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Life Application Sermon Outlines
A good rule of thumb is to create and develop outline points that the listener can understand if all he or she had was a Bible and the written outline. As he or she reads the passage and observes the sermon points it should be obvious how the selected text dramatically relates to his or her Christian journey. The outline should not merely inform the reader of a “premise” or a “promise” but rather help them to do some soul-searching that may lead to a transformed life.
Donald Hamilton noted the following guidelines to aid the preacher in writing meaningful sermon points:
1. Each main point will be based on a part of the text characterized by key word (plural unifier).
2. Main points should ordinarily be stated in the preacher’s own words rather than the words of Scripture.
3. The number of main points will vary from sermon to sermon… the number depends upon the number of parallel ideas in the text.
4. Main points should be stated as complete sentences, not as single words or phrases. (Underlining added by author for emphasis.)
5. Main points should be stated as simple sentences.
6. Main points should be fresh – “tailor-made” – for the specific sermon.
7. Unclear words, abstractions, and figurative language should be avoided unless purposely chosen for effect.
8. Main points should be stated as briefly as possible.
9. As much as possible, each main point of a given sermon should be stated in a parallel manner to the other main points. (See Philippians 4 example above).
Example from Psalm 71:1-6
The Psalmist demonstrates that…
1. We can express an uncompromising trust in God (1-2)
2. We can focus on the unchanging stability of God (3)
3. We can rely upon our unhindered requests of God (4-6)
Back to the Proposition and Probing Question
Effective and meaningful outline points will support the proposition and answer the probing question. Going back to the example of Mark 1:1-8 notice the following:
Proposition: I want my listeners to understand that the modern Christian should recognize that God desires to use each of us in effective ways for His purposes as He used John the Baptist,.
Probing Question: What does this narrative specifically reveal for the modern Christian about being an effective servant for the purposes of God?
Notice how the following outline supports the proposition and answers the Probing Question:
1. An Effective/Significant ministry is connected to the awesome power of God (1-5)
2. An Effective/Significant Ministry is complimented with heart-felt humility (6-8)
This proposition reveals the preacher’s desire that his listeners have an effective ministry. The outline above relates directly to that desire as it suggests two aspects of effectiveness in ministry. More obviously, however, is that the outline answers, quite specifically, the probing question. The outline reveals two aspects of effectiveness in ministry. This standard of supporting the proposition and answering the probing question should never be compromised.
Notice the following example from Philippians 4:4-7:
Proposition: I want my hearers to consider the seriousness of our citizenship and therefore learn to live peaceably in order to protect our testimony.
Probing Question: “What does this passage specifically reveal about Christians avoiding bickering with each other?”
I. Decide to Remain Happy in the Lord (vs. 4)
II. Display a Right Attitude for the Lord (vs. 5)
III. Discuss your Real Concerns with the Lord (vss. 6-7)
Again, notice how the outline supports the proposition and answers the probing question. And for emphasis, notice how these points come from the selected text and not elsewhere in the Bible.
When it comes to outlining, as Hamilton noted, never, Never, NEVER use the phraseology of the biblical passage as the outline. For example, in the above passage from Philippians the outline is not:
I. Rejoice Always (vs. 4)
II. Let Your Gentle Spirit Be Known (vs. 5)
III. Be Anxious for Nothing (vss. 6-7)
The reason to avoid this approach is quite simple. By using the phraseology of the passage we are doing nothing more than reading what the text says to our listeners. If they can read then they simply will not need you. But by phrasing the points with the direct application approach, then you have the opportunity to demonstrate for them even deeper implications of the text to their lives.
Looking at Philippians 4:1-7 one will observe several references to the idea of being “in the Lord” (vs. 1, 2, 4, and 7). Therefore the prudent preacher will want this idea conveyed as both a reminder of a Christian’s position and as a method for avoiding bickering. So, the Christian is instructed in point 1 (I) to “decide to remain happy IN the Lord.” This carries so much more weight than the mere exhortation to “rejoice always.” The Christian is encouraged to make a daily decision to represent Christ joyously because of his or her position with the Lord. Going further, the idea of “displaying the right attitude FOR the Lord” carries with it a far deeper meaning and implication than merely letting a gentle spirit be known. And lastly, the idea of “discussing our real concerns WITH the Lord” is more meaningful than the idea of being anxious for nothing. When one is embittered toward a brother he should not bicker with him, but rather speak to the Lord in an attitude of petition and thanksgiving on behalf of that brother. In so doing the Lord will remind the Christian that He loves the very person the praying Christian is angry toward.
One of the goals of outlining is to convey the deeper implications of the text by showing the listeners what they typically cannot see for themselves with a general reading to the text. Too often preachers merely remind congregants of what they already know or what they can see for themselves as they read the selected text. Therefore, the prudent preacher will delve deep into the text and draw out (exegesis) the Spirit-intended implications. He will want to touch the emotions, psyche, and spirit of the listener with what he discovered while studying the passage. This is accomplished much more effectively with well-thought out and well-considered life-application outline points.
After I had been teaching for about five years I noticed that my student’s outlines were generally well-done and effective. But I also noticed that the outline points rarely pricked at my heart or caused any stirring in my spirit. This led me to review my own outline points. What I observed led me to the conclusion that the emotional/motivational aspects of the text were not always represented in the outline points. I had been teaching my students an approach that was truthful; but wooden, mechanical, and in some cases, lifeless. This reality led me to the use of what I now call “power words” within the outline points.
Let’s return to the example of Mark 1:1-8. Allow me to demonstrate what I mean. Observe the outline points I provided earlier:
1. His (John’s) ministry was connected to God’s power (1-5)
2. His (John’s) ministry was complimented with humility (6-8)
For many preachers this outline would seem sufficient. It is important to note, however, some serious weaknesses to this approach. First, the outline points are about John the Baptist’s ministry. While there is nothing inherently wrong with talking about John, the approach assumes the listener is interested in John. However, a study of human nature reveals that people are more concerned about themselves than others. This is why most listeners want to know how a sermon relates to them and why they should bother listening to it. Further, the above outline merely informs them as to how and why John was effective in ministry. Second, as it is stated it simply does not stir the emotions or the heart, nor does it reflect the motivational emphases of the narrative.
Many, perhaps even most, gifted expositors rarely consider that structuring the points in a way that John gets the emphasis is indeed a weakness. They assume that since John is the star of the passage then this is acceptable. And while I will agree that it is not “sinful” or “wrong” to structure the points this way, in my opinion there is a much stronger and more meaningful way to develop the outline. The goal should be to connect the text to the listener emotionally and spiritually. Therefore, the outline points should be written in the present-tense and geared toward the listener. As I will demonstrate, this will not take any of John’s glory from him.
When the preacher writes the points toward the listener they become:
1. Effective ministry is connected to God’s power (1-5)
2. Effective ministry is complimented with humility (6-8)
Again, for many preachers this approach would be sufficient. And while I will agree that it is not wrong or sinful, I will still contend that this approach does not cause the listener to do any soul searching or reflecting. The reason is because the points are stated as simple informative reality.
But notice what happens when the points are stated with text-honoring emphasis or power words:
1. An Effective/Significant ministry is connected to the awesome power of God (1-5)
2. An Effective/Significant Ministry is complimented with heart-felt humility
These added words may not make much of a visual difference as one reads them, but they do provide the preacher an opportunity to expose the motivational aspects of the text. John’s ministry was effective and powerful because it was connected to an awesome God who foretold of the coming of His Son. This God also provided the only message that saves lost people from their sins. It is clear that John the Baptist had no average or typical relationship with God. Clearly he was broken and moved by the awesomeness of Who God was and is. As the preacher preaches this reality he can emphasize that an awesome God desires to use every Christian in the same way He used John. That kind of effectiveness is only realized when God’s people come to understand just Who it is that they serve.
Further, as one looks at John’s life it is easy to see that his humility was not just a human attribute. John was humbled to the heart. He did not desire to put on performances that would bring him any personal recognition. He wanted, from the depths of his heart, to see all glory go to Jesus. The preacher can remind his listeners that they serve not from mere humility, but rather from a heart that has been humbled because of Who they serve and how they compare to Him! This is the difference between preaching general truth and preaching life-transforming truth! People will become emotionally involved as this type of preaching will force them to examine themselves to see if they see God in His awesomeness and if they are indeed humbled to the heart.
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