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.