Pastors are often taught in seminary to develop a content outline for their sermons. This type of outline is designed to help you teach the Bible, but rarely does it lead to effective sermons and life change.
And the purpose of our preaching is to see God change lives.
That’s why I developed what I call a communication outline for my sermons. The purpose of a communication outline is to change lives rather than simply inform. Instead of a series of alliterated points backed by sub-points that simply describe the text, I turn my points into applications, and each one has an action to take.
Let me show you how these two outlining strategies—content and communication—might impact a typical sermon on the book of Jonah.
Here’s a content outline for the book of Jonah:
Jonah’s four chapters break down into four good points no matter which outline you’re using.
As you know, Jonah runs down to Joppa and gets on a boat headed for Tarsus in chapter one. God told him to go east, and Jonah went as far west as possible. In a content outline, you might name the point: See Jonah running.
Then in chapter two, Jonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish. That’s where we find Jonah’s prayer of repentance, as he tells God: “God, I’m sorry. I blew it. I should have trusted you.” In a content outline, the second point would be: See Jonah repenting.
In chapter three, we find one of my favorite Old Testament verses: “When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord” (Jonah 2:7 TLB). When the fish spits Jonah back onto land, he heads to Nineveh (back where he should have gone in the first place) and preaches God’s message. The point for chapter three would be: See Jonah returning.
Then, if you’re like me, you spend the next two hours trying to figure out the fourth “r”! In chapter four, God brings great revival to Nineveh, but Jonah gets mad. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place. He didn’t want God to save the people of Nineveh. As Jonah is resting outside the city, the Bible says that God causes a plant to grow to provide shade for Jonah, but then it dies. Jonah begins to complain, and God rebukes him by noting how much more he cares about the plant than he did for the people of Nineveh. In a content outline, your fourth point might be: See Jonah ranting and raving.
So then you have a nice alliterated sermon outline for the book of Jonah. But are those points what you really want people to remember?
Here’s a communication outline for the book of Jonah:
Instead of a cute alliteration, I want my congregation to remember the truth of the Bible—truth that leads to life change. So if I’m developing a communication outline for Jonah, I might title it: What to Do When You’ve Really Messed Up.” After all, that’s what Jonah is all about.
In Jonah 1, the first step I want to communicate is: Realize God is everywhere. Jonah 1 teaches us that you can run from God, but you can’t hide. No matter where Jonah went (Joppa, the bottom of the ocean, and so on), God knew where he was. When you’ve messed up, you need to know God is right there with you, even in the very places where you messed up.
The second step is from Jonah 2: Refocus on God wherever you are. Jonah is at the bottom of the ocean in the belly of a great fish when he repents. If you’ve messed up, you don’t need to wait until you get back to church to repent. Do it right where you are.
The truth I want my congregation to understand in Jonah chapter 3 is this: Receive God’s second chance. In Jonah 3, the big fish spits Jonah out, and the Lord uses him for a second time. Talk about grace! That’s what you want to show your congregation, that God can use them even after they fail.
In chapter four, you take the focus off of Jonah and communicate this truth: Share God’s love with everyone. God wants everyone to know him—even your enemies. God communicated that to Jonah in chapter 4, so you communicate that truth to your congregation with your fourth point.
By the way, note that the fourth point doesn’t have an “r” in it. Is that a problem? No. It’s more important to be clear than cute.
So what are you telling the congregation to do when they mess up?
- Realize God is everywhere.
- Refocus on God wherever you are.
- Receive God’s second chance.
- Share God’s love with everyone.
If you want to see God change lives, use an outline that communicates the applications of the text instead of one that just describes the text. The Bible should determine the substance of your message, and the people’s needs should determine the structure of your message.