A Guide to Outlining a Sermon

A Simple Approach for Time-Crunched Pastors

Structure: it’s the most important factor in taking a collection of parts and making them into a cohesive whole.

Imagine trying to build a house without using 2×4’s to frame it first. It would just be a collection of siding, nails, and shingles.

Imagine trying to walk without bones in your legs. You would only have skin, muscle, and veins. It would be pretty hard to get anywhere.

Now imagine trying to preach a sermon without having an outline. You would only have a group of unrelated ideas that don’t take the listener anywhere.

Sound crazy? Perhaps so, but every Sunday there are pastors all across the country who struggle with preaching a cohesive sermon. Why? Because they haven’t structured their sermon using a solid outline. 

As a result, their sermon is a collection of Bible verses and illustrations with no clear direction. There may be a lot of good ideas, but when you don’t have an outline, it leaves the listeners frustrated because they’re not sure what to take away from the sermon.

The sermon outline is your secret weapon in sermon preparation. If you love to preach but struggle with creating solid outlines, this post will help you understand the importance of a sermon outline and give you more confidence in the outlining process.

What's the Use of Outlining a Sermon?

There are several reasons why you might not be excited about using a sermon outline:

  1. You have never used a sermon outline before and are worried that it will hamper your style. 
  2. To prepare your sermon, you study the passage and just rely on God to give you the right words when you get up to speak. 
  1. You had a professor in college who taught you only one sermon structure, and it stifled your creativity.
  2. You’ve heard boring preachers who have used the same sermon structure their whole lives, and you don’t want to suffer the same fate.

If any of these describe you, here are several benefits of outlining your sermon during your prep process. These will help you see that it’s an invaluable tool for communication, no matter what your experience or background.

1. A sermon outline makes your preparation easier.

There is no doubt about it: when you know where you are going, you enjoy the trip more. If you know the pathway your sermon will take, you feel less stress and more joy as you prepare and preach.

The opposite is true as well. If you don’t have a clear way forward, you will feel frustrated by the overwhelming amount of information in commentaries, books, and online. Every day, there is enough new information created to fill a lifetime’s worth of sermon outlines. 

An outline makes your life easier by giving you a clear focus and an end goal for your sermon preparation.

2. A sermon outline saves time that can be used for other activities.

As a pastor, you have enough to do already: overseeing staff, visiting people in the hospital, attending committee meetings, meeting with other church leaders, and so much more. Most pastors already feel like their sermon preparation time is cut short by so many pressing responsibilities.

But when you know the structure of your sermon, preparation takes less time because you have a clear idea about what content you need. You spend less time writing your sermon and more time on other ministry responsibilities. 

3. A sermon outline helps people who put together slides and bulletin inserts.

Many churches use slides during the sermon and also include a fill-in-the-blank insert in the bulletin. If you use these tools, or perhaps include a sermon outline on the YouVersion app, a sermon outline takes the guesswork out of knowing what to include here.

This also has the subtle benefit of showing that you are prepared and organized as a pastor. When staff and volunteers feel confident in your leadership, it creates a stronger culture and raises the standards.

4. A sermon outline helps you become a better writer.

The writing skills you develop when crafting a quality sermon (and the underlying outline) can serve you well in all other kinds of writing. Structuring content is a skill you can use in book chapters, blog posts, newsletters, courses, and other resources.

In addition, you can repurpose these different types of content into other forms. The underlying sermon structure gives you the freedom and flexibility to get much more mileage from just one sermon.

5. A sermon outline helps listeners follow along.

This is the most important reason of all. We want to honor our church members and their time by giving them a clear roadmap to the message.

Preaching is not like it was fifty or even fifteen years ago. Today, we are bombarded with so many distractions that compete for our attention, even in church.

A great sermon outline will make it easier for listeners because they don’t have to guess where you are going with your message. When listeners feel confused, they check out. 

So help your listeners stay focused and attentive by showing them a clear pathway through your message.

Obstacles to Outlining Your Sermon

1. You are not used to outlining.

Maybe you use a preaching style that is more free flowing. Perhaps you were never formally trained to write sermons and instead developed your own style. Or maybe you write out your sermon manuscripts without a clear structure. 

Whatever the case, if you are not used to using a sermon outline, no worries. We disagree with the idea that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” You can absolutely learn to use an outline. It’s much easier than you think, and you will probably enjoy preaching more since it makes your life easier.

2. You’re worried it will stifle your creativity.

Some pastors worry that using a sermon outline will hamper their creative energy. But keep this in mind: creativity thrives within constraints. When you are forced to work within limitations, your brain has more freedom to find creative solutions within those parameters.

Just look at the Beatles, arguably the greatest band of all time. Consider what they were able to do with only four instruments (especially in their earlier songs). They were light years ahead of other bands of their time because they chose to be creative within constraints.

When you force limitations upon yourself, you must find ways to think “inside the box.” It sounds counter-intuitive, but a sermon outline gives you much more freedom than an unstructured block of 30 minutes.

3. You are not sure what structure to choose.

Here at Sermonary, we know there is a sermon outline for every type of pastor. While there are probably an infinite number of ways to structure a sermon, we have identified the most common and effective outline structures.

Later in this article, we will review several types of sermon outlines to help you get a grasp on your options. You can also check out this post for a detailed explanation of each one, and how to use them.

4. You are concerned an outline will not fit the Bible passages you are using.

If you already have your preaching calendar set, this means you’ve probably selected your main Bible passages to use for each Sunday. However, you have probably not looked at each passage in great detail just yet. Therefore, you may be a little worried that a specific outline will not fit a certain passage.

One thing to keep in mind is that any given Bible passage can be outlined in a variety of ways. It all depends on your preferred style of communication, the flow of the passage, as well as the type of literature it is. 

That’s why we have designed our Sermon Editor with a variety of outline possibilities. But of course you’re not limited to our outline structures. You can create your own based on the passage. But our outlines are a fantastic starting place.

5. You are worried it will be a big change from your usual preaching style.

Maybe you currently don’t use much of a sermon outline, but you’re excited to try out some new ways of preaching by using an outline. However, you’re a little worried that a big change might throw off your congregation since it’s something different.

Keep in mind that nobody pays more attention to your sermon than you do. This shouldn’t discourage you. It’s just a recognition of the fact that a big change in your sermon structure may not be noticeable by a percentage of your listeners.

But for those who do notice, there’s no reason to think they would react negatively. They will probably welcome the change of pace and be excited to see you growing and learning new things.

6. You’re not sure which tool to use to write your outline.

Sure, you can use Microsoft Word or Google docs, but why make it harder on yourself? Those tools were not made for writing sermons. 

We specifically created our Sermon Editor to help you with writing sermons. This revolutionary yet easy-to-use tool will help you write faster and stay organized as you write your outlines, manuscripts, and other sermon material.

At this point, you are probably convinced that sermon outlines are great things! But where does outlining fit into the whole sermon creation process? That’s the subject of the next section.

Where Does Outlining Fit into the Sermon Prep Process?

Outlining your sermon doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s part of the overall process of crafting a great sermon. Below is a summary of 7 easy steps to write a sermon (check out this post for a detailed breakdown of each step).

Day 1: Strategize and Study

Step 1: Strategy

Strategy is an important part of the process and actually begins in the early stages of planning, which should happen months before the sermon is actually preached. It is important to look at the year in front of you and start thinking through your preaching plan so that you can create a preaching calendar that gives you a framework to move towards.

This early planning stage is really when strategy begins to take shape. During your early planning, you’ll look at things like the topics you want to preach on, books of the Bible or certain scripture passages you want to teach from.

Step 2: Study

Begin formal study through research. What are scholars and other trusted writings saying? Write down what you learn, take notes, and document the details.

The Sermonary tool is a great resource for you to write your sermon and document your notes along the way. It will help you keep all your notes in one place in an organized and easy-to-navigate system.

You likely won’t use all of the information you gather during your study phase, but what you do find will help feed into your teaching, the direction you want to go with your sermon, and also clarify your messaging along the way.

Day 2: Get Sticky and Outline

Step 1: Create a Sticky Statement for Your Sermon

Sticky begins with creating what Andy Stanley calls “a sticky statement.”

When thinking through this concept, consider this: What is one statement you can share with your congregation that they’ll remember? This is a phrase that encapsulates the big idea of your sermon. It should be concise, yet easy-to-remember so they can take it with them after the message is over.

The point of the sticky statement is to give them something to hold on to so that they not only remember the words spoken in your sermon, but also use it to apply what was taught.

Step 2: Establish Your End Goal

Ask yourself, “What is my end goal for this sermon?” Or in other words, “what action do I want my congregation to take after hearing this sermon?”

What do you want your people to leave with after hearing it?
How do you want them to feel?
What action do you want them to take?

When you begin planning your sermons, you should always have an end goal in mind. It’s important to be clear on what that is on the front end, because this will help narrow down how you develop the rest of your sermon as you ensure everything should always point back to the end goal.

Step 3: Outline Your Sermon

You want your sermon outline to be a reflection of your personal communication style, so you should feel comfortable and inspired when building from it. Once you have landed your outline type, you can begin the work of filling in the gaps.

Make sure you outline your sermon step-by-step creating your main points with sub-text, scripture references, and any other notes that should go along with it. Continue doing this so that you’re creating points for every section of the sermon.

Once you finish the outline on day two, you are right on track and have set yourself up for success to preach a well thought-out and prepared message for the coming weekend.

Day 3: Incorporate Your Style

Step 1: Introduction

There are really three parts to an introduction. First, we want to grab their attention, then we want to explain what it is we’re talking about and why they need to listen to the message. Lastly, you want to draw a personal connection between your audience and the topic.

We do this all the time when we share stories, jokes, video clips, statistics, etc. Anytime we include something like this in our message, the goal is to hit all three elements of the introduction by grabbing their attention, explaining why they need to keep listening, and drawing a connection between them and your message.

Step 2: Illustration

Remember to consider what the end game of your message is. Your illustrations should support that.

This is how you add your personal style to your sermon. Your stories, images, and application of the text is what sets your message apart. The illustrations allow you to incorporate your own styling into how you deliver your sermon and in turn, will have a greater impact on your congregation because it’s coming from you.

Step 3: Conclusion

It’s important to be careful not to go back and add in more of what you may have forgotten to say during the sermon.

We find ourselves doing this sometimes with the intention of driving the point home yet again, but ultimately, this does more harm than good and just adds noise to your sermon, making it less clear. A lack of clarity results in a lack of impact.

It’s also important that you avoid going into detail again, pointing back to your message. Instead, briefly summarize and move to the end goal of your sermon or series.

Day 4: Solidify Your Message

Step 1: Analyze Your Sermon Illustrations

Day 4 is when you finish adding illustrations and explanations, but it is important that you take a hard look and analyze the illustrations you have chosen, considering whether or not they support your message properly.

Consider if the images and videos collected are illustrating and explaining what you want to communicate.

Ask yourself these questions:

“Is this really communicating my message effectively?”

“Is the big idea or overall takeaway being clearly visualized through the illustrations I’ve chosen?”

“Could the illustrations and visuals in my message add confusion to my big idea?”

Step 2: Trim the Fat From Your Sermon

It’s time to take another hard look at your message. At this point, you want to take an angle of purposefully clarifying your sermon by tightening it up and editing as needed. Really think through where and how you can cut the fat from your message, which will help it be much more effective in the long run.

Remember, it is easy to speak for a long time. But it’s hard to be succinct. So, go through your message, read it thoroughly, and consider what needs to be trimmed down and tightened up to effectively communicate the topic.

Day 5: Observe the Sabbath

We know how hard it is to walk away and actually take a break, but this is essential for your health and well-being.

Rest has a powerful way of giving us clarity and allowing God to meet us in new ways. Take advantage of this day –– embrace it for all it is and all it will offer you as you mentally, emotionally, and physically prepare for your time on stage when you actually preach the message you’ve been working on all week.

Day 6: Say and Rehearse

Instead of waiting until Sunday morning to say your message out loud, every pastor should practice their message – out loud – at least once or twice before Sunday morning. You can do this a couple of different ways, either by yourself or in front of a small group of people.

Look at day 6 as the opportunity to preach your message from beginning to end. To practice saying the words out loud, working out the kinks, getting used to the flow and rhythm of your sequencing, and allowing yourself to elevate your preparedness.

Day 7: Speak the Message

Day 7 is here and it’s the day you’ve been preparing for all week. It’s time to preach the message you’ve been studying, writing, and practicing all week. And because you’ve taken the time to study, prepare, practice, and assess, you are now ready to preach.

You aren’t cramming to remember your notes or points and you have a solidified and prepared outline that you can pull up easily on the Sermonary app and preach right from the stage using Podium Mode.

Podium Mode is just one of many great features offered by Sermonary to help you write, plan, and preach your message. You can even export your notes from Sermonary into a PowerPoint or ProPresenter presentation!

You will find that your messages become more effective because you have taken the time to dig into God’s Word, prayed through your message, and thought about what God wants you to say versus throwing a message together on Saturday evening.

Now that we have talked about the benefits of using a sermon outline, the obstacles to doing so, and how outlining fits into the overall sermon prep process, let’s talk about how to choose the best outline for your sermon.

How to Choose the Best Template for Your Sermon Outline

When you are working with the Bible passage you are using for your sermon, how do you know which outline method to use? In this section, we’ll cover a few suggestions that will give you some guidance.

But first, let’s review the templates available in the Sermon Editor. We have included these to make it easier to build sermons according to your preferred styles. You can also try out a new template you may not have used before.

The following templates are included:

Traditional 3-Point Sermon Template. This is a traditional three-point sermon template. Each point includes explanation, illustration, and application blocks.

The ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE Method. Created by Andy Stanley, this preaching outline uses a simple formula to communicate the text’s big idea in a conversational manner.

Verse-by-Verse Running Commentary. This template is designed to help pastors work verse-by-verse through their text. Included are blocks for illustrations and application.

The Defender’s Outline. Work through this template when using apologetics to teach or defend a tenet of the Christian faith.

The Children’s Leader. This template, designed for children’s leaders, will help kids understand and apply the teachings of Scripture.

The Youth Pastor. This template is designed to help youth leaders communicate the Bible in a way that’s both creative and applicable for teenagers.

Of course, these are not the only possibilities when it comes to outlining your sermon. But we have focused on these templates because they will cover 99% of preaching settings. 

Notice that we did not say “choose the right template for your sermon outline.” Instead, we said “choose the best template for your sermon outline.” 

We used the word “best” instead of “right” because there is no “right” when it comes to sermon structure or organizational patterns. Throughout church history, pastors and teachers have used all kinds of ways to communicate God’s Word. There is no “right” way for your setting, but there is usually a way that is “best”—in other words, some outlines will work better than others for your situation.

Here are a few questions for determining which outline is best. 

1. What is the age and spiritual maturity of your audience?

If you are teaching kids or youth, you will probably want to use the templates that are created just for them. However, adults will be able to handle a broader variety of outlines simply because they can handle more complex thinking.

When we say “spiritual maturity,” we simply mean the level of biblical understanding that your audience has. If you are preaching to a group of non-believers or new Christians, the ME-WE-GOD-YOU-ME method may be ideal since it tends to be more conversational. 

Likewise, if you are debating deep concepts or leaning heavily towards apologetics, you will want to use the Defender’s Outline. This is the perfect approach for defending tenets of the Christian faith and helping others see the contrasts between Christianity and other faiths and philosophies.

The traditional three-point sermon is a great all-around workhorse of a template. You can use it with a wide variety of passages and audiences. 

2. Which template aligns best with your personality?

Most pastors are drawn to a particular style more than others. If you like to analyze and explain passages, the Verse-by-Verse style is probably ideal. If you enjoy organization concepts into easy-to-understand principles, the three-point sermon is probably your best bet. 

If you think of preaching more as having a conversation than giving a speech, the ME-WE-GOD-YOU-ME approach is probably ideal for you. If you consider yourself more of a teacher than a preacher, the Verse-by-Verse or three-point sermon is probably best.

This doesn’t mean you should impose your preferred template on every single sermon. It just means that you choose one style you can use most of the time. 

When God called you to ministry, He wanted to use your specific personality and communication style to impact others. Don’t fight it or try to change from the style that comes naturally to you. 

3. What does your congregation expect?

This is a tricky question because there is often a tension between what our congregation expects and what we feel called to do. However, it’s a question worth asking because we are called to serve those people. Therefore, we should know what type of communication best suits them.

What they expect in terms of sermon style will be determined mostly by what they have previously heard. If your predecessors have mostly been expository (verse-by-verse) communicators, they will probably expect that approach. If they have mostly heard three-point sermons, they will assume that’s your style as well.

It doesn’t mean you should stick with that style, but it’s worth considering what they are used to. Then over time, you can transition to a different style if needed, or even mix it up from time to time.

4. Which one do you enjoy the most?

Like the previous question, this one is also tricky. Just because you enjoy a certain style or template doesn’t mean it’s always best. However, if you enjoy a certain approach, you will put more time and effort into it. 

It will also be obvious to your church that you are having more fun. There is something to be said for doing something you love that gives you more energy and fulfillment.

5. Which template naturally lends itself to the passage?

You can preach any Bible passage a bunch of different ways. Church history shows us that pastors and leaders of all different stripes have their own ways of making God’s Word relevant to their audience.

That being said, certain genres tend to fit better with certain outlines or templates. For example, the writings of Paul, which are filled with careful arguments and the approach of a teacher, are well-suited to the Defender’s Outline and the traditional three-point sermon.

Narrative material such as the Gospel, Acts, or Old Testament history are well-suited to Verse-by-Verse commentary or the ME-WE-GOD-YOU-ME method since narratives do not usually organize themselves into teaching points.

Poetry and wisdom literature works well with a three-point sermon or verse-by-verse commentary since it leans more toward teaching.

All that being said, the specifics will depend on your preferred style and other factors. But it’s helpful to let the Bible text give you guidance on how best to approach it.

One final tip: We recommend that you choose one basic style and stick to it most of the time. This helps your listeners know what to expect and makes it easier for you to plan. 

For example, Andy Stanley mostly uses the ME-WE-GOD-YOU-ME method. John MacArthur is known for Verse-by-Verse Running Commentary. Many pastors stick with the basic three-point sermon.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t change it up once in a while. But chances are pretty high that one of the templates fits better with your style and situation than the others do.

We have looked at several different templates in this article, but the three-point sermon is probably the most common type of outline. Why? Because as humans, we are somehow wired to think in groups of three.

The three-point sermon may not be the most creative approach, or even the most surprising, but it works because it’s straightforward and effective. Since you’re putting together a new sermon every seven days, chances are high that you are drawn to this style simply because it works.

For that reason, let’s take a look at how the three-point approach might work in a few different passages.

Text: Psalm 1

Key Idea: Who are the blessed? Those who delight in the law of the Lord.

  1. Description of the blessed (1:1-3).
  2. Description of the wicked. (1:4).
  3. The fate of the blessed and the wicked (1:5-6).

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

Key Idea: Isaiah’s experience in the temple gives us a 3-part pattern of worship.

  1. Worship is a look upward (6:1-4).
  2. Worship is a look inward (6:5-7).
  3. Worship is a look outward (6:8).

Text: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Key Idea: The Lord’s Supper unites in a covenant meal that is based on a past sacrifice and points to a future hope.

  1. The problem of division (11:17-22).
  2. The basis for unity (11:23-26).
  3. The judgment as a result of division (11:27-34).

Text: Revelation chapters 4-5

Key idea: We demonstrate our worship by showing honor in three ways:

  1. We honor God, who sits on the throne of our lives (chapter 4).
  2. We honor Christ (the lamb), who gave his life for us (chapter 5).
  3. We honor other worshippers, who are part of God’s community (chapter 5).

 

How to Get Started This Week

As you’ve read this article, you may be wondering how to get started with outlining your sermon. Although we have covered a lot of information, here are three tips for taking action.

Tip #1: Remember there is no perfect sermon.

If you’re a perfectionist, you may struggle with trying something new until you have it completely figured out. But that’s not the way we actually learn. We learn by doing, experimenting, and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

There’s no such thing as a perfect sermon. This side of heaven, our efforts will always fall short of perfection. That’s why we need God’s grace to make up the difference. 

Just give it your best shot. The wonderful thing about preaching is that you have a new opportunity every seven days.

Tip #2: Keep an open mind about new sermon outlines and structures.

If you have used the same type of sermon outline for a long time, trying something new will feel strange. It will be uncomfortable and you may feel a little bit like a beginner for a short time.

But that’s natural. Trying something new means you are growing as a leader. Give yourself some grace and time to adjust to a new type of outline.

Tip #3: Evaluate what works, and what doesn’t.

As you try out new outlines and sermon structures, take notes on what seems to be working and what isn’t. These notes will be an invaluable resource as you progress on your journey to becoming a more effective communicator.

You can also ask a few trusted individuals or staff members to evaluate any changes you make to your preaching. You are only seeing yourself from the inside, whereas they will have a more objective view.

Preaching is a journey, and we never arrive at the final destination of perfection. We hope these tips will help you take action and begin making immediate improvements to your outlining and preaching.