Structure is of the essence in communication. According to Haddon Robinson, a good sermon structure (a) helps the speaker to see the relationships between the various parts of the sermon; (b) enables the speaker to see the sermon as a whole; (c) ensures that the hearer will receive the ideas in the appropriate sequence; (d) identifies those places in the sermon where additional supporting material is needed to develop the points.
1. What are the qualities of an effective structure?
Some of the leading qualities and characteristics of good sermon structure may be summarised as follows:-
(a) Faithfulness to the text
Older preachers used to talk about ‘opening’ their text. The skilful expositor will show how the text naturally breaks up into its various parts of divisions. However, a structure can still be faithful to the text even though it is not derived directly from the text. For example, a sermon on the text, ‘Honour your father and your mother’ may show the different ways in which parents should be honoured (respect, obedience, maintenance, and so on).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones warns that various forms of professionalism can detract from faithfulness to the text. While hesitating to say that ‘apt alliteration’s artful aid’ is actually wrong, he points out that it can be a snare to some men in this matter of textual fidelity:- ‘In order to get the third heading to start with the same letter as the other two they sometimes have to manipulate their matter just a little. But that is precisely what…we must not do.’
Our starting point here is that the sermon as a whole should have a single aim or purpose. A test of unity is whether you can state the theme of the sermon in a single sentence (or even, as Jay Adams suggests, in a one-word imperative, such as “Pray! Work! Repent! Go! Believe! Investigate!”. The structure should reflect this overall unity. So, for example, each element in of the structure should represent a different aspect of the same thing, rather than a different thing.
If the different elements of a sermon are related to the overall theme, then they will be related to each other as well. This ‘harmony’ (to use Bryan Chapell’s term) is often achieved by means of parallelism. Chapell gives the following example:-
- Pray, because prayer will reveal your heart.
- Pray, because prayer will reach God’s heart.
- Pray, because prayer will conquer others’ hearts.
Harmony can been expressed in a number of other ways, including, says Chapell, ‘using key words that begin with the same letter (alliteration), sound similar (assonance, rhyme, rhythm), spur interest (created words, word play, contrasts, irony), and/or reflect a logical, a literary, or a pictorial pattern (ready, aim, fire; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry on top; bottom of the ninth, two outs, two strikes).’ If some of these techniques can seem frivolous – and indeed they can be – let’s not forget that the Psalmist sometimes used acrostics and Jesus himself sometimes used puns.
The logic in a sermon’s structure may be of different kinds. It may well be textual: coming directly from the flow of the biblical passage itself. A sermon on 1 Cor 1:30: ‘Christ is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption’ might well have four obvious headings, drawn directly from the text. But a structure based simply on the sequence of ideas in the biblical text may at other times end up just being a series of paraphrases. A sermon may following the logic inherent in the following steps: state, explain, illustrate, apply. For a motivational message Jay Adams cites the following approach: attention, need, solution, visualisation, appeal. (This can be understood by means of a commercial example: “Ladies, do you suffer from dishpan hands? If so, use Sudsy. In four days your hands will be soft and look lovely. Next time you shop pick up Sudsy.”)
The structure of a sermon should, where possible, show progression. This may be, for example, progression from plight to solution, from lesser to greater, from earthly and temporal to heavenly and eternal. For example, a message on Hebrews 4:1-13 might pick up the imagery of the Christian life as a journey, with the following divisions:-
- Get started
- Keep going
Headings should not merely describe, but indicate the kind of respond required from the hearer. I confess that I need to work harder at this. As an example of a merely descriptive outline, consider the following divisions of a sermon I preached some years ago on Holy Communion (1 Cor 11:23-26). Holy Communion, I said, is
- An act of remembrance, v25
- An act of communion, 10:16
- An act of fellowship, 10:17
- An act of self-examination, v28
- An act of anticipation, v26
I think that this outline kept quite close to the text of Scripture, achieved some harmony, and also some progression (beginning with the past and ending in the future). But the outline is merely descriptive: it does not indicate how the hearers are expected to respond. I remember this being pointed out at the time by a friendly critic – and he was quite right.
Public speakers should remember that the structure of their message will tend to be more obvious to them than to the hearers. We should never assume that because the outline is clear to the eye of preacher it is necessarily clear to the ear of the hearer. Clarity will be enabled by careful observance of the points indicated above. Moreover, it will be assisted by carefully-constructed transitions that help the listener along. Such transitions may, in the words of Haddon Robinson, ‘review where they have been, identify the thought to which they are moving, relate what has been said to the main subject or idea, and interest the hearer in the new.’ John Stott was skilled at using summary statements (“So, then, we have seen that…”) as effective transitions.
If the hearer can remember the main points of the sermon, then he will have the gist of it, and will be able to meditate on it and apply it in the week to come. But avoid contrived headings: an addiction to alliteration can seriously distort the message as well as irritate the hearers. But words should be chosen carefully: headings should be clear, precise, and ear-catching. Richard Bewes suggests that one of the tests of memorability is whether the preacher can remember his own headings, forty-eight hours after speaking!
Each of the main points in the address should normally be about the same length. Because hearers expect this to be so, then the preacher should make it clear that he is going to spend more time on one point than on the others.
2. How many points?
Three points seem to be a natural number for many sermons. I recently had to preach a sermon on Song of Songs 7:9b-8:7. I felt that the playfulness of the passage encouraged the use of alliteration on this occasion. But t one point in my preparation I had about ten points, all beginning with the letter ‘D’! Had I preached from that outline, the sermon would have been little more than a series of bullet-points. And, in any case, there was a lot of overlap between the various points. So, in the end, I narrowed it down to a more conventional three-point outline:-
- Love’s delight
- Love’s devotion
- Love’s durability
There does seem to be something ‘natural’ about the three-point structure. It readily resonates with (or may indeed draw on) the three-in-oneness of the Trinity, or alludes to past, present and future, or refers to individual, local, and world-wide implications, or applies to family, education, and employment, and so on.
We should, however, avoid slavish adherence to three-point sermons. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells of a preacher who took as his text, “And Balaam arose early and saddled his ass”. We might well wonder how it is possible to extract a single preachable point from such a text, but this preacher was able to do wonders with it. His outline was:-
- Balaam arose early (a good trait in a bad character)
- He saddled his ass (on the antiquity of saddlery)
- A few remarks concerning the woman of Samaria
Lloyd-Jones calls this ‘ridiculous’, and there is no other word for it.
A two-point structure is not merely three points minus one. A two-point sermon can do things that a three-point sermon cannot. It can say, for example, ‘Not this…but that’; ‘you have heard it said…but I say to you…’; ‘before…but now…’ For example, a sermon on Romans 5:12-21 might well be a two-pointer, reflecting that passage’s contrast between then and now, between Adam and Christ.
As for messages with more than three points, the main rule is to avoid over-complexity. We wonder what Richard Baxter’s hearers were thinking by the time he announced his sixty-sixth point!
Should the headings be announced at the outset? It all depends. There can be a legitimate element of discovery that would be missed if the preacher showed his hand right at the beginning. But on many occasions this would not be a problem, and indeed the hearers might find it helpful to be given a simple map that they can follow while listening.
Should the headings be announced at all? Again, it all depends. Bryan Chapell says, ‘as preachers mature, they will discover that rhetorical “moves,” homiletical “plots,” concept-rich “images,” thoughtful transitions, implied ideas, and other measures can often substitute for the formal statement of points in their outlines.’ But such strategies are developments of, rather than substitutes for, skilled outlining.
3. What about narrative forms?
It should be pretty obvious that sermons from the epistles lend themselves to the kinds of structures indicated above more easily than sermons from poetry, parables, or narratives. When preaching from such material, the conventional propositional three-pointer may simply not be the best tool for the job. Here, the preacher may choose to take his cue from the passage itself. Why not preach a narrative sermon from a narrative text? Here are a few things I have tried with narrative passages:-
1 Kings 21-22 – This message consisted of a dramatised account of the episode involving King Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard.
Mt 1:18-25 – This message was presented as a semi-scripted role play between an interviewer and ‘Joseph’.
Luke 10:38-42 – This message was presented as an imaginary visit to Martha, years after the event recorded by Luke.
In each of the above three messages, (which, by the way, were prepared for adult hearers, not children), no attempt was made to outline the sermon in any conventional way. The sermon followed the narrative flow of the passage itself, with applications being drawn out by the ‘characters’ along the way (and, especially, towards the end).
The following were referred to in the preparation of this article:-
- John Stott, I believe in preaching
- Bryan Chapell, Christ-centred preaching: redeeming the expository sermon
- R.L. Dabney, Lectures on sacred rhetoric
- Jay Adams, Pulpit speech
- David Day, A preaching workbook
- Richard Bewes, Speaking in public effectively
- Haddon Robinson, Expository preaching: Principles & practice
- D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and preachers