Why I Stopped Outlining Sermons

by Marion Clark

If there is anything that is drilled into all budding preachers, it is the importance of developing the sermon outline. The outline must preferably have three major points with one overriding theme. There ought to be an illustration and application for each point. There are, of course, the introduction with its enticing hook and the conclusion that leads to conviction and action. But above all, develop the outline.

When I converted to expository preaching, I remained devoted to the outline. Previously my preaching style had been the platform method. The Scripture might set up the topic for me, but I then developed my main points and argument through whatever means. Perhaps it was a book I was reading; perhaps I drew from ideas circling about in entertainment. I might mine other Scripture for ideas: “Where else can I find something on prayer?” By whatever means, I diligently worked on building an outline. When I moved to expository preaching, the outline approach still directed me. Now my concern was outlining the Scripture text. The intent was to understand the text, but also to develop a message that could be easily followed by my congregation. Three points was always the goal. If they could begin with the same letter, then all the better.

And then the day came that I let the outline go. Well, almost. I use the same outline for every sermon: Introduction, Text, Lessons. My focus in preparation is exegeting the text. Even then I resist the urge to develop an outline. I will scan the passage, looking for key words and phrases. I will try to pick up on the flow of the narrative or argument, then move through studying verse by verse. But still, I shy away from forming an outline.

What is my problem with outlines?

In regard to Scripture study, I found that I easily moved too quickly to an outline of the text before I had really understood that text. A, B, and C often seem plain enough on a first and second reading, but then, as I break down the text’s argument, get down to what the words really mean (and discover the words that have been added or deleted); as I refuse to let a question about the meaning go until I have resolved it, I find that my neat outline doesn’t quite fit the real flow of the text. If I had stuck with the outline, I would more likely make the text flow to meet my outline points. Worse, I would have missed the “aha” moments, when real insight broke through. “Stay with text; stay with text,” I tell myself. It does not matter that my application will have to change. It does not matter that I will have to change the closing hymn. Stay with the text and let the real treasure break through.

One could say that resisting the urge to develop an outline early on allows me to get to the real outline of the text. Now I can work up the sermon outline with its helpful memory bullet points and illustrations. Well, maybe. It depends on what those “helpful” features really help with. As often as not, they end up obscuring the argument or narrative of the text. Perhaps the problem is not having an outline, but the type of outline. The majority of us have learned the following formula: Point A, illustration, application; Point B, illustration, application; Point C, illustration, application. The conclusion then wraps everything up with some kind of call for a response.

For me, in my own preparation and then delivery, the problem was staying on track with the flow of the text. I faced the recurring refrain in my mind of, “now, where was I?” The better the story illustration the more likely I was to get off track. The final result of good sermons done in this way is that the listeners are more enamored with the outline and the stories, than they are with the text itself. How they greet the preacher after the service gives it away. “Preacher, you had some great things to say. That was a great story.” What we should really want to hear is, “I now understand that Scripture. That is a great Scripture text.” What I attempt to do, is to get out of the way as much as possible so that the Scripture itself can be understood and admired. I find I can best do that by focusing on explaining the text all the way through before moving to application. I may have illustrations, but they are illustrations for explaining the meaning of the text, not for making personal application. Stay with the text; stay with the text.

If I stay with the text all the way through in the sermon, by the time I get to the “Lessons,” the application is already anticipated. The congregation has not been fed “points.” They have explored the text with me; they have reasoned out its theme and argument with me. And so, the application becomes self-evident: “Of course that is the application,” my hearers nod. And if the lesson is a hard pill to swallow, at least they accept that it comes from the Scripture text and not my own prejudice. They have seen that I did not force the text into the outline I had already determined.

Breaking free of making up outlines has been a freeing experience for me personally. I am free to dive into the current of the Scripture text and let it take me where it will. I don’t have to force Scripture to fit my neat outline. I don’t have to be “imaginative” with easy-to-memorize points. I just have to be persistent in studying the text until I understand it—really understand it. Sermon preparation is like an adventure. I never quite know where the Scripture will take me, but it will be exhilarating.

Sermon delivery then becomes an invitation to my congregation to join me in the ride. Instead of giving the results of my study, my congregation joins me in the study itself. Instead of handing them a Power Point presentation with three tidy points to take home, I lead them into the depths, the heights, wherever God’s marvelous Word takes us.

Posted in Leadership