Comment responses to “Developing Sermon Outlines”

September 19, 2013

by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

I appreciate the comments on my first post on sermon outlines. Before I respond, let me say a brief word concerning my theology of preaching as that will play into my response. It might be helpful to read my introduction to Text-Driven Preaching (B&H 2010). There I point out several things.

First, God’s revelation in Scripture, along with its inerrancy and sufficiency, serve as the theological grounds for text-driven preaching. It is interesting how “God” and “Scripture” are used as interchangeable subjects via metonymy when New Testament authors quote the Old Testament. God is viewed as the author even when he is not the speaker in Matt 19:4-5, and “Scripture says” is used when God is himself the direct speaker of what is quoted, as in Rom 9:17. In three places, Scripture is called “God’s speech” (Gal 3:8, 22; Rom 9:17), and in Heb 1:1-2, Jesus Himself is described as God’s “speech.” In the words of J. I. Packer, “Scripture is God preaching.”

Second, preaching should strive to practice exposition not imposition. Faulty hermeneutical methods such as spiritualizing, allegorizing, or principalizing the text should be avoided. The preacher’s goal is to allow the text to stand forth in all its uniqueness and power.

Third, the structure of the text itself should guide the structure of the sermon since meaning is expressed by an author through the text’s syntactical and semantic structure.

There is a difference between text-centered preaching and text-driven preaching. Many preachers are text-centered preachers. They take a text, determine its main idea, and preach that idea, using the text. There sermon is biblical in content. Points may be drawn from the text, but they usually don’t structure the sermon outline according to the actual structure of the text itself.

Text-driven preachers determine the structure of the text itself (main clauses vs. subordinate clauses; semantically dominant information vs. semantically subordinate information) and then, based on that structure, derive from it the sermon outline. Thus all the points of the sermon, main or subordinate, are derived exclusively from the text itself.

When I speak of textual “structure,” I am speaking of both syntactical (surface) structure and semantic (meaning; communication relations) structure. What I am more concerned with is making sure I get the semantic structure of the text right. But that structure can only be discovered by a careful examination of the syntactical structure. Two crucial aspects of text analysis in sermon preparation are verb structure and the conjunctions used to connect clauses and sentences together (hence the substance of my original post).

Now, here is the question: If the text is the very word of God; indeed, the very words of God breathed out by the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t we conclude that the best way to accurately communicate the meaning of a text is to structure sermon organization semantically along the same lines as that of the text? When the sermon outline reflects the semantic outline of the text, the sermon will follow this trajectory with the greatest potential for accurately communicating the focused meaning of the text. Main line information vs. subordinate information in the text’s structure can then be clearly articulated via the outline and sermon. It seems to me that doing so guarantees the sermon will focus on the main thing that the text focuses on, and will subordinate what the text subordinates. The result of this process will be an outline, and a sermon, that is text-driven, not just text-centered.

In sum, as my colleague Dr. Steven Smith is fond of saying, text-driven preaching strives to stay true to the structure (main-line vs. subordinate information) of the text, the substance (content, theology) of the text, and the spirit (genre) of the text.

So let’s turn our attention to the original post on Acts 2:41-47 and the comments. Ben suggested that the three-point outline describing the early church as having a converted membership, a consistent ministry, and continual multiplication, was a good descriptive outline but not a good preaching outline. He suggested the outline was perhaps aimed more at information and less at life-change. He stated “There are no timeless principles for living here.” He believes that the outline needed to go another step beyond description.

First, the outline does indeed capture the overall semantic structure of the passage, even if it is stated only in descriptive terms. It is faithful to the substance and structure of the text.

Second, note that Acts 2:41-47 is itself a summary description containing no command forms or direct personal application. Hence all individual application from this passage will have to be indirect as well. This is a corporate passage concerning the church as a whole. Assuming Luke’s purpose is not merely historical, it is reasonable to infer that he intends by this summary to indicate to his readers that the Jerusalem church should be something of a pattern of what the nature and activity of a local church should look like. By indirect implication, one could make application by saying this is what new believers should be doing: once converted, they should submit to baptism and become a part of the new community (v. 41); they should be active members, participating in the life of the fellowship of the local church (vv. 42-47a); and all should recognize that the Lord Himself places new believers into the church (v. 47b). Christ is sovereign over the life of the church. In my original post, I noted that the outline is a content outline and not a communication outline but that it could be easily converted into a communication outline.

Third, as some noted in their comments, I think any of us is going to be hard pressed to incorporate into a sermon outline all of the good things which Ben mentioned should be involved in a sermon, as well as the application to individuals mentioned in the previous paragraph. An outline is something like one of those old Roman hump bridges. You could drive your oxcart over it, but if you drive a Mac truck over it, it will collapse. A sermon outline is only designed to do so much. The fact that all the things mentioned are not reflected in the outline does not negate the value of the outline, as some of the comments noted. Now if most of those things were missing from the sermon itself, then we would have a problem. Finally, I certainly agree that we all need to engage in expository exultation, and that all preaching/teaching, though informational, should have the greater goal of life transformation. To what extent all these worthy components can be incorporated in the outline without the outline becoming too unwieldy: do it.

Fourth, Robert and Jonathan raise some interesting points which we all need to consider. Exposition should not be considered a straitjacket but rather should be viewed as a broad umbrella term under which a variety of sermon forms can occur. That said, however, I am attempting to make the case that expository preaching/teaching is the best method, and that for theological reasons. The money quote for me is Robert’s astute observation: “I have seen some preachers who seem to preach much the same sermon whether they start out expository, topical, or something else, and regardless of what text they use. They end up in the same place.” Precisely. This is a major problem. Jonathan’s reminder of the necessity of variety in what we do in our preaching is a good point as well. High predictability leads to low impact!

Thank you all for your helpful comments and interaction. My post next Thursday will follow up on some of these things, looking at a text in 1 John, its semantic structure, and a kind of preaching outline this structure would indicate.

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Ben Simpson

Dr Allen,

Thank you for taking the time to interact with my comment!

I concur completely with everything you said in the first half of your response here. Excellent insight!

As for when you turn to interacting with the Acts 2:41-47 outline, I agree completely when you say “the outline does indeed capture the overall semantic structure of the passage.”

You go on to rightly say “[the passage] is itself a summary description containing no command forms or direct personal application. Hence all individual application from this passage will have to be indirect as well.” Again I agree, but here is where we need to be careful. A descriptive outline simply tells us what is happening while an applicational outline helps to see what we should do in light of what is happening. It front loads how we are to process the narrative, helping us quickly see whether what is being told in the storyline is positive or negative. We often like to say that one of the reasons we know the Bible is true is that it presents its characters warts and all. So, there are many things that a descriptive outline would pick up that we should avoid. An applicational outline helps our hearers quickly recognize a wart that we should avoid and know what to do with it. We need to get from what happened in the text to what are the timeless truths for living presented here.

A descriptive outline will certainly help us anchor ourselves to the text, which we must do to be faithful preachers of God’s Word, but I want to go a step further in my outlines and frontload the so-what. That’s why I prefer an application outline. That’s not to say I’ve never used a descriptive outline. I have, especially when organizing my message inductively, but for me, going the extra step to an applicational outline is better.

For what it’s worth, I preached almost the same passage you highlighted in your post (I left out v41) on February 1, 2009. Here’s the outline that I used:

Subject: 5 Actions of the Ideal Church

The church should…
1. Devote itself to God’s Word (v42)
2. Strive toward true partnership (v42, 44-45)
3. Observe regularly the Lord’s Supper (v42)
4. Pray together often (v42)
5. Be spiritually attractive (v43,46-47)

Robert Vaughn

Brother, if I’d known I was going to have the “money quote” I’d have tried to articulate it a little better! :-)

Thanks for the follow-up on this. I found it helpful in better understanding some of the thoughts you presented in the original post. I have been putting down a few of my thoughts on the matter, and “analyzing” specific sermons in the book of Acts. If someone reads it right now they’ll probably think I’m against expository or text-driven preaching (which I am not). But I think there are some important lessons to learn from what the apostles did and did not do, preached and did not preach — and worth looking at the type of audience they had when they preached the sermon they did. I’m now in the process of “hurting my head” in trying to list what is the same or similar in how we should preach and what is different (e.g. we can preach led by the Spirit, but they preached inspired by the Spirit). What should we imitate and what should we avoid? For example, some of their interpretations of OT scripture might encourage us to take liberties with the OT text that we should not. They were inspired and therefore had insight I would not, and should avoid that approach to the text.

As far as descriptive vs. applicational outline, I agree with you: “The fact that all the things mentioned are not reflected in the outline does not negate the value of the outline…” These things have to be in sermon itself. An exhaustive outline is not necessary if one knows how to preach the text.

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