There’s a house going up in my neighborhood…eventually. The construction materials have already been delivered and are waiting to be put to use. There’s a potential house in there somewhere — but today it’s just a concrete slab surrounded by stacks of brick and lumber and miscellaneous supplies.
Someday these materials will make a home. There will be a kitchen where you can prepare a meal, a den to to relax, and a bedroom to fall asleep in at night.
At this point, however, the house is all content and no structure.
I frequently hear sermons that fall into the same category: all content and no structure. There is plenty of good material there, plenty of potential, but there’s no flow, no recognizable organization, and no identifiable direction. The sermon looks more like a building-in-progress than an occupant-ready residence.
An essential lesson that all public speakers — especially those in pulpit ministry — need to learn is that good content alone is not enough to carry a message. Unless your good content is presented in the context of solid structure, many of your best ideas will be lost on your listeners.
Today, let’s take a closer look at structure — the second leg of three-legged table that makes up a great sermon. Here are three structure-related guidelines to keep in mind.
1. Good structure follows an arc.
An effective sermon takes the listener on a journey, starting with where they are and leading them to where they need to be.
This is why you start with the sermon-worthy problem. You begin with an area in which your listeners need to experience growth. Then you lead them through the process of putting this Biblical principle to work in their lives. And you conclude with a call to action/call to decision.
For example, if you’re preaching on forgiving on another, you might begin with our reluctance to forgive. And then you take your listener step-by-step, thought-by-thought, point-by-point, scripture-by-scripture through the hows and whys of what it means to be forgiving toward one another. As you come to your conclusion, your listener is able to track the ‘plot’ — the story line — of your message.
This way, as they reflect on your message, they can say something more than, “The preacher had a lot to say about forgiveness today.”
Instead, they can say, “I understand better why and how I should forgive others, and I know where to begin putting this principle into practice.”
2. Good structure identifies the ‘plot’ of the sermon early.
This involves more than just announcing your topic. It involves giving your listeners a clear idea — early on — of where your message is headed.
Imagine that you just sat down to watch a Netflix movie — one selected at random from the menu. At this point, you know nothing about it. You’ve read no reviews; you don’t know the actors; you haven’t even seen the trailer.
After pushing PLAY, how long are you willing to wait to be able to develop an idea of what’s going on?
Most people want to know in the first few minutes where this journey might take them, as in: “OK, I get it. This loose-cannon cop has to catch some bad guys and survive an internal affairs investigation and fix his failing marriage all at once, while his beleaguered captain questions his every move. Good thing he’s got a wise-cracking partner.”
You want to know these things early. You don’t want to find yourself half-way through the film, still asking, “OK. What’s this movie about? Who are these people and why are they on my television screen?”
In the same way, your listeners want to know early on what your message is about and where it might be going. I said might because you don’t have to give away the ending in the introduction. Just give them a general idea of the direction you plan to go.
You need to do this in the first few minutes of your message. This lets the listener know what to expect.
3. Good structure is simple to sort and file.
More on the movie comparison.
As events unfold in the second act, the viewer needs to be able process each plot point in terms of how it fits into the overall story. There will be plenty of twists and turns and surprises along the way.
For this reason, when something important happens, the viewer needs to know it, so they can see that the movie is going where it originally set out to go. Otherwise, your action-packed adventure starts looking like an indie-house art film.
Here’s my point. You need to map out the progress of the message for your listener. You may make a dozen or so noteworthy statements in the course of your sermon; make sure your most essential ideas are too clear to miss.
This can be as simple as saying, “Firstly, secondly, thirdly,” — though some preachers don’t like to do that.
At the very least, call out key “plot points” by saying something along the lines of, “I want to take note of this…” Or, “This next idea is essential to understanding what forgiveness involves…” Or, “This can be a turning point in learning how to practice forgiveness…” And so on.
I can’t count the times I have found myself at the half-way point in listening to a sermon, thinking, “I’m not sure how what he’s saying now relates to what he said before. I have no idea where this message is headed, or even what it’s about.”
A sermon shouldn’t be a mystery ride. Your exposition, your stories, and your major points need to be moving in a discernible direction. Your listener needs to be able to make sense of each step along the way, understanding how this point relates to the whole.
At any point in your message you want your listener to be able to hear what you’re saying now and understand how it is connected to what you were saying before and how it will lead into what you’re saying next.
When it comes to structure, basic is better.
There’s no point in trying to re-invent the wheel. You can’t beat the introduction / body / conclusion format. Neither can you beat the 1-2-3 format for the body.
Make no mistake: your content is the most powerful part of your message. But it must be presented in the context of an intuitive, identifiable structure.
Keep your structure simple so that your outstanding content will be sure to find its way into your listener’s heart.