Friday, June 15, 2007

What the ________?

Many pastors have adopted the foolish practice of using fill-in-the-blank outlines when preaching.

This is a bad idea on so many levels and needs to be stopped immediately.

First, it assumes a misguided understanding of the purpose of a sermon. I've discussed this in some detail before. But the bottom line is that the bottom line of preaching is not to pass on information. It is to allow people to experience God and his grace. Tim Keller explains this well:

The "informational" view of preaching conceives of preaching as changing people's lives after the sermon. They listen to the sermon, take notes, and then apply the Biblical principles during the week. But this assumes that our main problem is a lack of compliance to Biblical principles, when (as we saw above) all our problems are actually due to a lack of joy and belief in the gospel. Our real problem is that Jesus' salvation is not as real to our hearts as the significance and security our idols promise us. If that's our real problem, then the purpose of preaching is to make Christ so real to the heart that in the sermon people have an experience of his grace, and the false saviors that drive us lose their power and grip on us on the spot.

The purpose of preaching is to make Christ real.

Second, these ________ outlines violate the principles of learning. Even if the purpose of the sermon were to convey information, this approach is terribly ineffective. When people are given fill-in-the-blank sheets, their focus is on the individuals words that belong in the _________. Not only does not help people process or remember the "point" the preacher was hoping to make, but it distracts the mind of the listener (or note taker) from the "point."

Let me give you an example. Have you ever followed a friend's car to get to an unfamiliar place? If you simply concentrate on staying with the car and turning whenever it turns, you will have no idea how you got to the final destination. You were so busy keeping your eye on the car, that you could not pay attention to the street names and surrounding landmarks.

Third, the activity of filling in the _________, causes the listener to "objectify" the sermon, to keep it at a distance. A good sermon is personal. Taking notes, especially this way, reduces the Gospel to "timeless principles" that can be manipulated according to the laws of logic and stored away along with the value of pi and the number of feet in a mile.

Fourth, this approach encourages the preacher to focus too much on the structure of the sermon. Structure is good—to a point. But how many times have you heard (or preached) a sermon where the preacher forced the "points" to rhyme, or all start with the same letter? Beginning painters learn to use the principles of composition when sketching out their canvases. But a master uses a composition as a starting point to emotionally connect with the viewers. Imagine going to an art museum to view a masterpiece and seeing that the artist has marked up his painting with a ballpoint pen to show the underlying structure.

Fifth, __________________ demand to be __________. People _______ cheated if they don't ________ the _______ that goes into every _________. When all the ___________ are ________ the listeners (cum stenographers) __________ that their job is done.

So what do you think? Do you think my view is too strong? Do you agree with Keller's view of the purpose of a sermon? Can you think of other reasons why this approach is bad?

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


daniel the smith said...

This is a great post.

I have a question: doesn't this view of the purpose of a sermon make it really, really hard on a pastor? It feels equivalent to asking an artist to come up with a masterpiece every week. What am I missing?

Maria said...

Amen! I hate those fill in the blank things! Makes me feel like I'm in 3rd grade (though I've seen them used all the way through seminary level). I don't think the sermon has to be a masterpiece every week -- just getting rid of the _____ distraction would be helpful.

preacherman said...

Great post.


I've never thought about this issue, but you have some good points. I just let my wife fill in the blanks, although our pastor does not use this technique. I don't think the Holy Spirit wants to be confined to operating within the blanks on a page.

mark o wilson said...

amen brother! You put words to what I feel.

Pastor Rod said...


Yes, this is demanding for pastors in one respect. But the real focus is on what is happening in the life of the pastor. Bishop Quayle said, "Preaching is not the art of making a sermon and delivering it. It is rather the art of making a preacher and delivering that."

So, no. The sermon doesn't have to be an oratorical masterpiece every week. But it must be authentic and substantial. Of course, no one can do this perfectly.


daniel the smith said...

It sounds like you're basically suggesting that pastors should be more like poets than geometry instructors. I like that.

Sadly, I think it's a lot easier to be a geometry instructor...

M. Pease said...

Hi Folks;

Interesting post. I think in those sermons, the blanks are the best part. It's there that the Holy Spirit can be Himself.

Alas Daniel, I fear I must agree and that means we have many geometry teachers trying to teach us poetry.

Pastor Rod said...


Yes, that is a good way to put it. Pastors should seek to be poets rather than geometry teachers.

It would be rather demanding, however, to feel the pressure to produce high-quality poetry in volume. Fotunately we don't have to write all our own poems. We can stitch together the work of others and add our own personal touch.

The important thing is the mindset.


Pastor Rod said...


God save us from geometry teachers in the pulpit.