Translating the Outline

In in my book on homiletics, Preaching with Purpose, I have pointed out in some detail that most supposed preaching outlines, like the conception and stance of the sermon itself, are actually lecture and not preaching outlines. We have been taught wrongly.

A lecture outline is the division of a subject, topic, idea, or theme that is discussed during the lecture. It is usually abstract, third person, and concerns facts and persons long ago and far away. Because of the use of this format, the Bible has become a book that seems irrelevant to the average churchgoer. A preaching outline is the divisions of a biblically based address to and about a congregation in relationship to God and to their neighbors. It is second person, here and now and concrete. The lecture form sounds like this: “God told the Amalekites that they …,” while the preaching form sounds like this: “God says that you …” In the lecture outline the speaker talks about the Amalekites and about the Bible. In the preaching outline the preacher talks about God and the congregation from the Bible. There is a great difference.

But, suppose one is concerned about the matter and wants to change his practice so that he preaches instead of lectures. How would he go about it? The answer to that question is the purpose of this article.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to look at a couple of samples of lecture outlines (of course, you probably could provide ample examples yourself from your own barrel since that is the standard method of sermonic outlining that has been taught for generations). Consider two. The first is found in Zondervan’s 1983 Pastor’s Annual, a volume published every year with enough sermon outlines for preachers who don’t care to do their own work to use throughout the year. The outline was composed by T. T. Crabtree, a Baptist. The second comes from James Daane, a Christian Reformed writer, and is found in his book, Preaching with Confidence. Notice the similarity between the two, in spite of the radical difference in theology and denominational backgrounds. Here is Crabtree’s outline on 1 Cor. 12:31:

“A More Excellent Way”

[Love]

  1. Its Ministry of Healing
  2. Its Simplicity of Language
  3. Its Competency for Problem-Solving
  4. Its Superiority of Value

Here is Danne’s outline on John 3:16:

“The Greatness of God’s Love”

  1. Its Costly Expression
  2. Its Unworthy Object
  3. Its Saving Purpose

Consider both of these. Notice what is discussed—love. It is not the congregation or God or one’s neighbor that is discussed but love in the abstract. Notice the abstract language. The word “Its” stands out like a sore thumb. How can one discuss such a warm topic as love—whether it be God’s or man’s—under the term “its” and expect to reach his congregation with anything like an adequate appreciation of the subject? But, should love be discussed abstractly as a ‘subject’? That is the real question. And the answer is no. In neither passage (we will not go into exegesis since we are concerned only with outlining; we shall accept both authors’ exegeses as a given) is love presented that way. It is a distortion of the passage to discuss love like that.

What can be done to turn these lecture outlines into preaching outlines? They must be ‘translated’. I shall translate Crabtree’s for you:

“Take the More Excellent Way”

  1. Your Love can Heal
  2. Your Love can Speak
  3. Your Love can Solve Problems
  4. Your Love is of Great Value

Now, that outline preaches! There is nothing that might be said about the exposition of the passage under Crabtree’s lecture format that also cannot be said under the translated, preaching format. But everything you say will be said from a present-day, God-is-speaking-to-you-from-His-Word perspective rather than from a stance in which a lecturer is discussing a subject abstractly. The preacher is discussing the congregation! He brings the congregation and God together through the Word in a meeting in which the member is aware of the fact that God’s Word is addressing him.

Now, in the space below, try your hand at translating Daane’s outline into a preaching outline. One way to do it is to include the words “God” and “You” in each point:

Title:

I.

II.

III.

Now, having discovered that you can translate, take out some of your old lecture-sermon outlines. Play around with the main heads first (when you get to the subordinate points you do the same thing anyway) and see what you can do. There are other ways of translating, but if, at least to begin with, you include the words God and You in each point, that should force you to construct a preaching outline.

Try this out for several Sundays. You will be surprised at the reaction you will get from the congregation if you truly follow your outline and use “you” throughout the sermon as the outline suggests. You also will discover there is no need to tack an application on to the end of your lecture-sermon to turn it into a true sermon; you will be applying truth to the congregation—just as it was applied when it was given in the passage—throughout.

Take some of your old lecture-sermons and re-preach them translated. You will be interested to discover that they will sound like entirely different sermons. If they are recognized by your congregation as sermons you preached before, that probably will be due to illustrations and examples they remembered (stories are the one part of a sermonic lecture that is remembered, if any part is at all). If you change these, the likelihood is that you could preach sermons from two or three years ago without anyone ever knowing the difference.

Well, there you have it. You know what to do. Give it a try and notice the difference; you will be preaching at last!

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