How A Sermon Outline Is Different From A Legal Brief

Not long ago, in the middle of a conversation about how to design sermons, an attorney friend of mine chimed in with the oft-repeated mantra:

Tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Tell them.  Tell them what you told them.

We learned that pattern in writing middle school essays.  It was reinforced in composing college papers.  It reached its pinnacle — for my friend at least — in preparing and then arguing legal briefs.

And it’s a pattern we have to unlearn if we’re going to preach in a way that captures the attention of those who hear us and then moves them towards a transformational shift in their lives.

In other words, what works for litigating doesn’t necessarily work for sermonizing.

And before I tell you this new pattern I much prefer, I need to tell you the source of the pattern (see how I’m keeping you in suspense?).  The source is the night I went to an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous; a meeting hosted on the Zoar Road Campus of Good Shepherd.  I attend on occasion to show our church’s support for the mission and ministry of recovery.

Anyway, at this particular meeting, pilgrim after pilgrim said different versions of the same thing:

“I’d be dead if I hadn’t started coming here.”

Two thoughts came immediately to mind:  1) how can we cultivate that level of honest desperation in our LifeGroup ministry? and 2) how can I infuse Gospel proclamation with that same sense of significance?

So how to apply the urgency of that night to preaching?  Here’s a new mantra:

Tell them you’re going to tell them something.

Tell them they’ll die if they don’t get it. 

Keep them hanging a little longer.

Tell them.

After that, you show them in animating ways how the “thing” you told them will renew and redefine their lives.

Seems like a tall order, doesn’t it?

But why else would Paul say “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”  It really IS a matter of life and death, eternally so.