Break It Down
On rare occasions I visit a good steak house and have a prime rib. A good tender medium prime rib steak is wonderful. However, much goes into preparing and enjoying it. A certain cut of meat is required. Then, it has to be cooked at the right temperature for the right amount of time. Then, once served, the obvious next step is for me to cut the prime rib into individual bites and enjoy it.
We can think of a good sermon outline in the same terms. The cut of meat and its preparation represent the main points of the sermon outline. The bitesize pieces that are cut with a steak knife on the plate represent the sub-points of the sermon. The addition of sub-points is not a step that can be omitted for convenience sake. That would be as ill-conceived as trying to eat an uncut steak. Well-conceived sub-points are necessary for a good sermon outline.
Note the sub-points in italics below and their relationship to the main points of the example outline.
Title: The Pathway to Wisdom
Text: Psalm 1:1-6
Big Idea: Wise Men Do What’s Right
Transitional Question: How do we demonstrate wisdom?
Answer: There are three guidelines we must follow.
I. Don’t walk with the ungodly (1).
A. Don’t entertain the world’s views (walk in the counsel of the ungodly).
B. Don’t follow the world’s way (stand in the path of sinners).
C. Don’t reject God’s wisdom (sit in the seat of the scornful).
II. Don’t wander from God’s Word (2).
A. Delight in the Word of God.
B. Meditate on the Word of God.
III. Don’t waste your life (3-6).
A. Follow God’s path for success (3).
B. Reject the world’s idea of success (4-6).
Consider how each sub-point refines and explains the main point to which it is attached. Under the first main point we find a threefold progression toward ungodliness. In the second main point we have a two-fold methodology for maintaining fidelity to God’s Word. Finally, under the third main point we have contrasting examples of spiritual success and failure. It is often useful to include the transitional wording between the main points and the sub-points in the same manner as done between the big idea and the main points.
Accuracy and precision in the wording of the sub-points is necessary because it is at this level that the expositor delves into the details of the biblical text. It is here that we carefully and precisely preach the Word, not leaving it for those who hear to cut their own steak. Sub-points should be drawn from the text just like the main points, but from a more basic level. This means that sub-points often deal with word meanings and relationships between words. Here’s where a knowledge of grammar and the use of diagrammatical analysis is so valuable. Sub-points are often dictated by the function and meaning of participles, infinitives, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions. This may sound complicated, but if you use a diagram, it is the easiest part of the outline to construct. The work has been done.
Although accuracy and precision are important at the sub-point level, sub-points do not always need to be spelled out in a list. Sometimes it works well to do so, but at other times, an extemporaneous explanation in which the points are blended into the discourse are fine. What’s important is that the preacher know precisely what he wants to say and that he says it in a logical understandable way.
Neither do sub-points need to be reviewed when preaching the sermon as do the main points. However, the main points do need to be reviewed at each of their respective conclusions in order to round off the main points and preach the big idea. Moving on from the last sub-point of a section to review the main points of the outline while pointing them back to the big idea of the sermon keeps everything logically connected throughout. More importantly, this process brings everything back to the big idea multiple times throughout the sermon emphasizing the single concept you intend to communicate.