I love Bible studies. I love sermons. Both have their place and both can be tremendously beneficial in the life of the church and the spiritual diet of the believer. But I’ve observed that some sermons are actually Bible studies and some Bible studies are actually sermons. Though I will grant there can be a fine line between the two, I find it helpful to force myself to distinguish between them, especially when I am asked to lead one or the other.
In general, a Bible study is teaching while a sermon is preaching; a Bible study is aimed at the head while a sermon is aimed at the heart; a Bible study is meant to increase knowledge while a sermon is meant to increase holiness; a Bible study is helping people to know what a passage says while preaching is appealing to people to live what a passage says.
For my part, I love to study the Bible to know what it says and what it means. I am not naturally the kind who speaks boldly and declaratively or to whom application comes easy. For these reasons and others, I find I need to guard against inadvertently preaching a Bible study. If I’m not careful, I can get so wrapped up in the joy of exploring a passage, figuring out its structure, and studying its every nuance that I miss the heart altogether. I’m prone to miss the “so what?” element that defines a sermon.
Paul (not the Apostle, but my friend and co-elder) has taught and modeled something that has helped me a lot: When structuring a sermon, make each point an imperative. Or, if that doesn’t fit, work the word “you” into the outline. This naturally turns it from the head to the heart, from information to application. At its best, it allows the preacher to lay the foundation of the passage’s content, then to build upon it the urgency of one of the passage’s many implications. There is, after all, one correct meaning to a passage, but an endless variety of applications.
Let me give you an example of how he did this in a recent sermon. But first some context: We are in a sermon series that goes through the book of Exodus and we’ve just come to God’s deliverance of his people. Because those events unfold over several chapters—difficult to preach in a single 45-minute sermon—they will form the content of several sermons. In this one Paul covered the death of the Egyptians’ firstborn sons and the Egyptians pleading with Israel to leave.
Here’s how this might be structured as a Bible study:
- God warns Egypt
- God protects his people
- God punishes Egypt
- God frees his people
- God preserves his people
But now see how Paul structured this same text as a sermon:
- Go with God or judgment awaits. (11:4-6)
- Go with God and stay safe. (11:7-10)
- Go with God or judgment comes. (12:29-30)
- Go with God and get out of your slavery.
- Go with God and live life anew!
Do you see the difference? This outline forced him to preach a sermon instead of leading a Bible study. It pushed him beyond merely explaining the text to applying the text. He wasn’t conveying information but explaining the text and showing how it demands a response. He was giving the true sense and meaning while also calling for careful application. And much of that work was done by forming a good outline, then sticking to it.
So there’s the tip: Create an outline that follows the text and turn the outline toward the congregation. It will help you as you seek to help them.