Writing an article on something so obvious as, “It’s good to outline a sermon,” is akin to announcing, “Life is good, trees are tall, flowers are pretty.”
But, for the right-brainers (like me) out there who struggle with this, things are not quite so obvious or simple. Anyone who ever heard the Granddaddy of all Right-Brain Preachers, the inimitable Calvin Miller, has seen upclose and personal the two great sides of “out of the overflow preaching” which occupied this space last time: a) It’s a delight to hear; b) It’s impossible to follow. That is to say, you love the experience, but could not reproduce it in a thousand years.
Pastors know the experience of listening to a sermon with a perfect outline, and then — sooner or later, to one degree or other — preaching that same message to their people in the same way. Preachers with massive followings have sometimes heard their own sermons coming back at them from well-established pulpits, using their own outline and stories. The legendary J. Harold Smith, whose sermon, “God’s Three Deadlines,” was about as well-known as was R. G. Lee’s, “Pay Day Someday,” once preached his sermon in a church where some lady told him afterwards, “That is our preacher’s sermon and he delivered it better than you.”
No one, however, does that with an “overflow” sermon, the kind more related to William Faulkner’s “stream of consciousness” style than to any seminary class on hermeneutics. In fact — and this was the thrust of our previous article — even the preacher cannot repeat the sermon in the same way if he wishes to preach it again.
An outline is the only way to go if you would preach a sermon a second time. Otherwise, you are lost in the woods.
I have a sermon which the Lord literally gave me some 10 years ago, and which I have preached perhaps 20 times since, titled “Five Things God Wants You to Know About the Rest of Your Life.” That’s what makes it so preachable to me: five things. Here they are:
1) God has big plans for your life: earthly and heavenly.
2) He’s not going to tell you what they are. The bad (really tough) you couldn’t handle, and the good (really wonderful) you would mess up.
3) He’s getting you ready for the future right now. Which explains the boot camp you may be going through.
4) Your job is to be faithful today where He put you. To bloom where you were planted.
5) He will not force His plans on you. You have to choose every day of your life that “today, I will live for Thee, O Lord.”
Having that outline allowed me to type all of that without digging into files for notes. Those points are tattooed on my heart, the results of over 60 years of following Christ and a half-century of ministry. Speaking those five points is like naming my three children and eight grandchildren. They are part of me and I of them.
I have a sermon on fellowship in the church, based on Acts 2:41-47, titled, “I’ve Come for Fellowship.” The primary point is that 95 percent of the first-timers through the doors of your church on a typical Sunday are not there for the good preaching or to “find God.” They’ve come for fellowship. Which is to say, they are looking for a people who love the Lord, love one another and will love them and bring them into the interior life of the church family.
After telling a story to establish that “95 percent of the first-time visitors to your church are looking for fellowship,” my four points are:
1) They don’t necessarily know it themselves. In fact, if you visit them next Tuesday, they will tell you they are looking for a church with a great program of music or preaching or missions or something else. But the church they join ends up having something far more going for it than those programs: great fellowship.
2) The church doesn’t seem to know it either. We keep doing the wrong thing to get people in. “Pastor, I just feel that if we built a family life gym, the community would come.”
3) The world knows it. The tavern, the sporting events, the concerts all know that the main event is not the only event. People want social interaction.
4) God knows it. He made us this way, and said, “It is not good that man should be alone.”
That, obviously, is not where the sermon ends, but the outline drops me into the heart of the message where I can preach on what goes into making up great Christian fellowship and tell my story (or two) to drive the point home.