Sermon Outline Template: Planning a Successful Sermon

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Most people (yes, even preachers) struggle to communicate at times. Have you ever had a message become muddled as you go along? Have you preached too long or come up a bit short? 

This is where a sermon outline template can be a lifesaver.

A good sermon requires a framework. It needs structure to organize your thoughts while you prepare and keep them focused as you preach.

A solid preparation system isn’t just a nifty addition to your preaching toolkit, either. It’s one of the two central requirements of writing a great sermon. The other key pillar is the willingness to learn and work on your communication skills … 

… both of which bring us back to the need for a sermon outline template. Personally, I’ve only written outlines for the last two decades. I’m not a full manuscript person because I think having an outline makes me appear more genuine and spontaneous when preaching. For many communicators, a great outline is all you need. 

A strong outline can help you deliver a strong sermon. 

What Is the Objective of a Sermon Outline?

A sermon outline gives you a clear blueprint. It helps you compile, contain, condense, and ultimately codify your thoughts into a single, flowing message that you can effectively communicate to an audience. It also makes it much easier to learn your message and internalize it.

An outline gives you an organized “big picture” perspective. It shows you where you’re starting, where you’re going, and the skeletal basics of what you want to cover between those two points. 

(The “skeletal” concept is important here. Don’t overfill your sermon outline, or it’ll lose its ability to guide you through your broader message.)

And even if you’re a full manuscript preacher, starting with an outline will help you organize your thoughts and ensure your sermon has a strong, logical flow. 

Outlines Aren’t a Hurdle: They’re a Runway.

Initially, the nature of sermon outlines could make them feel like chains restricting your creative freedom. They can also feel unnecessary, especially if you’re just trying to get one or two points across (more on the number of points you want to cover in a sermon in a minute).

While outlines can feel burdensome, nothing could be further from the truth. An outline helps you clear an overcrowded mind, organize your thoughts, and present your most profound faith-based revelations with clarity and purpose.

Remember, you aren’t teaching a class in seminary, delivering a detailed workshop, or conducting an open-ended discussion. You’re preaching a sermon, and that means you need to stay focused, forceful, and within your expected time frame (at least as much as possible).

A Sermon Outline Helps You Stick the Landing

How often do we hear sermons that start out strong, hit an unexpected detour or bunny trail, and crash land? 

A template helps you avoid that possibility. (Or if it happens, it enables you to get back on track quickly.)

A preaching outline provides the guardrails that most of us need to reach our conclusion with the greatest build-up and most potent effect. It guides you toward your finale and helps you repeatedly reiterate your main point without losing your audience along the way.

A sermon outline also gives you a greater sense of awareness from the start. On the one hand, you can see at a glance if you’ve added enough color through stories and examples. (Sermon illustrations are essential – they make a dry topic interesting and relatable.) 

On the other hand, it can also reveal if you’ve added so many things, it’s starting to feel like going to the neighbor’s house to see their three-hour-long vacation slide show. 

Both are traps. A sermon outline helps you identify the issues without having to sort them out in real time in front of a live congregation and rolling cameras (not that that’s ever happened before).

How Many Points Should Be Included in a Sermon? (And an Example)

Using a sermon outline template can help you decide how many points you want to make during a single message. While many people use a 3-point sermon outline, I’d suggest building your talk around a single, clear point. 

If you aren’t familiar with a 3-point sermon outline structure, this roughly looks as follows:

  • Your title: Take some time to develop a thoughtful and powerful title.
  • Your primary text: What passage of scripture or other faith-based text are you centering on?
  • Your primary takeaway: Distill your topic into a killer bottom line.
  • Your introduction: What relatable story, pain point, or other hook will you use to capture your audience’s attention?
  • Point 1: What is your first major takeaway? How does this reinforce your introduction?
  • Point 2: Does this takeaway follow up on Point 1 or support your primary takeaway independently?
  • Point 3: What climactic final point do you want to make? How does it connect to your primary theme?
  • Conclusion: How can you reiterate all three points and bring them together to support your original introduction? 

The format is simple. It’s flexible, too. However, it can end up covering too much ground, especially because when individuals deviate from the 3-point format, it’s usually so they can add a fourth, fifth, or sixth point.

Think twice before you do that, though. Your sermon outline shouldn’t function as a way to cram as many points as possible into each experience. On the contrary, you want to include as few points as possible. 

That’s why I’m a firm believer in the single-point message.

If you find things feel empty, invest your extra energy into getting one or two points across more thoroughly and clearly. Resist the urge to muddy things up with more independent sermon elements for your audience to follow.

A sermon consisting of a single, well-made point is infinitely more impactful than one with a dozen half-baked or half-understood takeaways.

In fact, when your focus is a Biblical passage with just one takeaway, shoehorning it into the tripartite sermon structure can be a net negative. Turning it into a multi-point message can dilute and even confuse the single lesson.

The thing to remember here is that quantity should never trump quality. 

Sure, it’s possible to pull off a four or five-point sermon successfully. 

However, it’s usually best to stick to the old mantra “less is more.” It’s sweet and blessedly simple to focus on a single bottom-line takeaway. 

Just ensure you have a clear outline to help you deliver it with aplomb. If you’re struggling with that, you may want to use a cheat sheet.

A Cheat Sheet to Build Your Sermon (and Its Outline)

Okay. A sermon outline template helps you narrow down your points and stay on track. But how do you actually use an outline template to build out the details of your sermon?

We already included a basic outline template above, but that only scratches the surface. If you want your preaching outline to help you truly deliver an exceptional experience for your audience, you need a process to inform and flesh out your outline. 

Next time you sit down to write, try the 10 steps in The Preaching Cheat Sheet. I’ll send it to your inbox, and help you move past jotting down your initial thoughts to ensure your message is relevant, engaging, and memorable.

The Cheat Sheet gives you a framework to create a relevant message that connects and inspires, whether you’re preaching for a congregation on Sunday morning, a youth group on Friday night, or any other setting. 

It will help you organize your thoughts and establish relevance regardless of the approach you take to preaching – topical, exegetical, or expositional. 

Here are a few things covered in my cheat sheet, that you won’t find in a template, making it simple to consistently create impactful messages:

  • How to create a captivating opening
  • Moving toward an applicable message
  • Building power in the text
  • Landing with a strong closing

To start preaching better sermons this week, get The Preaching Cheat Sheet (it’s free).

Expository Sermon Outline vs. Exegetical Preaching

As you prepare your sermon outline, there’s also the question of preparing an expository outline versus an exegetical sermon. While I have tended to preach topically, I’ve also preached expository sermons and exegetically as well (I did a 22-week series on Revelation once). Let’s compare and contrast the two for a minute, shall we? 

An Expository Sermon Outline

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the literal definition of the word “expository” is “explaining or describing something.” This is often depicted in the church as verse-by-verse preaching. 

When you choose a passage of scripture, read through it all at once, and then go back through it verse by verse and section by section, you’re preaching in an expository style

In that case, your outline will likely be composed of the verses themselves. Break these down into digestible sections, each with its own point and supporting elements. (This should be drawn from Biblical text and qualified supporting commentary, not just your own thoughts and opinions.)

Exegetical Preaching

In contrast to exposition, exegesis is defined by Grace Theological Seminary as “the critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture. Put simply, it’s the process of discovering the original and intended meaning of a passage of scripture.” 

In other words, exegesis focuses on the interconnected elements within scripture. It digs into names and dates, Old and New Testament connections, grammar, language, literary context, and so on.

When you prepare an exegetical preaching outline, you should focus on a limited number of takeaways. It’s easy to get carried away with your supporting elements, but you want to stay focused and simple. Don’t feel the need to explain everything, or you’ll lose everybody.

And don’t forget application. People didn’t come to parse Greek verbs or understand the author’s history and background. They came to hear the Word of God applied to their lives. 

Choosing the Exegetical or Expository Sermon Format

Get this: both exposition and exegesis are important parts of preaching. In fact, they often overlap. 

According to theologian Haddon Robinson, “Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give your people what they need to understand the passage.” It’s important to note that Haddon Robinson was also excellent at exegeting culture and the people he was preaching to. 

To put it another way, exegesis should always occur behind the scenes. As H.B. Charles, Jr. puts it, “Exegesis is essential to exposition. But exegesis is not equal to exposition.”

You should plan on investing the time and effort required to adequately grasp your topic before narrowing down that knowledge into a sermon format. Charles adds that exegetical research on its own does not a sermon make, adding, “It is the ingredients of a sermon. Expository preaching is proclaiming a biblical message, not rehearsing research material.”

When you create your outline, you need to decide if you’ll maintain that broad, interconnected, exegetical approach as you preach or if you want to stick to a more expository verse-by-verse walkthrough. In either case, you should expect to lean on your personal exegetical research to inform what you’re saying to your audience.

Topical Preaching

A third approach to preaching is topical preaching. Topical preaching is one of the most popular forms of preaching in growing churches. And as I indicated earlier, it tends to be my default style.

The Gospel Coalition defines topical preaching as an approach that gets its topic from a text. The critical distinction, it says, is that the topic is developed according to its nature rather than the text’s nature. 

That said, for a topical sermon to be a faithful sermon, it has to be true to scriptural teachings on a topic. 

The advantage to preaching topically is that you start with the felt need of the congregation found in the text – the pain point

Whether the topic is sex, relationships, feeling close to God, developing a prayer life, or the problem with debt (all of which the scripture has a lot to say about), people tend to lean in early because they immediately see the relevance to their lives. 

And, of course, relevancy helps people engage. Nobody is anxious to learn things they deem irrelevant to their lives. The more relevant a topic, the more likely people are to lean in. 

Again, you can be very relevant with exegetical or expositional preaching, but you have to be intentional about it. 

Do’s and Don’ts of Following a Sermon Outline Template

As you build out each sermon outline template, there are a few things you want to keep in mind. On the positive side:

  • Make sure you start strong: From curious titles to intriguing introductions, help your sermon start with a clear purpose.
  • End just as strong: It’s easy to overlook the ending, but don’t leave yourself hanging — plan your exit strategy, including your final line, so that you create a memorable conclusion that will stick with your listeners, even after they leave their seats.
  • Tie everything back to your single main takeaway: If it doesn’t reinforce your primary message, it shouldn’t be in the sermon.

There are also a few not-so-great items to avoid as you prepare each sermon:

  • Don’t plagiarize anyone: Always avoid copying other people’s content. Attribute quotes to the right person, cite sources, and avoid reading verbatim from your notes if possible.
  • Don’t preach other people’s sermons: Preaching other people’s sermons is an epidemic. It makes it easy to stop growing, start lying, and even lose touch with God. Use other sermons to inspire your own original, prayer-based, God-infused ideas.
  • Don’t short-change your prep time: You need time to gather your thoughts and organize them into an outline without truncating, confusing, or misrepresenting your takeaways.

A sermon outline template is a grounding element that helps you prepare more powerful sermons … when used correctly. Remember the dos and don’ts above to ensure your outline helps rather than hinders your preparation.

Using a Sermon Outline Template to Amplify Your Message

Sermon prep can be overwhelming. An outline gives you something to channel your research and revelations. It helps you turn personal epiphanies into unique, targeted experiences for a larger group of individuals, whether they’re a congregation, an unchurched audience, teenagers, children, or anyone else.

Do you already use sermon outline templates to prepare for your messages? Are you considering them in the future? Scroll down and share your thoughts. We’d love to have you join the conversation!

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