When it comes to preparing a sermon, you need a solid outline. Not only does a sermon outline help you pick your main points, having an organized outline helps keep your listeners’ attention and helps them see what’s most important.
But how do you outline a sermon—and how does the number of points change your sermon?
In the following excerpt from Preparing and Delivering Christ-Centered Sermons I, Dr. Bryan Chapell (pastor, professor, and author of Christ-Centered Preaching) explains when to use a three-point sermon—and how to keep the Bible central in your sermon outline.
The key is to let your [sermon’s] purpose dictate the number of main points . . . because different numbers of main points, typically, in Western culture, affect different rhetorical strategies.
How do you outline a sermon?
Three-point outlines: Developmental
A three-point outline in preaching is typically known as a developmental outline. And though we tease about it that a Western sermon is typically three points and a poem, nonetheless, this is more common for a reason. In Western culture, we’re affected by our Greek and Roman heritage of the syllogism—major premise, minor premise, and then conclusion.
As we work toward our conclusion, we’re used to thinking about developmental principles in a certain order, and we kind of climb up the mountain. We start with a foundational idea or developmental ideas and then a climax idea, and that typically leads to that three-point message. This is developmental in form. It’s very common. The Western ear expects it. Not all cultures do expect it, but those trained in the Western tradition typically expect some sort of three-point analysis of a particular passage. Now, I’m not saying there’s a biblical reason for that. I’m just saying it’s kind of what the Western ear expects to hear.
Two-point outlines: Balanced
Two related ideas
Now, there is another basic form of developmental outline, which is a two-point development outline. This is known as a balanced outline. And, typically, the purpose of such a two-point outline is to place intention or balance two separate ideas. We will talk about that which is internal versus that which is external. We’ll talk about attitude versus action. It’s that flip side of the coin idea.
Implied third point
And even though we are identifying a two-point outline as having only two points, typically, there’s always an implied third point, and that implied third point is the tension between the two points because, if there is no tension, it will simply seem like the sermon didn’t get done.
If all we say is, “First there is blue, and then there is red,” we’ll kind of go, “Why did you say that if you’re not talking about some kind of political tension but simply two colors?” We’ll say, “Why didn’t you mention a third color or a fourth or a fifth?” So, if there’s not some obvious tension or balance between two points, [it’s] probably best to do a three-point message and have that expectation of a developmental mind developed as we are moving through a passage.
Four-point outlines (or more): Catalogue
Now, it’s possible to have messages that have four or more main points. These are sometimes known as summative, catalog, or additive messages. That is summative in that it’s the sum of all things. We add them all up, and we get to a final conclusion. Because there are so many ideas in a four or five or six main point message, no particular idea is higher than another; no particular main point more critical than another.
I can remember a particular ordination service in which the preacher introduced the 14 attributes of a biblical preacher. Now, we all were ready to faint in that introduction, but at the same time, it actually went pretty well. What he was saying is “Here are all these attributes, none particularly higher than another, but all these things add up to one who is committed to biblical preaching.”
Four or more points—typically, a catalog approach—at times, we’ll simply say the passage is long so we need more main points. But again, if there’s not some sort of progression, then, typically, just multiplying points is going to make people confused or simply lose interest in the subject. [It’s] still better to climb up the mountain, and that’s why, again, a three-point message is more common, or even a two-point message with the tension or balance between the points.
One-point outline: Essay
There are messages that are only one point. These go by the name of essay development, and I think of them at times as the upward plane of glass, as though there’s no break, as though something has been burning in your gut for five years, and finally, it just pours out of you, and to have a main point would be to interrupt you because there’s so much that you want to say in this kind of gushing of an idea.
Now, it’s hard not only to preach essay messages week after week but to listen to them. Typically, the person listening to a sermon—we preachers don’t like this—but the average person hears the sermon as this mud wall of words that are just coming at them and, ultimately, overwhelming them. And if there are no breaks, if there’s no signs, if there’s no way to navigate this wall of words coming at us, typically, we just glaze over and can’t follow it.
There are some men in the past who’ve been experts at the essay messages, but typically, even the way they are wording paragraph after paragraph after paragraph is with keyword changes with parallel statements that are allowing them to speak in essays in a way that people can still hear. Those who use essay messages [are] rare, far between, particularly those that can be listened to, but if they can be listened to, it’s because they know rhetorical strategies that are still serving the ear even though they don’t have clear main points.
. . . . I would say maybe every now and then we all need one of those when we just have something we have to say about a social issue or something that we feel we have to address out of Scripture that has this sense of urgency about it. But typically, if we are teaching from the text in a way that’s going to say, “Here’s a point, here is its demonstrated purpose in your life, and here is how you are going to apply it,” that focus and purpose will typically force us to have navigation points through a message and to develop it.
Know the principles of subordination
Now, as we are developing those main points, we also should recognize there are principles of subordination that help us develop the message. Main points themselves have subpoints—that is, developmental ideas that prove that that main point is true and out of that text. And, typically, we should recognize in a principle of outline subordination one main point or one subpoint requires another.
If there was only one subpoint under a main point, then that subpoint should have been the main point. You can’t have a subpoint if it’s not dividing anything. So if there is only one subpoint, that confuses people. If there is one subpoint, there needs to be at least one more, or the first one should have been the main point. And the same thing, if there is just one main point under a proposition, then that one main point should have been the proposition, and this is going to be an essay message. But typically, we have two or more of both main points and subpoints.
Keep the biblical text evident in the outline
As you’re thinking about that principle of subordination, recognize that something we often do very commonly as we are presenting this pulpit outline is not only having two or three main points and each of those main points having no more than two or three subpoints. Typically, we try to keep the text—that is, the biblical text—evident in our outline so people can follow what we’re doing. Often, this means that we will find useful the very words of the biblical text in the wording of our outline main points and subpoints.
Now, we don’t always do this. I mean, sometimes, if you try to kind of mash the biblical language into our main points, it’s just going to be confusing. But if there’s a natural way to use the words of the text in the wording of our main points and our subpoints, that’s great, because people can hear what you say and then look down in the text and see where you’re saying it.
But at the same time, if we can’t use the very words of the text, we do want to make sure that we have tied the concepts that we are stating to the places in the text where that concept is mentioned and proven. We do this by tying main points and subpoints to the relevant verses. Typically, we’ll say something like, “God promises that He will guard His children. Look with me at verse 3.” And so, in our homiletical outline, we say where that verse is by putting it in parentheses after the wording of the main point. . . .
As much as we can keep the text, the biblical text, evident in our outline, the better it is to maintain the expositor’s ethic: “I’m going to tell you what this text says.” So, if I can tie my wording to the words in the text either by using those words or locating what verse I got the concept out of, the greater our authority and the greater we are able to show people what I’m saying is what this text says.
Explore Chapell’s three-course bundle on Christ-Centered Preaching, packed with more preaching insight and covering everything from philosophy to preparation to effective presentation.