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How to Format a Sermon Outline

sermon outline

“What should I take to the pulpit?” This is one of the most common contemplated conundrums for preachers. The second you step to the pulpit, you are going to want the hours of your sermon preparation to be close to your heart and your fingertip. Yet, some seminary classes teach that preaching with a sermon outline is a weakness. They say that you should mount the pulpit like a wild stallion— saddle-less and ready to ride into the sunset with passion and ease.

Is it really a good idea for you to take nothing to the pulpit? On the contrary, should you take a manuscript? How about an annotated outline? A simple outline? Nothing more than a sticky note?

Each preacher is different.

There is not a one-size-fits most solution here. The best solution is to take the perfect amount of notes that will allow your personality to be used by God while allowing His Word to be clearly explained to His people.

The Length of Your Sermon Outline Has to be Right for Your Personality

Knowing what you should take to the pulpit will take trial and error; yet, I assure you — the right solution can be found! When formatting the notes you will take with you to the pulpit, you must ensure that you are as comfortable in them as an old pair of slippers. You should not feel confined to your notes, nor should your notes be so freeing that you cannot keep a good train of thought.

Some preachers will need a full manuscript that is well memorized so he doesn’t read; by having it all written out and memorized, this kind of preacher will feel most comfortable in front of an audience. Others should take minimal notes with them to ensure they are personal, free-flowing and natural, never reading aloud, laborious page-after-page.

I have been preaching for 22 years, and I’ve tried every kind of notes in the pulpit. From the back of napkins to printed PowerPoint slides; from 4,000 word manuscripts to a one-page outline. I’ve tried them all on for size and found the best solution for me is a detailed outline form. My outlines are between 600 to 800 words, bulleted with detailed hierarchy, 1.75 spaced, and only fill one page. I only recently went back to this way of preparing my pulpit notes after six years of manuscripting.

How Does a Preacher Decide Which Type of Sermon Outline to Use?

Start by thinking through your unique make-up outside of the pulpit. Are you quick on your feet? If someone asked you to take a passage and give a devotional thought without notice, could you do it? Do you find that you can organize your thoughts well in a personal conversation? Do you think in chunks of content that can be easily explained? Or, are you more of a processor? Do you need time to think about something before speaking clearly? Do you need help making complete sentences that are easy for the listener to make sense of?

I believe the way you communicate outside the pulpit can give a clue as to how you can best communicate in the pulpit. If you need to have everything really thought through before you speak, then maybe a manuscript is best. If having fluidity in your mind allows you to speak more clearly and passionately, then you should outline. Sometimes this changes by the seasons in your life.

For example, I had to manuscript my sermon for six years as I was leading Grace Chapel through revitalization. I needed to know all the words and transitions were thought through because I had so many other things I was managing in addition to my sermon on Sunday. I needed to know all the words of the sermon were locked in. As our church has become  healthier, and I’ve been able to primarily focus on preaching on Sunday morning, I teach off of an outline, and that is perfectly fine.

The goal is to allow your unique voice to be used by God as you preach His Word to His people. Your uniqueness is your “Ethos,” as Aristotle called it. It is “the personal character of the speaker as projected in the speech: the orator should seem trustworthy.” If you have any sense of being inauthentic, untrue to God, others, or yourself, people will smell that out quickly. God has chosen to use your quirks and qualities to communicate; He doesn’t need to— he could convey His truth in a much more standardized way. Yet, he chose to allow your unique makeup to be a part of the delivery process.

When choosing which kind of notes to take to the pulpit, you must choose that which allows you to be yourself — yet always be true to the text. At this stage in my preaching, I am much more myself and true to the text if I do not labor over a manuscript. Rather, I fill one page of an outline (to the brim!) and write all over my ESV double-spaced Inductive Edition. This was not the case for six years of my ministry, but it is now.

My current template is as follows:

  • One page, landscape
  • Two columns, no line, 0.25 space between
  • Margins of 0.3 all the way around
  • Lato Font, size 11 (my favorite!)
  • 1.75 line spacing

If I have any endnotes or “Appendix” items, those will be on the second page. Otherwise, everything has to fit on that one page. Here is my blank template in Word. If you would like to see a completed sermon outline that I take to the pulpit, you can do so here.

This May Take Time to Figure Out

There is not a Bible verse that specifically tells us how to do this— if there was, I would have quoted it. This is purely a preacher’s wisdom issue. You can choose the best setup for your pulpit notes, but be aware that it may take several times of trying different formats. I encourage you to try something three or four times before you ditch it.

Now for the most important part: No one cares how pretty your notes are or how well you formatted your work. All they care is that you show them Christ through the text you are preaching and the unique perspective that you bring. Do not ever let your notes get in the way of the text doing the deeper work on your heart. If you allow the passage to pierce your heart, it will be a mighty sword in the pulpit.

This article originally appeared here.

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Josh Weidmann as been writing and speaking for the Church since he was a teenager. He has served as the teaching, associate and senior pastor in several different churches and now is the Senior Pastor of Grace Chapel in Englewood. He is a proud husband to his best friend, Molly and father of five kids! His books, blog and speaking ministry can be found at www.joshweidmann.com