My Point, and I Do Have One

How do you outline your message? Every pastor has his own style and cadence. Perhaps you love the classic three-pointer. Or maybe the points don’t matter as long as they rhyme sublimely all the time. Or perhaps you’re more of a storyteller and there are no distinct points, but rather the larger point of the whole. Are any of these methodologies better or worse, and does the organization of your message make any difference?

The short answer is yes, it does. In the moment, perhaps it’s not so clear—any of these styles can help the congregation receive what you are teaching. But in the context of helping the congregation actually remember what you taught—not just after the service but next week or next year—the outline of your message is terribly important. To understand why we must focus on what the audience is hearing.

Now we often use videos and dramas and other visual illustrations in our messages—which can be useful tools—because we believe it will help people remember better. Because after all, most people are visual learners, right? Well, no, they’re not. All people, regardless of race, background or culture are first and foremost auditory learners. We learn by hearing. The whole visual learning thing was made up I’m convinced by either television or movie producers for their own devices. It’s just not true.

The brain’s auditory center is connected to the centers for thought processing and memory in the most direct way. What we hear is vastly more important than what we see when it comes to learning. In fact, did you know when you read that you are actually learning auditorally as you sound out the words in your mind? Further your auditory center picks up and remembers even on a semi-conscious level. It’s why at times even though you are not really paying attention, if someone says, “Hey, what was I just saying?” you can repeat that last sentence back to them verbatim. Your ears were listening even if your mind was slightly disengaged. We were built to hear.

Even God confirms this in His Word. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” And how did God create the world? He spoke. What did God give us to guide and instruct us? His Word, passed down as an oral history for thousands of years before we arrived at the printed version. Hebrew children memorized the Torah by listening and repeating. For 5,000+ years learning has focused on and centered on the mouth speaking and the ear hearing. We were built to hear.

What does this have to do with a preaching outline? Well, if our primary learning method is auditory, that begs the question, “What will make use hear and remember more effectively?” Our tone and cadence, words that repeat and rhyme, and a sermon divided into a simple 3-4 outlined phrases that compress the whole into memorable snippets. Preaching that paints word pictures engages the mind and imagination, which is what makes storytelling such a powerful tool. However, it’s important to note that the storytelling style does not lead to long-term retention as readily as the outline style. People will engage with a story, but they will more likely remember a few key words and phrases delivered distinctly and repeatedly.

There are a number of books that explore this process in detail. One of the better ones is Thought Particles: Building Blocks of Perceptual Reality by Roy H. Williams. Another resource for understanding the power of the spoken word is to Google and study “Broca’s Area” and “Wernicke’s Area” of the brain, which detail the regions for producing and interpreting spoken language.

Dr. Merritt’s messages follow the outline style. In many cases he includes a key truth or overall point for the message. This organization is intentional and designed to help the listener hear, process and, most importantly, retain what they are learning. A preacher is most effective when he goes beyond the goal of the listener committing what they are hearing to conscious thought. Rather, he wants them to remember. It is when we begin pressing teaching into long-term memory that the most effective results of teaching are generated.

The most memorable of presentations share not only a clear and concise vision, but are able to put those into short and memorable phrases. “Ask not what your country can do for you…” “I have a dream…” “Let them eat cake.” If you want to make your point in a sermon and powerfully as possible, divide the content into a simple and memorable outline, repeat key words and phrases and pay first and most attention to what the congregation will hear from you in the pulpit.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.