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The Most Powerful Sermon Outlines … Aren’t Sermon Outlines

We preachers often find ourselves in the midst of a quest for sermon outlines.  Many of us think if we can just find the right outline, the right scaffolding from which to build the rest of the message, then everything else will fall in place.

In fact, as Easter approaches, I remember one resurrection sermon from yesteryear in which I preached that Jesus stills rolls away stones and does so unexpectedly, tenaciously, lovingly, and eternally.  Get the near-rhyme in all that?

But what happens when you move from sermons with multiple points to those with one point?  When your sermon is built around a single bottom line, as mine are these days, how in the world can you outline that?  How can you possibly outline one thing and one thing only?

In that case, I have found it helpful to move from thinking of sermon outlines to focusing on sermon journeys. Sermon journeys in which the preacher is a tour-guide with the following agenda:

Get on the bus

Get into the Word

Get to the bottom line

Get to life.

Here’s what I mean.

 

Get on the bus

If you’re a tour guide, the early moments of the message are to get as many people as possible in the room on board with you.  You can’t get the people to their destination if they never get on the bus with you in the first place.  That’s why the majority of my messages begin with an anecdote or experience or observation followed by words like “you know what I’m saying.  You’ve lived this.  Some of you are living this right now.”

My upcoming Easter Sunday message, for example, is going to begin with a memory of a most traumatic Easter Sunday from exactly 20 years ago, and how that incident resulted in a perspective that the worst thing is the same as the final thing.

Get Into The Word

After getting everyone on board, the preacher-as-tour guide moves from the particulars of human life into the excavation of Scriptural texts.  And in this movement of the sermon, the preacher will want to share with congregation the joy of discovery:  by that I mean, please give a window into the rewards of deep bible study and the refreshment that comes from gleaning new insights into old texts.

That means, of course, that you are both open to and committed to that process of Scripture discovery — and willing to share both the pleasures and the struggles of getting where you done got!

 

Get To The Bottom Line

After moving from get on the bus to get into Scripture it’s time to get to the bottom line.  The bottom line is the one thing you want people to remember, to internalize, and to apply to their lives.  Crafting bottom lines that are theologically true, verbally compelling, and personally applicable is difficult but rewarding work.  In searching for the right wording, I often bounce options off of my Good Shepherd colleague Chris Thayer — doing so not only helps me find the right landing place but helps him become a wordsmither in his own right.  Some bottom lines I’ve gotten to in recent weeks include:

The harder the struggle, the louder the praise.

God frustrates you in this life so you will anticipate the next one.

We over-identify with celebrities because it’s easier to follow their lives than to live our own.

When you take what belongs to God, who cleans up after you?

Truth isn’t a what.  It’s a who.

His perfect finish means your fresh start.

 

Get To Life

At this stage of design, the hard work has been done.  What remains is to get to life.  How does the bottom line impact the daily lives of your hearers?  To what can you compare it?  In whom have you seen it come alive?  When has it altered your perception not only of your life, but also of your God?  And what concrete, sticky action point is there for the congregation to take home with them?

By the end of the journey, I pray that the preacher is exhausted and the congregation is exhilarated.  You’re exhausted because you’ve poured best into design and delivery.  They’re exhilarated because that’s what the proclamation of the word of God does in people’s lives.

And the next day, when it’s Monday and you’ve got to start all over again, you can rest easy.  You don’t have to devise a great sermon outline.

You just need to design a compelling sermon journey.

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