7 Steps to Writing a Sermon – Part Three – Building an Outline

sermon prep Jan 14, 2019

In this series of posts, we are discovering a practical guide to go from a blank page to ready for Sunday in seven steps. If you work through the seven action steps in this series, you’ll have a sermon written and be ready to go. In Part 2 of this series we looked at second step which is to dig into Scripture. You can check that out here. If you missed part 1 you can check it out here. For today, let’s dive into step three:

Step 3: Build an outline. At this point in your study you have established a topic, title and hook. You have thoroughly studied the primary passage of scripture and other supporting texts. You have taken notes on what you’ve observed from the passages. As you’ve taken notes your thoughts have began to form around what you would want to communicate in a sermon. Some of the heavy lifting is over because at this point you’ve done so much foundational work that the sermon structure should come naturally. If it doesn’t at first, it will the more you do this. This, like any other endeavor, requires practices to hone your skill and become expert level.

In this step you will put it all together to build an outline. This will be the basic bones of your message. I will break down all the elements of an outline and show you how to put yours together.

Determine your Main Idea (bottom line, key thought). You will decide on a main idea or a bottom line which will anchor your message and satisfy the tension you built with your hook. Remember the hook is designed to entice interest. Your topic may not entice interest on its own but a solid hook will. The reason a hook entices interest is because it points to a problem and teases a solution. 

Going back to our example sermon on worry, our hook was to “discover how to ditch worry and experience lasting peace.” The tension this hook begins building is that each person has worries. I will spend time massaging that tension at the beginning of the message. The solution it teases is the idea that there is a way to experience lasting peace. It teases it because it doesn’t say how yet. It merely points to the solution implying that the sermon will ultimately guide the listener to solve the problem.

Your main idea states in one phrase how your hook will be applied and answered in your sermon. It is the key idea for you listeners to walk away with. It is the “if you don’t pay attention to anything else I say, listen to this one thing” anchor that holds your sermon together.

In the example sermon, the main idea could simply be: To experience lasting peace, give your worries to the Prince of Peace. This answers the “what” of the sermon. What do I ultimately want people to walk away with? In this case, if nothing else, I want my listeners to know that the way to ditch their worries is not to try harder to overcome them, it’s not to put them out of their mind, it’s not to think more positively, it is to thrust them on God and allow him to guard their hearts and minds as they rest in Christ.

The remainder of the outline supports the main idea and fleshes “how” to apply it. I wrote an article that details my 4-step method to outlining sermons. You can check it out here, but I’ll summarize the steps:

Build tension and create interest. This is a concept that Andy Stanley developed (and I wrote about in this article). Put simply, building tension involves getting my listeners interested in the content before I start teaching it. Tension building begins with your title and hook. You continue to build tension throughout the message and especially in the beginning of the message.

In my example sermon on worry, I would touch on a number of ways we worry and a number of things we worry about. My goal here is to get everyone to perk up and say, “I can relate to that.” or “Yeah, I worry about that too.” I want to give people a reason to keep listening and tension is the way to do that.

Resolve the tension with the text. After I have built tension by presenting a problem, question, or struggle that everyone can relate to, I point people to the text for the solution to the problem or answer to the question. Taking people to the text empowers them to know the heart of God, understand the gospel and live in light of it.

At this point I’ve studied Philippians 4:6-7 thoroughly and know how I want to walk people through that passage. I’m not going to attempt anything complicated or fancy because the passage is so straight-forward. Instead, I will walk my listeners through his arguments and ultimately show how this passage points to the solution to worry. I would walk them through this basic logical flow conversationally using the text as my guide and making points along the way:

Don’t worry about anything. Then what should I do?

Pray about everything. How?

Ask God for what you need.

Beg him for relief from what worries you.

Be thankful for what he’s done. Then what?

God’s inexplicable peace will guard your heart and mind from worry.

I may decide to massage the wording a bit and see how it would look visually, how it sounds when I say it, and how I can best communicate these ideas in a way that gives people the essence of what Paul is arguing for while pointing to the ultimate goal of getting people to experience lasting peace, by giving their worries to the Prince of Peace.

Teach and illustrate how to apply it. As I walk people through the text and begin to make points my goal is to teach how to apply it. This section is where I make my point or points and give illustrations that help make sense of them. In step four I will show you what to do with each point you make so that your listeners fully understand them and can do something with them.

Cast vision and inspire. This is where I cast a vision of what it would look like if we all applied the main idea. This involves painting a picture of how different our church would be or how much freer we would feel or how much more of an impact we could make on our community if we all were to be obedient to what God has shown us in his word through this sermon.

In my example sermon I might say something like, “Can you imagine what God could do through a group of people who have truly given their worries to him? Everyone around you is wrecked with anxiety and worries, what if you were the one person who had an inexplicable peace. Imagine the impact you could have on those around you. They would be drawn to that.”

If you want to discover more in-depth how to put these methods into practice, check out my new book Become A Preaching Ninja: Sharpen Your Skills, Hone Your Craft, Maximize Your Impact as a Preacher. It dives deeper into this topic and provides you with a systematic, streamlined approach to sermon prep and delivery that will save you time and help spur your listeners toward life-change.

You try it. Take your topic, title and hook that you picked on step one and refer to your study of scripture to begin building an outline for your message. What are your biggest challenges? Which step is the easiest? Which is the most difficult?


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