Preacher School #5: Outline the Passage

In an earlier lesson I said that your sermon outline would come directly out of the text. Rather than assembling what you want to say and trying to fit that into a text, your job is to let the text form your preaching outline. Banish the idea of “three points and a poem!”  Unless, of course, the original text contains three points and a certain poem wonderfully encapsulates its message.

But how do you get to that outline? What do you look for?

The best way to start doing this is to buy a book on grammatical diagramming. There are many available and I am so retro that I am holding out hope it is making a comeback. Kitty Burns Florey wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times recently that suggested the same!

If you didn’t get this stuff figured out in Grade 8 English, don’t fret. Neither did I. But lots of practice and lots of humility can take you a long way in the right way. The beauty of it all is that it forces you to consider every single word and how it relates to all the others.

A Test Run

To help you get the gist of this, we will look at the grammatically simple Ezra 7:10. The first thing to do is read Ezra (all of it and hopefully in at least two English translations). Then figure out where you are in the Biblical storyline. If you understand Hebrew, your next step is to start considering what each word means and how it connects to all the others. This can be done in English as well, as long as you recall that translations never give an exact word-for-word rendering of the original text.

So, Ezra 7:10 says this: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”

Start by looking for the main verb of the sentence. Once you have located it, arrange every word of the verse as follows.

Subject | Verb / indirect or direct object of verb

In our example, these words are: Ezra, had set his heart, to study the Law of the LORD, to do it, to teach his statutes and rules.)

What you will have left are primarily a bunch of conjunctions and modifying words. They need to be attached (like stems) to the words they connect or modify. (In our example, these words are: for, his, and, in Israel.)

Altogether, the diagram for the verse will look something like this:


In this diagram, you will notice two things right away. The main verb of the passage concerns Ezra choosing to set his heart on something. Actually, diagramming makes it clear that he was setting his heart on three parallel things.  So, in this sermon, we are actually going to get three points!

Move From Diagram to Preaching Outline

Next you must move your visual representation closer to a preaching outline. It is helpful at this point to write out what your diagram visually represents.

 Main Verb: For Ezra had set his heart

Point 1: To study the Law of the Lord

Conjunction: And

Point 2: To do it

Conjunction: And

Point 3: To teach his statutes and rules in Israel

But this is just assembling the pieces of the puzzle. Now, the fun begins. You are going to preach this passage, not just repeat back its words. So you have got to take these points and put them into your own words. Since we are sermonizing here so I am picturing myself preaching this text to a group of preachers. I want to call these men to something based on this text.  So, I might re-phrase the outline to an imperative like this:

Commit to being a man of the Truth, Preacher!

1.         Absorb the Truth

2.         Practise the Truth

3.         Speak the Truth

Notice how the three points all substantiate and explain the main point.  These are not three unrelated thoughts – they all drive to the one big point. Once the main points are settled, begin to fill in the outline with explanations.

Title: Commit to being a man of the Truth, Preacher!

  • Ezra is a model to all of us of a faithful preacher
  • He lived a life committed to God’s Word
  • His actions are timeless and instructive to all preachers

         1.         Absorb the Truth          

  • Ezra had settled in his mind a commitment to three actions
  • there is a chronological order to these actions
  • the first was “to study” – this meant to ponder over and fully understand the words of the text before him
  • A man cannot teach what he does not know
  • etc…

Now you are off to the races. Do the same thing for all three points and by the end you will have a kind of first draft to a really good sermon. It is no where near ready to preach yet, but when the time for delivery arrives you will be able to stand and deliver with conviction and love since you really know what this text means.

Two final notes

In my experience, this outline will go through 3 or 4 major revisions. As you continue to study the text your understanding of its message will sharpen and hopefully improve the outline. Secondly, parallelism in an outline is a nice feature, but accurately expressing the message of the text is more important. Get the message across. That is the matter of first importance.

6 thoughts on “Preacher School #5: Outline the Passage

  1. Great question, Dave. The simple is answer is, you do the same thing. Only now you extend the connections to see how each sentence connects to the other. I generally preach one or two paragraphs (sometimes more) per week, so I am doing this every week in large chunks.
    I gave the Ezra example since it is so plain and concise, but the goal is to do this with the whole book you are preaching. The only exception I make is when I am preaching narrative passages. There I take a slightly different route.

    • What method do you use to map the interaction of sentences with each other? Does it look just like you sentence diagram? I imagine that could be quite unmanagable.

      • Dave –
        Same method. I left out of my sample diagram the vertical lines that would join the whole thing together – too technologically challenged to figure out how to do that! But if you go to the Kitty Burns link above you will see more visual representations of the same thing. In the end, every sentence will be joined to all the others with the major breaks forming the furthest indent left.
        Maybe I will try to post some of my outlines here to show you what I mean.

  2. Wow! This was a huge help! Thank you so much. I’m just beginning to preach God’s Word and I’ve been struggling so much with identifying a main point and outlining. This method clears it up for me.

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