The sermon’s theme sets the strategy and the goal for the sermon. The sermon’s body executes the strategy for reaching that goal. The absence of a workable strategy leads to wandering in the wilderness without any hope of reaching the Promised Land. A workable strategy requires determining what points to make, the number of points and sub-points to make, and what materials are chosen to support them. The sermon’s introduction determines whether the hearers will listen. The body of the sermon determines whether they will remember anything that they hear.
How are main points of a sermon developed? The preacher should get his purpose or theme firmly in mind, and then brainstorm. He should think about what the text means, but he must not stop there. What the passage means is academic unless he goes on to discern the message of the text for today’s world. It is a good practice to anticipate the questions that the hearers (not the preacher) will ask about the passage and attempt to answer them. “How does this passage relate to my work life?” “Why should I be interested in sheep herders?” Hearers rarely ask what the Greek or Hebrew means, or even what Daniel Webster say about a word. They may even care less about how many times a word is used in the Scripture. Once all of these thoughts have been gathered, those that relate to the text but do not relate to the theme or purpose must be eliminated. Those remaining should be grouped into general subject areas. Then, that group that best addresses the theme should be selected.
From the selected group, the points should be divided into subject areas. The subject areas should be placed in natural order, arranged according to the sermon’s purpose. They should be progressive in movement, e.g., chronological or logical. Their arrangment should be in steps, one after another, organized according to the sermon’s purpose, leading in the desired direction, toward the selected destination. As far as possible, the main points should be parallel in form. This assists the preacher in presentation (easier to remember and helps free him from notes), and it assists the hearers in listening. For example, if the main points are parallel in form, the hearers will recognize each of them. If each of the main points has an anchor clause that is common to each and related to the theme, the main points will serve as road-signs that lead the hearers to the theme or goal. All of the main points should be designed to help the hearers remember the dominate point or theme. The preacher who expects his hearers to remember the sermon’s details expects the impossible. If he does not have a theme, and if the main points do not support and drive home the theme, it is more likely that the hearers will remember nothing.
Each main point should make only one point and it should relate to the theme in content. The main points develop and support the theme; the sub-points develop and support the main points. The subpoints may illustrate (instruct the hearers by comparing the known to the unknown), persuade (address the hearer’s will), analyze (establish the main point by logic), or teach (provide information). Care must be taken with the latter or the sermon will deteriorate into mere intellectuallism.
How many main points should the body have? Although there are differing views, as well as reasonable exceptions for special sermons, the general rule is usually three, and not more than four. If there are more, the preacher must either preach too long or develop one point adequately and give short shrift to the rest. If the preacher has three main points and spends fifteen minutes on the first one, it doesn’t take a math genius to determine that, if each point is given equal treatment, the preacher has at least thirty minutes to go when he says, “My second point is. . . .” The resulting groan may be inaudible, but it is none-the-less real.
Rapid shifts in subject matter will cause hearers first to wear out and then to tune out. The truth is that they don’t have much choice. It is like being force fed faster than you can chew and swallow. It doesn’t take long to choke. There is some evidence that the problem of pace increases with the size of the audience. The best preacher probably cannot hold group attention longer than four minutes per subject. This means that not over five or six points can be made in a twenty-five to thirty minute sermon. The preacher can present more points, but he can make no more points because they will not soak in. Much like a fast-falling rain, the water (points) runs off the soil (mind) before it can penetrate.
Someone may object that if the sermon moves at a slow pace the hearers will think that the preacher is not smart, or that the preacher will appear more learned if he crams as much as possible into the sermon and delivers it as rapid fire as possible. The objection is not well-taken. First, it belies the experience of the ages. More importantly (and more disappointingly), it indicates that the preacher is more interested in impressing his hearers with himself than with the Christ.
A good test to determine proper organization may be to request some of the hearers to take notes. Can they detect the introduction, body, and conclusion? Can they detect the main points and the subpoints under each? If they can’t because of sloppy transitions, merging or camaflouging of points, or lack of clarity, the sermon fails, and so does the preacher. Preachers have a weighty responsibility. Why should they think that God will not hold them accountable if their lack of preparation hinders the proclamation of the gospel?
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)