My 4 Step Method for Outlining Sermons

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Recently I received a question from a reader regarding how I outline my sermons and what I use for notes while I preach. I want to share his question and my answer with you. He wrote:

Good morning Lane,

First off want to thank you for all of the work put into the blog and podcasts. I’ve personally found a lot of the content very helpful. I preach on close to a monthly basis and am a volunteer youth leader, so I teach youth on a monthly basis as well. I was interested in learning more about your method of outlining your sermon. I’ve been following a manuscript method because that’s how I’ve learned, however I find I never really stay on it and have a difficult time finding my place afterward. So my question is, what do you find to be the most useful outlining method? What do you take into the pulpit with you? Also, do you have an example of your outline you preach from? Thanks!

I appreciate this question because I am always curious when I watch someone preach what their method is behind the scenes. What do they take to the pulpit with them? How do they decide where to begin and end? Do they write out a manuscript or just outline the main points? To get started, I will address his question about developing an outline.

Two things to keep in mind regarding sermon outlines

You should outline in a way that fits you. Your method should accommodate your distinct personality, style and comfort level. For example, I have never used a manuscript because they would not work with my personality and style, but I know preachers who use them well. The key is to find what works for you.

Each sermon is different so the approach varies. Some sermons are in a series where a major idea is being threaded through each sermon. Other sermons are more stand-alone topical sermons that deal with a given issue. Still, others may answer a question or explain an aspect of doctrine.

My 4 Step Method for Outlining Sermons

I don’t have one method that I use every time. Each sermon calls for something slightly different. But I do have a preferred method I enjoy using when it fits with the sermon. This method did not originate with me. I have adopted it from a variety of techniques that I’ve observed and read about over the years. It has four basic steps:

1. 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. This takes creativity and hard work to think through exactly how to foster interest in my content. Before I begin teaching through a text, I want to get my listeners on the hook for what I am about to preach.

2. Resolve the tension with the text. After I have built tension by presenting a problem or 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. When I present the text as the answer it teaches people to look into the Word of God to find answers in life. Ultimately, the answer is Jesus. He is the solution, the answer, the relief, the healing and the savior that everyone needs. Taking people to the text empowers them to know the heart of God, understand the gospel and live in light of it.

3. Teach and illustrate how to apply it. After walking through the text 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. This is not a list of possible applications. Rather, my points tend to be action oriented so that the points themselves are applications. Everything in this section demonstrates how to apply what the text teaches. My aim in this step is to be drop dead practical and teach how living out the text enables us to experience the hope, healing, answers or solution that everyone was on the hook for at the beginning of the sermon.

4. Cast vision and inspire. This is where I cast a vision of what it would look like if we all applied the principle. 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.

Again, I did not develop this out of thin air. Rather, this method is an adaption what others have taught. There are two that I should cite because they are so similar and were around first: Andy Stanley’s method of “Me, We, God, You, We” which he teaches in Communicating for a Change and “Hook, Book, Look, Took” from Creative Bible Teaching. Check those out if you want to do some further reading on this topic.

Next week I’ll answer the second part of his question about what notes I take to the pulpit with me and how I structure them. I’ll also provide an example pdf of the sermon notes I have in the pulpit with me.

I want to hear from you, what is your outlining method? What have you found that works for you?

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  • Dan Rivera

    Regarding Point #3, what are some examples of application that are drop dead practical that you can share? I find this at times to be a bit difficult. Usually the point is the “practical” but in order to build tension as you mentioned, I think need to be a bit more “how to live this out” in the application portion.