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Sermon titles and outlines

I find that two of the hardest steps in my sermon preparation are the sermon title and the sermon outline.

The sermon title is difficult because it requires a lot of creativity, and must be selected early in the week to be printed in the bulletin, long before my sermon is actually finished! The outline is tricky because it needs to be clear, concise, memorable, and true to the text. Both of these elements illustrate why preaching is not only a science, but also an art.

This week, Cal Habig shares four ways to alliterate a sermon outline, which he gleanes from a brochure by John Butler:
    • Same Beginning (Letter)
      • Passion of God’s love: “so”
      • Perimeter of God’s love: “the world”
      • Proof of God’s love: “He gave”
      • Price of God’s love: “gave His only begotten Son”
      • Prerequisite for God’s love: “believeth”
      • Protection by God’s love: “shall not perish”
      • Provision of God’s love: “have everlasting life”
    • Same Beginning (Prefix)
      • unwanted, unable, unfaithful.
    • Same Ending (Suffix)
      • Psalm 119: information, obligation, regulation, compensation, adoration.
    • Same Ending (Subject)
      • Genesis 15:1
        • Word of God: “Word of the LORD came to Abraham”
        • Comfort of God: “Fear not”
        • Shield of God: “I am thy shield”
        • Reward of God: “I am…thy…great reward”
    • Same Sound (Assonance-Rhyming)
Obviously, alliteration is not always necessary or even desirable. Sometimes it feels downright forced and distracting. But when it can be done in a natural way, I think it is a good mnemonic tool for both preacher and congregation, and brings a sense of poetry and symmetry that is pleasing to the human ear and mind.

Homiletics books don't usually give much guidance on sermon titles, but I did find these helpful principles in Power in the Pulpit, by Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, pp. 140-42:
  • Threefold purpose of the title: to get attention, to reinforce the sermon proposition, and to aid in memory.
  • Several qualities that make for an effective sermon title: tantalizes the potential listener; brief and easy to remember; a catchy word or phrase that will stick; appropriate in both taste and integrity; deliverable and realistic in what the sermon will accomplish; relates to the proposition and falls within the scope of God's Word.
  • Types of titles: a key word or phrase that describes the essence of the sermon proposition; an imperative statement that emphasizes an action or command the sermon will put forth; an interrogative statement that the sermon promises to answer; a declarative statement or claim which the sermon proposes to support, sometimes couched in a play-on-words.
To illustrate, here are the last ten sermon titles in a Gospel of Mark series by Steven Lawson. Lawson is pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church, and is probably one of the greatest expository preachers of our day:
  • Why You Must Follow Christ
  • A Preview of Future Glory
  • Silence Commanded and Elijah Coming I
  • Silence Commanded and Elijah Coming II
  • The Healing of the Epileptic Boy
  • Jesus Foretells His Death
  • Greatness in the Kingdom
  • Jesus Confronts Narrow-mindedness
  • Radical Repentance
  • Radical Repentance II
Keep in mind, clever outlines and catchy titles can never replace the more fundamental elements of prayer, interpretation, exposition, and application of God's Word. Yet the homiletical outline and sermon title can serve to strengthen the lasting impact of a message.

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  1. A little input here from a non preacher (praise God that I'm a woman)! Personally I don't really pay that much attention to the title of a sermon. I look more at the passage. But when I was a new believer I did notice it more. As far as the outline goes... if there are more that 3 points I tend to get distracted trying to remember the same letter/rhyming points. I know it is supposed to help but for me it's challenging. I love sermon notes for that reason.

  2. Thanks for the non-preacher input! It's always welcome here. In fact, it's really helpful to get feedback from people in the pews.

    I think you represent most people, in that the sermon title is pretty trivial. I've felt the same way myself. I visited another church with my family a week ago, and heard a good sermon on John 16:23-33, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you the title of the pastor's message.

  3. Wow, that's really interesting. You're right, I've never noticed much in books about the title.

    I find Christmas sermons the hardest to find titles for. Since it is basically the same story, finding ne depths and riches can be tough.

    Also, 4th of July and national holidays are difficult. I find myself torn between wanting to honor those who fought and our heritage; while feeling our nation has turned against God.

  4. AND... you are so right that it is difficult because titles are put out before the sermon is preached.

    So I often notice that sermons at the END of a series usually change from what I said they would be. But, no one ever says anything. Probably because Monique is right on!

    Sometimes I get to a sermon and study the passage I had connected with a title and go, "Now what was I thinking when I titled that?"

  5. I was thinking about everyone's comments last night but couldn't write until now. I'm sure it couldn't have affected any sermon titles for last week anyway. But here's my two-cent's. :)

    I agree with Monique that I probably couldn't remember most sermon titles. So after reading all your threads, I thought, does it really matter anyway? Is it more a pride issue to have a nice title? Is it simply protocol? What's the point if no one really cares?

    Well, as I thought about those questions, I came to realize that nearly every week I look at the title of the sermon beforehand. And usually the main passage to be studied as well. And as I reflected upon why I did this, I had several ideas. I hope they encourage you pastors this week.

    1. CURIOSITY There is certainly a part of me that wants to know what interesting title my husband (particularly) came up with this week. I'm always fascinated by his ingenuity. :) Also, when we were gone at another church last week, I wanted to know what this new church had been studying and what to expect.

    2. REVIEW As I look at the title and reference scripture, I am able to remember, "Oh yeah, THIS is where we are in the text. We've recently studied about Jesus' triumphal entry so we'll be continuing in that time period today also." This is especially true for me as I don't always hear Stephen's sermons consistently due to a sickness or serving in the children's ministry.

    3. ANTICIPATION Knowing that we've just been studying about Jesus' triumphal entry, now I look to this morning. "The Wondrous Cross" John 12. Ok, so this message will be focused mostly on the cross, but it is before the cross itself, or even the upper room.

    Now, all this may take place in a matter of seconds, but it allows my mind the opportunity to prepare for the sermon. I don't have to do all that thinking as the sermon begins. I'm more ready to listen than if I had not seen a sermon title.

    And I realize that I'm a pastor's wife and a student of the word for many years now. I may have my mind more trained than some other members of the congregation, so I can't speak for all of them. But even as a teacher, I think that the sermon title, then, must be a bit like the "anticipatory set" of a lesson -- that which brings up the previously known information in the students' minds in order to connect the old info to new things about to be learned. And this is a very helpful tool used in teaching. So, I think that, if people are doing any sort of thinking, they can't help but be prepared -- at least a little -- for the sermon due to reading the title.

    Does the title need to be remembered? No, not necessarily. But, at least for me, it does serve a purpose. Did I realize it before this post? Probably not, but upon analyzing it, I think I've learned something about myself. And I hope that this has been helpful to all you pastor's out there!

  6. I'm up studying Judges 9 for our Wednesday Bible study. I found myself asking: "What's the subject" and I realized that is important to me because my title will reflect the main subject.

    So judges 9: "How God Deals With Evil." Having a title that reflects the subject then makes it easy for me as a teacher to outline my text:
    1. He uses evil to teach us. 9:1-21 (God’s WORD)
    2. He confronts evil. 9:22-41 (God’s WORK)
    3. He punishes evil. 9:42-56 (God’s WRATH)

    I totally agree with Natalie, the title sets up the message.

    okay, gotta study...


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