How to Prepare a Sermon Outline That Sticks with Your Hearers

Preaching is one of the highest callings, but it can be one of the most challenging—which is why learning how to prepare a sermon outline is so critical. This one step will help ensure each message you preach is delivered succinctly and clearly so that your congregation not only understands what you are preaching but remembers it once they walk out the church’s doors each week. 

In this excerpt from the course Biblical Preaching II: Preaching Biblical Sermons, J. Kent Edwards walks students through the steps for how to prepare a sermon outline for an epistle.

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Epistle literature is like an essay. Epistle literature is, by definition, literate. It starts—usually—with a thesis and develops in points, like an essay or a dissertation. Therefore, the form of an essay is going to be carried over to the form of the sermon that’s from that essay. This is not a universal way to preach, but it works well for epistles.

Why use sermon outlines?

Let me also tell you that outlining is critical. You really, really need to pay attention to how you outline. Outlining is critical because it helps you remember your own sermon. Fact is, if you can’t remember it, they won’t remember it. It’s one of the reasons I recommend and require that my students preach without notes. Normally when I tell people they’re going to preach a message without notes, they panic. And they panic because—why? “I’ll never remember it!”

Look, if you can’t remember your own sermon without notes, your people are never going to remember what you talked about when they don’t have their sermon notes in front of them. And Monday morning, when they go to work, do you really think they’d take your sermon outlines with [them]? No. If they can’t remember it—without notes—when they’re at work, when they’re going into their daily life, then it won’t make a difference in their life.

Full manuscript versus outline

I spent many years preaching from full manuscripts, and I did pretty well at it. I can give a pretty lecture on how to do it effectively, and I think it can be done effectively. But I can tell you, when I decided to make the leap and preach without notes, it radically changed how I outlined my sermons. You know what it did? It made them simple, because I’m not that smart. I had to keep simplifying, simplifying, simplifying, so I could remember [the sermon]. And what I discovered is, when I got it simple enough for me to remember it, [the people] could remember it. 

In fact, I used to have bulletin inserts all the time for my people and my churches, and they’d fill out the notes—you know how they do it: point one, point two, point three. After a while, people just got what I was saying, and they weren’t filling out the sheets of paper anymore. They didn’t need to take notes, because they knew it. It was clear in their mind.

In a church I was at not long ago—I preached there for a number of weeks—this one elderly lady followed me out to the parking lot and said, “Why is it [that] I’ve come to this church for most of my life, and I’ve heard hundreds, thousands of sermons, and I can’t remember hardly one of them. And you’ve been here four, five, six weeks, and I can remember every single sermon you preached! What’s the difference?” I said, “Thank God. It’s working.” And I’ll tell you the secret: It’s outlining.

You’ve got to make sure it’s clear. It’s not a memory feat, it’s an organizational feat. Can I confess to you—I can’t even remember my wife’s cell phone number, but I can preach without notes. How does that happen? It’s not memory, it’s organization. So I want to help you organize your sermon as clearly as possible. Again, this is restricted primarily to epistle literature.

How to prepare a sermon outline in 6 steps

1. Use Roman numerals for major points.

The first thing you have to do is, you have to write out your Roman numeral points. Why are all the major assertions in Roman numerals? I have no idea. I’ve asked other homileticians; they don’t know either. It’s just kind of convention. Anyway, your major points are Roman numeral points, and these are critical. You’ve got to do these properly. If you don’t do them properly, the people will not know what you said. Honest—I’m telling you, you’ve got to get these. 

The Roman numeral points are like pillars in a building; they’re like the girders that hold the whole thing up. If your girders are strong, the building may not look that pretty, but it’s going to stand. It’s going to serve the people well, because the girders are strong. But I don’t care how pretty you make a building—how much wallpaper you put on, how many flowers you put around—if you don’t have strong girders, the whole thing is going to collapse. If you have good, well-written Roman numeral points, your people will know what you talked about. If you do a lot of things wrong, they’ll still have a basic idea of what you talked about. If you don’t do [the Roman numeral points] right, [your people] will never remember.

I tell this to my students. Honest. They’ve all had the same instruction. I warn them [that] you can’t break the rules for outlining. This is oral communication. Don’t break my rules! They work well for the ear. Trust me on this. And when [the students] don’t—in their panic, they outlined the other way they used to do it, the old way they grew up with—three minutes after they’ve finished their sermon, maybe less, I’ll turn to the class and say, “What did that sermon just say? What was its big idea?” And I’ll go around the room, and those people, who listened to that sermon just a few minutes before, can’t tell you what the big idea was.

You’ve got to have a clear outline. It has to be clear for the ear, not the eye. We’ll go into that more in just a second. But here are my rules.

2. Use full sentences.

Your Roman numeral points need to be in full sentences, not phrases. No. They cannot be in phrases. Don’t give me fragments—you need to give me full sentences. Why? Because a sentence is an idea. Give me an idea. Give me something to think about. Most people come up with their points and their phrases—“The way, the wish, the wind”—I have no idea what you’re talking about. The way to San Jose? The way to knit? What is this thing about? You’ve got no topic. I don’t [have] any idea what you’re saying. Don’t give me fragments. Give me full sentences.

3. Identify the Subject.

And in that sentence—by definition, you can’t have a sentence without a subject. Your subject has to be there. In your Roman numeral points, give me your subject. OK? You’re going to give me your subject. Now, obviously, you’re going to have the same number of Roman numeral points as you have complements in your passage. If you have two major points in your passage, two complements, you’re going to have two major points in your sermon. You will include—as you write out those points in full sentences—the subject as well as the complement, so we clearly see what you are saying.

4. Order your points.

. . . As I’ve mentioned earlier, you need to arrange your points in logical or psychological order. We need to know why we had to hear point one first, point two second. And again, remember . . .you can rearrange them. They don’t have to come to your audience the way that Paul wrote them in the text. That was the best way to communicate with dead people long ago, but you’re dealing with live people today, in a much different culture. So if you want to say verse 12 first, and then verse 16, and then go back to 14, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter, as long as in the end, [the people] get what the biblical writer was saying.

Arrange your points in logical or psychological order. It may be the same [order as that in] the text, [or] it may be different, but it’s got to be logical or psychological for your audience.

5. Talk to the audience.

Be sure as well that your points are directed toward your audience. Talk to them. No dead people allowed. No dead people. I don’t want to hear about Paul; I don’t want to hear about Galatia—I want you to talk to me about this biblical truth. In your Roman numeral points, you talk to your audience. Talk to them as if they are alive and present. I want it to be action-oriented. “What do you want me to do with this? How will it change me?” That should be included in that Roman numeral point.

6. Don’t use the word ‘and.’ 

One word you’re not allowed to have in your Roman numeral is the word “and.” Guess why? Because the only reason you put “and” in there is because you’re joining two ideas, and every point can only be a single idea. You can only say one thing in the Roman numeral point, so it’s never correct to put “and” in your Roman numeral point.

As I’ve mentioned before—I’ll say it again—you have the same number of points as the passage has complements. If Paul, in that paragraph, is making two points or three points, then your sermon better have two points or three points. There are times when, if you get to a long list, something like the love chapter—you’re dealing with 1 Corinthians 13, [and] he gives all these things—you can’t have 72 points, so you’re going to have to lump them [into groups]. Go up the ladder of abstraction . . . But as a rule of thumb, if there [are] two or three points that are made in the passage, then your sermon will have the same two or three points.

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learn how to prepare a sermon outline in this preaching courseLearn more from J. Kent Edwards about how to prepare a sermon outline and other preaching tips in the Mobile Ed courses Biblical Preaching 1 and Biblical Preaching II, where you’ll explore everything from exegesis to exposition, how to apply the original context of Scripture to the context of your congregation, delivery aspects of preaching like word choices, intonation, and non-verbal signals, and more.

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