Ousting the Outliner: Giving the Text Its Natural Voice in Preaching

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Leadership, Preaching

I’m an outliner — a certifiably addicted one. My lecture notes, sermon notes, to-do lists, and notebooks full of ideas for church, blogs, projects, and books—all exist in outline form. Outlines are easy and accessible, providing nice pegs on which to hang thoughts and clean ways to organize them. Outlines, though, have limitations. A lecture outline isn’t a lecture, and a sermon outline isn’t a sermon. Indeed, outlining without understanding the limitations will ruin preaching.

Outlines are helpful for sermon planning and sermon delivery, but sometimes a preacher will go to the text merely intent on finding a good outline of ideas without full consideration of the text’s overall coherence. The sermon, then, rushes to spell out the “points” of the text without first presenting the main idea of the text and allowing it to come home to real life. Yet, the Bible is complex, multi-layered, and immensely beautiful literature, not an encyclopedia of theological outlines. The words, phrases, and their meanings must be viewed in their relation to one another, not simply worked through line by line. Too many sermons divide a text into three to five equal parts and move through them piece by piece, giving equal attention to each, in outline form. The problem, of course, is that a biblical text very rarely works this way.

For example, recently I preached from Philippians 2:1-4.[quote style=”full”]

1So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love,
any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,
2complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love,
being of one accord and of one mind.
3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
4Let each of your look not only to his own interests,
but also to the interests of others.

[/quote] I could have approached the text by dividing it into three roughly equal parts in a linear fashion:

  1. Value the Benefits of Belonging to a Believing Community (2:1)
  2. Strive for Unity within the Community (2:2)
  3. Make Humility the Mark of Genuine Unity (2:3-4)

However, the imperative in verse 2—“complete my joy by being of the same mind”—is actually the main idea of the text. Verse 1 gives the main idea a ground and motive, and verses 3 and 4 add specific instructions. So, in constructing the sermon, I needed to give priority to verse 2. The sermon introduction and conclusion needed to raise the tension introduced in verse 2, because it forms the author’s central intent.

We sometimes forget that biblical authors were addressing real issues and writing for certain purposes, not creating outlines of theological ideas. When texts are treated with an “all parts equal,” line-by-line approach, a problem in arises with application. Preaching becomes “cheerleading” the ideas of the text without placing them in the real-life context in which they were inspired and written. The sermon, then, comes across as a string of linear ideas, each of which is “cheerleaded” without considering how the ideas come together to form a whole. Often, application becomes forced and vague, lacking real-time examples and vivid illustrations that show just how applicable and accessible the text really is. Never forget that the main idea of a text (expressed in its logical, grammatical arrangement) raises a tension—a real-life need which requires the grace of the passage (see Bryan Chapell’s excellent book, Christ-Centered Preaching, for his “fallen condition focus” concept). The introduction, body, and conclusion should raise, address, and resolve that tension as the sermon demonstrates how the text works out its own main idea. Done this way, application and illustration come naturally and immediately, requiring less “cheerleading,” because the preacher addresses the same need that the author addressed, and in the same way he addressed it. This, I believe, is much of what it means to put the text in the driver’s seat.

A few encouragements for expository preachers:

  1. Give attention to the logical order of the text in its grammatical expression, and don’t merely view the text as a series of linear ideas.
  2. Identify the central idea (what Haddon Robinson famously calls “the big idea”), bring it to bear in the introduction in real-life terms, then show how the text fleshes out its own idea.
  3. As an outflow of arranging the sermon according to the grammatical logic of the text, give a full effort to vivid illustration and real-life, example-based application.