“A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew…”
A lack of clarity might be the most common failure in preaching; but thankfully, it’s fairly easy to remedy. As a preacher, your job is to be as clear as possible. It is not the job of your listeners to figure out what you are saying. Clarity is essential. There are few things more frustrating than a teacher who isn’t clear. It confuses people. It frustrates people. People want to know where you’re going. People want to know what you are you trying to say.
In terms of increasing clarity, having a clear outline is the single greatest thing you can do. It’s imperative that you organize your material and your message into a logical, easy-to-follow message that your hearers will be able to follow.
This simple point of having a clear outline will radically help many preachers and teachers (not to mention those listening).
The Importance of Clarity in the Pulpit
Someone asked John Stott what he felt was the most important thing for teachers to learn. He said, “there are three things the preacher must do.” “Be clear. Be clear…Be clear.” It is your job to be perfectly clear, logical, and easy to follow.
The outline is the bones of the message. The skeleton. Everything hangs on of the bones. Assuming you have already studied and done the hard work of interpreting the passage. You now have a good grasp of the flow of thought and the context and the meaning. You have read through the commentaries. You have soaked in the Word. Now is the time to extract that information into a medium for you to preach.
Let me give you an example of a good outline. Let's say you are preparing a message on Ephesians 6:18-20. You have studied the passage. You have meditated on the passage, and now you are thinking how you can best communicate this particular text to a group of people. To help do this, you need an outline that accurately represents the passage.
Ephesians 6:18-20, “…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
SIX BRIEF LESSONS IN PRAYER
Lesson One: Always Be Creative in Your Prayer Life—“with all prayer
Lesson Two: Always Be in a Spirit of Prayer—“pray at all times”
Lesson Three: Always Be Praying in the Power of the Spirit—“in the
Lesson Four: Always Be Watching and Praying—“Be on the alert with all
perseverance and petition”
Lesson Five: Always Be Praying for Others—“for all the saints”
Lesson Six: Always Be Praying for Missionaries and the Gospel—“that
utterance may be given to me…[that] I may speak boldly, as I ought to
-Pray for clarity in explaining the gospel.
-Pray for boldness in presenting the gospel.
Conclusion and Response.
One major advantage to using an outline is that the person listening can also see your whole sermon visually. In other words, the listener can see the entire sketch of the sermon on paper or screen. Not only will you know where you are going, they will know where you are going.
Notice that each of the points in the outline are parallel points. It is important that your outline has a parallel structure to it. This makes it easy to remember and follow. You don’t have Point 1 – three words and a phrase, Point 2 – a whole sentence, and Point 3 – one word. Not only can no one can remember that, and it can’t be followed. A good parallel outline actually excites the listener to anticipate what is coming, and it’s much easier to remember.
Most outlines will also include some sub points. Notice at the end of this sermon, Point 6 has two sub points. Again this is simple and easy for a listener to understand and follow. It builds a measure of anticipation for the listener.
How will an outline be used? In two ways, primarily.
One way is through the form of a paper handout or a bulletin insert, or even a powerpoint (or all of the above). The other way an outline can be used is through your own preaching notes.
For instance, when I get to “Lesson One: Always Be Creative in Your Prayer Life—“with all prayer and petition” I know that the audience has this as point number one, but in my own notes, I have more information. I might have the explanation of what Paul means by “all prayer” or the differences between prayer and petition. I might have illustrations and application and stories that all underpin this first lesson. None of these notes are in the bulletin or handout or powerpoint, but they are in my own outline, which is simply a longer, more elaborate version of the handout outline. This way we are all on the same page and the listeners can follow along.
How does one develop an outline? One suggestion is to begin crafting a rough outline as soon as you begin preparation. Even if it’s a very rough outline, it’s helpful to have some place to file information as you read and prepare.
Let’s say you are reading commentaries on Ephesians 6 and you run across a great story on a missionary and prayer; now you have a place to file that story and use it in your message. The shape of the sermon continues to change and morph as you get a better understand of the passage. Your outline might change a number of times throughout your preparation process.
Maybe as you are reading, you discover how other preachers divided up the passage and it sparks some ideas for your particular context? Maybe you read the passage before any preparation and you notice that this passage teaches six lessons on prayer. Perfect, now you have an outline and you can file anything that comes to mind into that outline.
One of the most prominent mistakes teachers make is to not connect their material to the text.
Let me give you a example: You may listen to a preacher start off with an introduction and then a story and then some comments, and then fifteen minutes later, he says, “Ok let’s look at this passage now.” This is a terrible mistake. If what you say isn’t connected to the Scriptures, then you are not doing biblical exposition.
If what we are saying isn’t connected to the passage, then why are we saying it?
Outlines force us to be clear. Outlines force us to connect our words to the text.
The Outline Bible, Willmington, H. L. The Outline Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999. Print.
*Most preaching commentaries use an outline—check as many as you can (e.g., Preaching the Word Series, Crossway, John MacArthur New Testament Commentary Series, etc.)
Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon
Preaching and Preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. 1971 Zondervan
Between Two Worlds, John Stott, p.211-254 1982, Eerdman’s
Saving Eutychus, Gary Millar and Phil Campbell, Mathias Media 2013
Dave Anderson is a Pastor and Bible teacher at Littleton Bible Chapel. He is married to the lovely Lonnalee, and together they have three kids--Mollie, Ryle Ironside, and Georgia. Dave also is involved with Biblical Eldership Resources, a ministry that provides biblical resources for the practice of eldership (www.biblicaldership.com)