Andy Stanley's book on preaching, Communicating for a Change, is one of my top practical books on preaching. In this book, Stanley shares a great way to structure or "outline" sermons. While there are different ways to shape or form sermons, this is a really good default way to structure a sermon. Ready? Here it is!
Me - I was thinking about this/experienced this delimma the other day . . . (Orientation)
We - We have probably all experienced this before (Identification)
God - So what does God/Scripture say about this (Illumination)
You- What would this look like if we applied this in our lives? (Application)
We - What if everyone did this--our families, our church, this world? (Inspiration)
Stanley, Andy (2008-08-19). Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication (p. 121)
Why is this a good general form? For a lot of reasons. It starts with a life experience that everyone can identify with, which naturally draws people in. It sets the sermon up for dynamic movement from a bit of a conflict to a wrestling with the issue and with God about this, to an inspiring resolution. This makes the sermon memorable, because it is set up like an unfolding story. Also, this structure makes sure that the sermon is set up for application, as the whole structure points towards this.
I like to throw in a, now what about you? at the end of the message a lot of times to make sure that they get the direct call to action. And as long as you have applied it to yourself and everyone else, you can make that kind of direct, second person call at the end (in the form of a question).
What do you think of this sermon structure? What are the pros? Any cons? What other general structures do you like to use for sermons?
No offense to my homiletics teachers, but they taught me almost nothing about most aspects of rhetoric--that is, how to say what you are going to say. A sermon outline or even an overall approach, as important as these are, will not have the most impact that it can without powerful rhetoric.
To that end, there is something about the number three that has power. In medieval times, the clergy attributed this power to the Trinity--that when things are done or come in threes, they reflect the Trinity, and therefore have power.
I am not sure that I subscribe to the Trinitarian explanation. But I do believe, for whatever reason, are minds are geared to think in terms of threes (and other odd numbers). In photography and video, people are trained to think in sections of three, for instance. Three points--or one or five points--are good, but two and four are awkward.
While most preachers have probably picked up on the rule of three and/or odd numbers for number of points, one rule of three can be missed: that a point can be driven home and raised to a climax by using three similar phrases all in a row.
This can be found in the above clip at around the 00:30 mark, where, in making the point about how the wall of Jerusalem was built in three days, I say this happened because
"everyone was pulling together"
"everyone was working hard,"
"people were bonding together"
but most especially because, "God made this happen." This has a 3 + 1 pattern--three very similar statements, then a slight connector, and a "finally" statement. Notice how I use hand gestures at each of these points to help drive the point home, and that there is a slight rise in my voice and a firmness as well. All of this, makes for this being a good "highlight" section of this sermon.
Just sharing things like this that I had to learn on my own over time, through trial and error. I am hoping that you have other rhetorical ideas to share that will make our preaching more impactful.
What do you think of the rule of three in rhetoric?
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Dr. James Nored (Doctor of Ministry, Fuller Theological Seminary) is a preacher, evangelist, church consultant, writer, and missional leader located in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
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