Importance and Method of Sermon Outlining

Biblical Exposition and Homiletic Helps

By F. H. YOST, Professor of Church History, S.D.A Theological Seminary

One of the most frequent pleas from Ministry readers has been for a succession of suggestive ser­mon, outlines. Even, more vital than, sample outlines, however, is a grasp of the fundamental Principles of outlining. We take particular Pleasure, there­fore, in presenting an excellent study of these under­lying principles, and their practical application. Many a sermon is weak and ineffective because it is poorly Planned, or largely unplanned. The points here presented are worthy of careful study, and de­serving of painstaking, persistent practice, until our individual presentations shall steadily improve in, form and potency.—Editor

One of the most stimulating educational experiences I ever had was to study in high school under a teacher who gave all the material of his subject (commer­cial geography) in outline form, and insisted that we learn it that way. The drill gained then in the outlining process has been of much more value to me than the subject matter pre­sented. The outlining process is indispensable to clear and orderly presentation of one's thinking. Every clear thinker and speaker out­lines his material, at least in his mind, if not on paper.

Let us grant that outlining is of real impor­tance, but let us suppose that we need to im­prove in our use of this helpful tool. To do so, it is well to study the outlining processes of others. Many old textbooks, histories, for instance, have in the table of contents very full and exact outlines of the material covered. These might well be examined as models. An old edition of the famous eighteenth-century apologetic, Butler's "Analogy," will be a good pedagogue. Butler's work was, generations ago, the standard work of theistic argument and defense. Because it was no casual han­dling of the subject, it was usually accom­panied by an outline of its packed thesis. The result was a piece of outlining par excellence. A study of such an outline would be profitable. Most modern rhetoric textbooks and the many hooks available on the study process contain helpful material on how to outline.

To outline successfully, it is necessary first to recognize the obvious fact that thoughts which bear upon a particular subject are rela­tive in their importance. In any thought proc­ess, there are certain outstanding key thoughts. McMurry calls these mountain peaks. In rhetoric, the sentence conveying the key thought of a paragraph is called the topic sen­tence. Outlining is merely the process of set­ting down these key thoughts, and placing under each one the sequential and detailed thoughts which explain and amplify them.

The next step in renewing our skill in out­lining might well be to analyze the effective writing of a first-rate author or two, making outlines of our own on this material. At first we may seem lost in a sea of ideas, but if we have a well-executed piece of writing to work on, and persist in our effort, we shall pres­ently find that the thoughts step along from high point to high point, with the details pre­sented in a masterly way. The apostle Paul, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Babbington Macaulay marshaled their thoughts with marked clearness and order. The writings of these men furnish good practice ground.

A further step would be taking down in out­line form speeches to which we listen. Out­lining another's materials, orally presented, de­velops our powers of analysis and our ability to construct workable outlines. It is good discipline, and should yield profitable results, but it may not be easy. Some of the matter which we hear may not lend itself readily to outlining. Poor delivery sometimes detracts from a very able, logical sequence of thought; and a striking delivery, on the other hand, may embellish a correspondingly poor line of thinking.

From this point on we should set to work faithfully to outline our own materials, highly resolving never to present any topic by spoken or written word without first making an out­line as a framework upon which to build. A set of symbols must be selected whereby one may indicate proper sequence and the relative importance of the thoughts he is placing in his outline. A series of symbols as follows might be adopted in this order, and with this indention:

(See PDF)

Then for further subheadings, these same symbols could be repeated, placed in parenthesis, with the proper indention :

(See PDF)

For beginning the practice in outlining, one should choose a rather restricted subject—a topical sermon subject, for instance. In gen­eral, each subject can be divided roughly into three main parts—the introduction, the body, and the conclusion, of which the introduction and conclusion deserve most careful wording, and the body careful outlining. In preparing the outline, divide the body of the study into several main headings, by picking out the leading key thoughts, and arrange them on paper in logical sequence. The next step is to concentrate upon one of these main head­ings, and to bring into view all the details that belong with it. These details must be logically arranged according to importance, just as was done in the case of the main ideas. Each main heading is thus dealt with in turn.

Caution must be observed to make sure that the main headings are really the leading ideas upon which the topic depends, and that the thoughts put down in a subordinate order are really subordinate. Some speakers and writ­ers put down on a large sheet of paper or on individual slips, their thoughts on a subject, just as they come to mind in their thinking or reading. Then they work these unclassified ideas into the outline as it is built. The more widely and deeply the subject is known, the more readily will the outline be built.

Oftentimes simplicity is the secret of suc­cess in outlining, just as simplicity is likely to be the secret of success in the speech or essay which is built from an outline. The first simple and brief outline I learned to use in preaching on the destruction of the wicked was a very simple one (presented below), and I have not found a better in my later preaching.


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By F. H. YOST, Professor of Church History, S.D.A Theological Seminary

February 1941

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