In their book, Power in the Pulpit: How to Prepare and Deliver Expository Messages, Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix explain how an effective expository sermon must experience two births—once in the preacher’s study and then again in the preacher’s delivery. Stated another way…the preacher must personally grapple with the biblical text until it changes his heart, and then he must passionately declare the biblical text in such a way that it impacts the hearts of those who hear it.
For many of us, however, our own personal experience reveals a different story. Something goes terribly wrong between the time in our study and our delivery from the pulpit. The exhilaration of grasping the life-changing implications of the text during our weekly study is often lost in the actual communication of the message during our Sunday delivery. Too many of us go to bed on Saturday night bursting with excitement about Sunday’s message only to find ourselves wondering what went wrong by the time Sunday night rolls around. While we may be able to cite valid reasons for such a disheartening and all too common occurrence, one of the main reasons why our sermons fall flat might not appear so obvious—the lack of a well-crafted sermon outline.
Here’s why. Our countless hours of biblical study and sermon preparation have led us on a week-long journey of theological discovery and personal transformation. Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, our hearts have “burned within us” as the Holy Spirit opened our eyes to the transforming reality of the Scriptures. Every pastor who has experienced this also longs for his audience to experience a similar encounter with the text. Why does this not always happen? What might be missing?
Think about it…the goal of expository preaching is to help people read, understand, and obey the Scripture. When we fail to develop a clearly discernible text-driven outline to help our audience understand the text, we miss an opportunity to help them see how clear the biblical message really is. The Bible is not a rambling mishmash of disconnected theological ideas. It is a precisely written record of God’s activity in human history. Its message is living and active, not disconnected and confusing. Perhaps more than we would care to admit, our people often get lost and/or frustrated by our expository rambling, confusing exegesis, and disconnected theological musings. We can attribute their confusion to spiritual apathy, dullness of heart, or even their inability to know good preaching when they hear it; but if we are honest, we will recognize that the real blame might actually rest squarely upon our own shoulders. Maybe we’re not the clear communicators we think we are? It may hurt to admit, but perhaps a key reason why we experience a letdown between our preparation and our delivery is due to our inability to make the text clear to our congregation.
This is why a sermon outline is so valuable. A few well-marked biblical guideposts in our sermon preparation may be what we need to keep our audience from getting frustrated and lost. These guideposts are nothing more than a discernible text-driven sermon outline. A well-crafted outline will enable our audience to follow the flow of the biblical text in such a way as to help them to see how the many ideas of the passage lead ultimately to the main idea of the passage. It will also enable them to see the sermon as a carefully planned journey through the text rather than a rambling and disconnected lecture about the text. In other words, an outline will serve as a tool by which you can take your audience by the hand and help them to see that the Bible was written to be understood.
So if your preaching needs a little first-aid, it might be time to go back to the outline drawing board. Here are some things to keep in mind as you develop an outline:
- Discover what the author is saying first (subject) and then you will see how he says what he is saying (outline). In other words, the text must always shape the outline…never let the outline shape the text.
- A sermon outline is not a pegboard upon which the preacher hangs his ideas. Instead it accurately reveals how the biblical author communicates God’s ideas.
- Never allow an outline to eclipse the beauty of the various biblical genres. For example, don’t be so consumed with your propositional outline that you fail to preach the particulars of a biblical narrative.
- The purpose of the outline is to lead people to know that God has spoken, not to reveal how cleverly the preacher can preach.
- When the outline flows from the text, it frees the preacher from an unhealthy dependence upon notes because the text literally becomes his notes.