The Sermon Outline

I have been reading Tim Keller’s excellent new book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in the Age of Skepticism. I would commend the book for many things, but I was particularly stimulated by the footnotes, where Keller displays the depth of his thinking on a number of themes.

kellerI was interested in his comments on the use of the sermon outline which he suggests is inescapable. Following an extended discussion regarding a number of mainline homileticians like Fred Craddock, Eugene Lowry, and David Buttrick, Keller says, “The mainline writers do not really escape the need for an outline.” Whether we call these things “moves” like Buttrick, or shaped as narrative, like Lowry would champion, there is still a progressive linear structure and that, Keller believes, is essentially an outline (Preaching, 308-09). Of course reading earlier in the appendix of the book where Keller writes about the “how” of sermon-building, his approach to developing such an outline reverts to the classic advice about “unity, proportion, and order” (224).

I like what Keller has to say about outlining. His advice is helpful as it applies to propositional, instructional forms of the sermon. But his advice is less helpful if it is our concern to create a sermon that works more as a story or as a hymn – both of which (among others) are legitimate forms both of Scripture and of sermons.

I deeply appreciated Keller’s insistence that preaching must move both upon the mind and upon the will. He was particularly discerning in his encouragement to understand the biblical word: heart (kardia) as reflecting both cognitive understanding as well as affective motivation. I loved his material on developing a sense of wonder and imagination as we present the beauty of the gospel – the beauty of Christ (162).

So why the insistence on the classic outline with proportional points each offering an explanation instead of a display of truth? Could not a sermon be plotted instead of outlined and still be faithful? Could it not be sung? Truth must be known, but as Keller rightly noted (166ff), it must be known by heart.

The 500 Word Manuscript

So how much manuscript should a preacher use? Does a sermon manuscript keep a preacher from rambling into irrelevance, or does it stifle and inhibit communication? A more oral and in-the-moment approach can keep the sermon from feeling like it has been canned or packaged. On the other hand, a manuscript can keep the sermon from feeling like the preacher is making it up as he goes.


My own preaching has utilized both methods to varying degrees. I do love the communicative power of extemporaneous preaching, even though it sometimes feels a little undisciplined and imprecise. Some have suggested the preparation of a manuscript that is left behind and not utilized in the actual preaching of the sermon. While this sounds like a great way of integrating the two approaches, I have often found myself paralyzed while preaching by this method, trying to remember the exact construction that I laboured over in the writing of the manuscript.

My solution has been to move to a 500 Word Manuscript. Having done my sermon research and construction, I write the sermon in 500 words or less – basically the sermon on a single sheet of paper. 500 words is not enough words for even the shortest of sermons, but it is enough to communicate the basic substance and structure I intend. It also doesn’t require as much time to prepare. Consolidating the sermon into 500 words forces me to focus and sharpen the sermon, requiring me to make important choices about better and best. I can then easily commit the resulting structure to memory without worrying about falling into a deadly recitation in the preaching of the sermon.

There is a delightful freedom in preaching the resulting sermon. The sermon feels fresh and focused. I am not bogged down by pre-fabricated constructions, nor am I struggling to discern direction. I don’t bring my 500 words with me to the platform. I don’t need to. I know what I am doing and where I am going, but I am free to use language that seems organic and unforced as it emerges in the moment.

One thing I know about myself is that I can talk. I am seldom stuck for words when I have clarity about my purpose. I suspect that the same could be true about any of us who preach. The resulting product might not look eloquent if published, but no one is publishing our preaching anyway.

The 500 Word Manuscript is a way if having your homiletical cake and eating it too. People love it when we can look them in the eye and communicate with them directly without the interference of our manuscripts and notes. But they also want us to be coherent and to not waste their time. My 500 words is enough to help me give them what they need.