As a Baptist, I’m plenty accustomed to hearing three-point sermons. As a Baptist preacher, I’m plenty accustomed to preparing and delivering them. But as time goes on and I (hopefully) grow in my ability as a preacher, I find myself trying to avoid the use of the word “point” and to replace it with alternatives that may be more interesting and more effective.
I believe it’s important for a sermon to have structure. I believe a three-part structure is often (though certainly not always) suitable for a 30- to 40-minute sermon. It helps the preacher ensure he is properly understanding his text and moving through it in a logical fashion. (It has been my observation that a lack of structure in a sermon often reflects a lack of understanding in the preacher’s mind.) It also helps the listener understand the movement of the sermon from introduction to conclusion and provides markers where they can catch up if they’ve drifted or otherwise lost their way. A no-part sermon is often a muddled mess; a one-part sermon can be difficult to follow for 40 minutes; a 10-part sermon can be too brisk and scattered.
I also believe it’s most often helpful to let the listener into the structure of the sermon before, during, and at the close. This follows the old dictum of telling people what you intend to say to them, then saying it, then reminding them what you have said. This technique typically proves helpful for both comprehension and retention.
So let me make it clear that I am not recommending unstructured sermons and not suggesting preachers create structure within their sermons but then hide it from their listeners. Structure is good for the preacher and the listener! I simply believe there are often better ways to structure sermons and to describe that structure than through the term or even the idea of “points.” I believe there are often better ways of framing a sermon than falling back on “point one,” “point two,” and “point three.” I want to challenge preachers to look for alternatives to saying “Now, my second point is…” Let me provide a few ideas.
Headings. Rather than using the term “points,” a preacher can speak of “headings.” “Our second heading this morning is ‘The Gospel Addresses Our Shame.’” This is probably not a whole lot stronger than “points,” but does offer the advantage of showing that the preacher is attempting to allow the text to provide the structure so that the headings that might have been in the writer’s mind are now in the preacher’s.
Steps. Steps can be useful when a text calls for a progression of understanding or application (or of understanding leading to application). The preacher will need to be careful, though, that he is not tipping into legalism or trite step-by-step “fix-it” Christianity which offers too-simple solutions to complex problems. Still, if a text calls for a logical progression, the preacher may find it helpful to lay this out in a series of steps.
Scenes. Scenes can be especially useful when preaching narrative. The same would be true of acts or chapters. Many of the biblical stories or parables can be structured like a book or play, with various acts, scenes, or chapters unfolding sequentially. For example, Revelation 4 and 5 can be preached as a single sermon with the drama set as scenes that unfold on a stage. “The curtain falls, then rises on our second scene.” The parable of the Lost Sheep can be told as a story divided into three chapters or a play divided into three acts such as the shepherd’s anguish, the shepherd’s quest, and the shepherd’s joy.
Statements. Didactic portions of the Bible can sometimes be unpacked as a series of statements. An alternative might be principles. In this way the preacher is following the logic of a writer like Paul or Peter, then describing their teaching as statements or principles. You might determine that Philippians 1:27-28 states two principles: Christians are to live worthy lives as faithful citizens of God’s kingdom; and Christians are to stand firm in battle as fearless soldiers of God’s kingdom. Or you might determine that it is better to frame it as two statements that apply to both the original recipients of the letter and today’s listeners: Live worthy lives as faithful citizens; Stand firm in battle as fearless soldiers.
Instructions. Certain texts are instructions (or calls) from one person to another. For example, in Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders, he provides clear instructions like “Pay careful attention to yourselves,” “Pay attention to all the flock” and “Be alert.” He routinely does the same in the pastoral epistles (like in 1 Timothy 4: “Command and teach these things,” “Set the believers an example,” “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture,” etc). These can be set in their context, then extended to the church today as calls or instructions.
Questions. Sometimes a text will evoke questions, and those questions can be used to frame the sermon. The major divisions of a sermon can sometimes be effectively set as questions rather than answers.
And, just briefly, here are a few more alternatives to “points”:
I’m sure you can come up with many more! And I hope my purpose here is clear. While I’m a firm believer in looking for structure in a biblical text and using that structure to frame the preaching of the text, I’d like to encourage preachers (myself foremost) to push ourselves beyond the use of the word “points” and to look for alternatives that may help us and our listeners better understand the text and better apply it to their lives. That simple move from “points” to “scenes,” , “statements,” or “instructions” may be just the ticket!