let's assume that the Rev. Dr. Al Litterate wants to preach from Psalm 23. The obvious approach is to tell the people, "When Jesus is your shepherd and you are one of His obedient sheep, you have two wonderful assurances: you will not want, for He provides for you (vv. 1-3), and you will not fear, because He is with you (vv. 4-6)." Or, if yo insist on alliteration, "We have provision and we have protection." That's a simple outline that doesn't distract from the text but helps to open it up and make it meaningful. If you want to avoid the popular letter P, use "sufficiency" and "security," because it amounts to the same thing. But Brother Al isn't satisfied with such simplicity and directness, so he tinkers and twists and fiddles around until he ends up with:

  1. The Shepherd who belongs to us - 1a
  2. The sufficiency that blesses us - 1b
  3. The sleep that becalms us - 2a
  4. The satisfaction that braces us - 2b
  5. The short-cut that beckons us - 3
  6. The shadow that befalls us - 4
  7. The sustenance that bolsters us - 5a
  8. The salve that bathes us - 5b
  9. The sip that benefits us - 5c
  10. The security that buoys us - 6

What's wrong with this outline? For one thing, it is too long, and it manages to hide what the text is really saying. Sleep and rest are not the same thing (#3), the anointing oil is not salve, nor is the sheep bathed in it (#8), and the sheep gets more than a sip of the water, for the cup is running over (#9). But even more, the forced alliteration makes the outline so artificial that preaching it almost destroys the true exposition and application of the Word. When David wrote about the green grass and still water, he was referring to the necessities of life, because sheep live on grass and water. This is the Old Testament version of Phil. 4:19 and Matt. 6:33. To spiritualize the idea of pastures and water into "victorious Christian living" is to rob the text of its message. The sheep are content because they know the shepherd cares for them. God's people are usually miserable because they really don't believe the Lord cares for them, 1 Peter 5:7 notwithstanding. When I was a seminarian, Dr. Lloyd M. Perry used to warn us: "Gentlemen, alliteration will sell you short every single time." He was right. We end up either twisting the English language or twisting the Scriptures to say what we want them to say, and both activities are wrong. Work hard on clarity and simplicity, and you will remain loyal to the Queen's English and the King's message.


Honesty

Honesty is essential for the dedicated preacher of the Bible, because the outline must be both true to the text and true in the preacher's life. "True to the text" includes not only the wording and meaning of the passage but also its literary genre. You don't deal with the poetry of the psalms in the same manner as you deal with historical narratives, parables, symbols and doctrinal explications. Campbell Morgan once wrote, "I heard a capital sermon, with which I did not agree, based on a text that had no relation to the subject." All of us have heard sermons like that and perhaps even preached a few. Paul's words in 2 Cor. 4:2 need to be taken to heart: "We reject all shameful and underhanded methods. We do not try to trick anyone, and we do not distort the Word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know that" (New Living Translation). The text is "the Boss" and we are the servants.

But Paul reminds us that, in preparing the sermon, we must be not only honest with the text but also with the Lord, our people and ourselves. On more than one occasion, the preacher with integrity may have to interrupt his studies and make right something that stands between him and the Lord or the Lord's people, and sometimes the obstacle is a family matter that demands personal apologies. "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Ps. 66:18 NIV) can be applied to preaching as well as to prayer. After all, preaching is an act of worship, and we don't want to give an unacceptable sacrifice to the Lord (Mal. 1:6-14).

Perhaps one of the greatest breaches of homiletical integrity is plagiarism, passing off someone else's material as our own. You may have read about the minister who Sunday by Sunday was preaching his way through a book of sermons written by a well-known preacher. What the thief didn't know was that a man in the congregation owned the same book and had read it. As the man went out of church one morning, he said to his pastor, "That was a fine message," and the pastor thanked him. Then the man added, "Next week's is good, too!" As we prepare to preach, we do a great deal of reading and studying, but though we milk many cows, we churn our own butter. If we quote a pithy statement, we document it; if we borrow an outline or an illustration, we document it; but we never write our name on another preacher's sermon.


Vitality

Vitality simply means life and growth. The outline must show development, it must have expansiveness and excitement. The Word of God is "living and powerful," but we manage to make it embalmed and powerless. Preaching means sharing the excitement of the Word of God. On the Day of Pentecost, the crowd thought the apostles and other believers were full of new wine. Would anybody accuse the average church today of being full of new wine? I found this item in a church bulletin in Florida: "The pastor wishes to thank Brother….for rewiring the pulpit." How many pulpits need rewiring? Only the Lord knows, but we can find out if we really want to.

Vitality comes when we preach in the present tense. Outlines that have points such as "David faced the enemy - David sought the Lord - David won the battle," and so on, are fine for a Sunday School class but not for the church congregation. Teaching has to do with content, but preaching involves both content and intent. Preaching in the present tense means taking ancient history and turning it into present reality. The Holy Spirit is the only person on earth today who was there when everything happened that's recorded in Scripture, and only He can help us make Scripture live today and transform the lives of people. Nobody attends church to find what happened to David or Peter or Paul. They are concerned about what will happen to them and what God can do to help them.

An outline that's alive to us and is written on our hearts will also be written by the Spirit on the hearts of the listeners, if in our preparation and presentation we depend on Him (2 Cor. 3:1-3). "Speaking the truth in love" is the secret (Eph. 4:15) - a mind filled with truth and a heart filled with love. If that doesn't make the truth come alive, nothing will! No living sermon outline is ever "finished." It grows and changes as the preacher matures, and if the sermon is worth preaching once, it's worth preaching fifty times in the years to come. A true outline is a dialog between the preacher and the Word, the Word and the congregation and the congregation and the preacher. What an exciting arrangement! How can a sermon be dull in that kind of an arena!

"He sent his word and healed them" (Ps. 107.20 NKJV).

Give them the medicine, not the prescription. You will have a healthier church.

©2003 Warren W. Wiersbe. All rights reserved.

Author:Warren Wiersbe

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