Preaching Beyond the Skeleton
An outline is not a sermon. It needs muscle, blood, and flesh.
Have you ever read something that made all the bells go off inside you? You yell, “That’s it! That’s what I’ve been thinking!” because it seems the author has been reading your thoughts. It happened to me this weekend. Warren Wiersbe did it.
Dr. Wiersbe put his insight in the form of a story. I suspect it’s a parable, meaning he fictionalized it in order to make a point. (He has good precedent; our Lord did this.) Briefly, the story he told was this:
Grandma Thatcher sits in church with a number of hurts and spiritual needs. Although she’s lovingly known throughout the congregation as a saint, she gets nothing but harassment and trials at home for her faith. When she gets to church, she needs a word from God.
On this particular morning, the pastor stood at the pulpit and preached from Genesis chapter 9, the main thrust of which was his outline, with all the points beginning with the same letters. The outline was excellent, as those things go:
Creation Presented – Genesis 9:1-3
Capital Punishment – Genesis 9:4-7
Covenant Promised – Genesis 9:8-17
Carnality Practiced – Genesis 9:18-23
Consequences Prophesied – Genesis 9:24-29
As she departs the sanctuary, Grandma mutters to herself, “Last week it was all S’s. Today it’s all CP’s.” She walked out of the church that day with her hunger unabated and returned home to face a hostile husband and another week of trials.
Not long after, the pastor had to be out of town and invited a missionary to fill the pulpit. Oddly, the missionary preached from the same text, Genesis 9. But he took an entirely different approach. The speaker began his sermon by describing a rainstorm he’d experienced while on a missionary trip in the mountains. The congregation chuckled when he said, “I wish Noah had been with us. We could have used him!”
Then he started talking about the storms in human lives, and the compassion in his voice convinced the congregation that he’d been through more than one storm himself. “Storms are a part of life; God made it that way,” he said. “But I’ve learned a secret that’s helped me all these years, and it’s still helping me: Always look for the rainbow. The world looks for the silver lining and sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ but we Christians have something far better than that. Did you ever meet the three men in the Bible who saw rainbows?”
His outline and the message that morning centered on Noah, who saw the rainbow AFTER the storm (Genesis 9); Ezekiel, who saw the rainbow IN THE MIDST of the storm (Ezekiel 1); and John, who saw the rainbow BEFORE the storm (Revelation 4:1-3).
He closed his Bible, smiling at the listening congregation, and said, “Dear friends, you and I will experience storms until we are called to heaven, and then all storms will cease. Expect the storms and don’t be afraid of them, because God is always faithful. Just remember God’s message to us today: Always look for the rainbows. Depend on the faithfulness of God. Sometimes He’ll show you the rainbow after the storm, sometimes during the storm, and sometimes before the storm. But He will never fail you.”
Now there, Grandma Thatcher thought, was a word from the Lord that nourished her soul.
What was the difference in the two sermons? Here is how Dr. Wiersbe analyzes the difference: “The pastor took skeletons into the pulpit and ended with cadavers in the pews—undernourished saints who had nothing to chew on but outlines. The guest missionary speaker took both concepts and images into the pulpit and wove them together in such a way that his listeners’ ears became eyes, and they saw the truth. In seeing the truth, their imagination was cleansed and nourished, and they were spiritually satisfied and encouraged within. I can’t prove it statistically, but I have a feeling that many, if not most, of the people in our churches suffer from starved imaginations.”
Your listeners are moved and touched when they can make a relevant connection between the sermon and their everyday lives. Pastors can achieve this connection in all kinds of ways, such as narrative, imagery, metaphor, multimedia, and other forms that engage the mind, soul and heart as well as the brain. Alone, catchy points on sermon outlines cannot move people any more than a skeleton will move with no meat on its bones.
As a young pastor trying to find my way in the ministry, I gradually found myself eschewing neat little sermon outlines, each line beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. Had you asked, I could not have told you why. But even then I knew a message that just talked about the Principle of something, the Power of that thing, the Purpose of it, and the Practice of seemed lifeless. Take the dictionary down and you can find another dozen P’s to use as points of that sermon. Doubtless, untold numbers of pastors have done just that.
The outlines of my best sermons are commonly made up of principles and not “points” at all. For instance, in the well-known story of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus and tore up the roof to get him into the room (Mark 2), the three parts of my “outline” are:
–People are more important than things. (They tore open the roof.)
–The spiritual is more important than the physical. (Jesus forgave the paralytic before healing him.)
–A demonstration is more important than a profession. (Jesus backed up His words with the demonstration of His power.)
Years ago, I began collecting and comparing sermons on that story in Mark 2. No two were alike, some more creative and helpful than others. All reflected the individuality of the preacher, which is how it should be. But they also revealed the wide variety of listener personalities out there, the different ways people grasp concepts and learn from them. As I studied each message, it brought to mind different ways I could bring home the principles to different people in my own audience. And, I’m sure you’ll agree by definition, the more people I reach—the more imaginations I can connect to the text—the more successful the sermon.
Calvin Miller, retired professor of preaching from Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, is unquestionably the most creative preacher of this age. His mind is brilliant and his preaching style without parallel. This, more than one of us have told him, is the problem. “We’re not Calvin Miller. We can’t preach the way you do.” But the good news—and Calvin is quick to point this out—is that we don’t have to preach like him. Nor do we have to preach like Warren Wiersbe. (Not that I didn’t try 30 years ago when I first began listening to his taped sermons!) God made you and me as individuals, and He made each of us creative. He gave us imaginations and minds to use them. And He also gave us countless daily opportunities to be provoked, blessed, terrified, amazed, confused and otherwise inspired to illustrate our sermons!
To this day, I instruct my audiences to take notes not of the outline I’m using (if they can find one!) but of whatever the Spirit says to them, perhaps something they want to remember or look up or do after the sermon’s over. I also strongly suggest that a minister begin his/her sermon preparation early—weeks or months in advance—and talk to the Lord incessantly about that message. “But I can’t give weeks to preparing one sermon,” I hear a pastor say. My answer is, “Sure you can!” You can begin thinking and studying and praying about a message weeks in advance, probably at the same time you’re working on other messages.
Remember who you are praying to: The Most Creative Force in the Universe. If you doubt this for a second, look around at the marvelous world He made. Consider the varieties of flowers, of animals, of humans, of trees, of anything. God clearly does not like to repeat Himself. He loves variety.
So, ask Him to help you see that sermon, that message, that Word He has given you in a new light.
After all, when you ask the Holy Spirit to assist you in preparing a message, you are in contact with the Head Librarian of all the sermons that have ever been preached. He knows and remembers every single sermon anyone ever delivered on that text. He is the Ultimate Source. Suffice to say, when you ask the Lord for help, you are going straight to the Top.
Give God time to work, time to get through to you. After all, the best sermons you will ever preach are not microwaved but marinated. But be prepared—be ready to jump out of bed in the middle of the night and jot down that great insight the Holy Spirit sends your way on a text. Why doesn’t He send them earlier in the day when you were sitting at your desk or computer? Perhaps your spirit was not quiet enough to listen. Now that you are in bed with your mind relaxed, you are ready for Him to penetrate your subconscious with His insight.
Cut yourself some slack, now. This is a lifelong learning process, and the results will be spotted, especially at first. Don’t be surprised if some of your sermons are duds while others impress you as the best things ever said on that text.
Most importantly, remember that Grandma Thatcher sits in your congregation. She appears saintly and everyone adores her as the godliest person they know. But inwardly and privately, she fights battles unknown to all but a few. She’s in church today not for a neat outline, but for a word from God. For her sake, pastor, let’s bring no more skeletons into the pulpit.