On Sermon Outlines

Every sermon should have a destination. It also needs a clear path to get there. A sermon outline charts the path for the sermon to reach its intended destination. Good sermons have effective outlines.

A sermon is more than an outline. But it is not less. The outline gives structure to the message. That structure supports the substance of the message. Similarly, your body is infinitely more than a skeleton. Yet it is built on and around the connecting bones of the skeleton.

There are different philosophies about the use of outlines in sermons. More preachers are using an inductive approach, holding the point of the message until the end. Others maintain a more traditional approach, which states the key point up front and uses the outline to support that thesis in the body of the message.

I am an advocate of the more traditional approach. Tell them what you are going to say. Say it. Then tell them what you said. It is the method that most facilitates Bible exposition and emphasizes the teaching of scripture. Yet there are different ways this can be carried out in preaching.

I regularly state the points of the sermon for the congregation as I preach. Sometimes I state them all as I transition to the main body. But I most often introduce the movements one by one as I go, hoping to build a sense of suspense and momentum as the sermon progresses.

On the other hand, I never heard my father refers to the “points” of his sermon. He simply worked his way through the body of the message without making any reference to its underlying structure. He knew where he was going. And the listener followed along without sermon highway signs.

Whether you formally state your points or not, you ought to know where you are going with the sermon. And you should preach it in a way that gives the congregation confidence that you know where you are going.

How are sermon good outlines developed? What are the characteristics of a compelling outline? Here are ten practical tips to help you be more effective in developing sermon outlines.

Let the text shape the outline. How many points should a sermon have? As many or as few as the text requires. Don’t force an arbitrary outline on the text. Don’t use the text as a jumping off spot for predetermined points you want to make. And don’t call a text and then go into all the world preaching the gospel. The goal of biblical preaching is to let the text speak for itself. Your outline should amplify the message of the text.

Preach the text, not the outline. It is good when an outline is memorable. It is not good when the outline is more memorable than the text. The purpose of the sermon is not to get through the outline. It is to present the message of the text. The outline should be a guide by which you work through the text. It is just a means to an end. And you must force it to stay in its place. Don’t let it overshadow the text.

Support the main idea of the sermon. The outline should be more than three things you want to say about the text. It should support the big idea. Once the dominating theme of the text is established, build the outline around it. Undergird the main idea with points that explain, prove, defend, clarify, or apply it. Keep preaching the message of the text as you preach the points of the outline.

Practice unity in your outline. The movements of the sermon should not be redundant. Each point should be an independent thought that can stand on its own. But they should not stand so far apart that you cannot see the connection between them. Your outline points should have obvious unity with your main idea and with one another.

Keep it moving. “Are we there yet?” is a question a parents dread to hear during a car trip. Preachers should dread to hear it during sermons, too. Movement will keep the congregation along for the ride. Follow the progression of the text. Use the outline to guide the sermon forward. Let your points build on one another. Make it clear that the sermon is going somewhere.

The simpler the better. Complicated outlines are distractions. They create a fog in the pulpit that obscures the message. Don’t use the outline to impress the congregation. Use it to communicate. Avoid confusing terms or concepts in your outline. Strive for clarity.

Maintain balance. If the points of your outline are points worth making, treat them equally. Don’t emphasize one point and use two fillers to complete the outline. Don’t spend three minutes on one point and ten minutes on another. Demonstrate that each point of the outline is important by giving them all a fair treatment. If a point is not worth arguing, don’t put it into the sermon.

Use sub-points carefully. Keep the main thing the main thing in your sermon. And do not let subdivisions of your outline lead you away from the main idea of the sermon. Only use sub-points if they are natural or necessary. And make sure they are clearly related to the main headings of the outline.

Don’t overdue alliteration. If an alliterated outline forms, use it. But do not hunt for “P” words to force alliteration. Use language in your sermon that is most natural. And few of us speak in alliteration in common conversation. Sure, alliteration can be memorable. But there are other ways to make your outline memorable without alliteration, like asking questions, giving exhortations, and using parallelism.

Put application in the outline. My default mode is to explain the meaning of the text. And I have to work hard to be strategic in application. One simple way I promote application is to put it in the outline. Stick a verb in the outline that calls for action. Write the points as exhortations. Then challenge the congregation to live them out as you explain and illustrate the point.

What advice would you give for developing effective sermon outlines? 

Related Resources

On Sermon Preparation 

On Writing Sermon Manuscripts 

On Sermon Introductions 

On Sermon Conclusions 

On Sermon Illustrations 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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11 thoughts on “On Sermon Outlines

  1. Pastor Charles – This is very helpful! Would you mind post a few examples to show us how you think through a text in this regard? And it would help if they aren’t some of the clearer text! (e.g. Eph 1:18-19 – the points seem to jump right out!)

  2. Excellent! I most appreciated the point, “Preach the text, not the outline.” That was a good reminder for me; thank you!

  3. Pastor Charles, I recently had the opportunity to hear you speak in my city and thought you did a SUPERB job! Expository preaching WORKS FOR ME! I noticed in your sermon that the Death, Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ was not mentioned. I attend a church and am under the leadership of pastor that stresses the importance of highlighting this, He usually ends his sermon by with doing this. It is his way of letting the unsaved know why this is so important and those that have accepted Jesus Christ. Now, when I’m listening to pastors/ministers preach, I look for this in the sermon, because I too think it is very important.
    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Thanks for your comment. Not sure when or where this was. But I try to present the gospel in each message and make sure that the entire is gospel-saturated throughout. However, I need to get better at this. Prayers appreciated.

  4. Great explanation and very good advice! I espouse the ONE Point Sermon! I learned this from Andy Stanley in his book Communicating for a Change. Most people are going to remember the point that ministered to them at the deepest place in their lives so why not just make one point and build around it. Application, Application, Application. I’ve been preaching all of my adult life…literally. I listen to preaching for my own spiritual nourishment and formation. Though I hear a lot of exhortation and encouragement. No scratch that, I hear a lot of “Gospel Hype” and not much in the way of how to apply the scriptures. I believe we should use outlines even if we don’t carry them into the pulpit with us. They can serve as maps to help us make and end the journey together they also serve to help us pastor/preachers see how we’ve grown and changed over the years as we grow, mature and develop as believers and disciples of Jesus Christ. I appreciate this article. Keep writing! All the best +DLS

    • Thanks Derrick. I have read Stanley’s book and enjoyed it. I agree that one sermon should have one main, big idea. Inevitably, however, there will be supporting ideas. This is an outline, whatever you may call it. But I think Stanley is right on target that we should not throw too many different ideas at the congregation during the sermon.

      Likewise, thanks for the point on making application more central.