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 Preparing an outline for a message

Julian Spriggs M.A.

This is the second step in preparation, following on from your own study of the passage. By this time you should be very familiar with the passage, and understand its meaning to the author’s original readers. You should also have identified the major timeless truth, and some other important principles. Now it is time to apply these timeless principles of the passage to the people you will be preaching to, and give your message some structure.

Please read the Study Passage page before continuing on this page.

1. Define the aim of your message

From your study of the passage, you need to identify its main point. This should then become the main point of your message. If these are not the same, then you are trying to preach a message from the wrong passage of Scripture.

It is helpful to summarise the main point in your own words. The main point should be clear to those listening. Think carefully what the goal or purpose of your message will be. What do you want God to do in the lives of the people who listen to it?

During your preparation, you need to consider carefully the application of the passage, first to yourself, then to your congregation. In what way do you think that this passage could speak to the people in your congregation?

2. Find out about your audience

One of the jobs of the preacher is to be a bridge between the world of the Bible and today’s world. To be an effective preacher, it is necessary both to understand Scripture, and to understand the world your listeners live in. The aim is to expound the Word of God and show its relevance to the congregation, giving wisdom and exhortation which they will be able to take home and apply to their lives.

If you are invited to speak in a church or group you are not familiar with, it can be helpful to speak to the person who invited you, in order to find you as much as you can about the group, and what God has been doing recently.

Even though most churches consist of a wonderful mixture of different people, a particular church may have a particular flavour and attract a narrower selection of people.
These are some questions to help you find out about your audience:
What is their culture? (urban / rural)
What is the average age range? (youth / middle age / older people / mixture)
What are the family situations? (singles / young families)
What are their occupations?
What kind of church or group? (denomination)
What is the general level of Christian commitment?
What is their knowledge of Scripture?
Are there any particular needs that you are aware of?
What has God been saying to the group recently?

Of course, this does not take the place of praying, seeking wisdom from God, for what He wants to say to the group.

4. Application of Scripture

Your illustrations and application need to be adapted to the life-situation of the people in the church. You need to think very carefully about application from the passage, remembering to be very practical. Think about how this passage could be relevant in different work situations, in family life, in child-rearing, in education, or Christian ethics. Think also about wider social issues such as politics, business or medicine, as some of the people you will be preaching to may have very influential jobs.

5. Develop an outline

Your message needs a structure, so it is more easily followed. What follows on this page is a simple framework for structuring a message. It is a very flexible system which can be used in a variety of different contexts. It works whether you are preaching on a topic, or from one passage of Scripture, as well as with in a small group Bible study.

It is based on this idea:

People have a problem or concern in their lives
The answer is found in the Bible, through Jesus
How to apply the answer practically

Section 1: Introduction

The introduction is often the most difficult to think of, but is of the greatest importance. In the first minute or two, the preacher needs to bridge the gulf that exists between himself and his listeners. It is often easiest to plan the introduction after you have completed the preparation of the rest of the message.

There are a variety of ways of beginning:
a. Some people tell a funny story or a joke, but it is best if it is relevant to your message.
b. Make a connection with something the congregation is familiar with, that will link to your message. This can be something in the news, or something that has already happened in the service. You could repeat a line of a hymn or song that has just been sung, if it links to your message.
c. If you have not spoken to the group before, it may be appropriate to introduce yourself.

Section 2: The Problem

Before coming to the Bible, you need to make people hungry, to make them want an answer. People need to know their need before they will be receptive to the answer. This is particularly true in evangelistic preaching - people need to know that they are lost before they can be saved.

In this short section, you need to describe a problem, difficulty, need or question that many people have in their lives, which will be answered by the passage you will preach on, thus demonstrating that the Bible is relevant to their lives. For a helpful list of common life issues to preach about, please see the Relevant Preaching page.

Section 3: The Answer

In this section you give Bible’s solution to the problem. You are giving the answer to the problem you have just described, both in theory, and in practice.

To set the scene, you can give a brief introduction to the historical background of the book, and the context of the passage. You need to think of how to do this as briefly as possible, but still giving the essential information.

Following your personal study of the passage, you can divide up the passage into its natural sections. These can become the main points of your message. Aim to have two or three main points, but no more.

These are some examples of how to divide up the passage:
1. By the order of events in a narrative
2. By the main characters, showing what we can learn from each
3. By the contrast of one truth with another, or a positive and negative example.
4. By a logical series of truths, particularly in Paul’s letters

When preaching through a text, you can interchange between then and now, between interpretation and application. The problem for the original readers can be linked with a modern-day problem, so the original answer can be applied as an answer today. For each main point, think of a good illustration.

When explaining the original meaning of the passage, many people appreciate learning about any relevant historical or cultural information that will help them understand the passage better. The preacher should always seek to model how to interpret and apply the Bible.

Section 4: The “How To”

This is the application stage, when very practical steps are given to help people put the truth just learned into practice in their everyday lives.

This stage is extremely important, even though it is frequently omitted. Giving the answer without giving the details of how to do it can leave people in condemnation. They can feel a failure after being exhorted to act in a certain way, but without the knowledge of how to put that into practice.

You need to describe the practical steps in more detail than you would think. Think carefully of a series of simple instructions you can give, which can easily be applied by the people listening.

Most importantly, you must preach the power of God to bring change. Never leave people thinking that they need to implement change through their own efforts alone. Always remind them that we have the Holy Spirit working in our lives to help us, as we submit to God, and allow him to change us. We must preach grace, and avoid any hint of legalism.

Section 5: The Take-away

Think of a memorable one-sentence summary of your message, stating the specific application or challenge for the congregation to take away with them. It could be in the form of a question, or a pithy statement, or a statement giving two contrasting choices. It should summarise the major principle you want the people to remember.

Section 6: Close in prayer

The closing prayer should give God the opportunity to speak personally to people. Pray about the main point and its application, and give time and space for personal response.


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