I learned a long time ago that good preachers have good outlines. I crafted my sermons with three points and a poem. I made sure my points all started with “p” or “s” or a common word like “under” or “over.” I would preach about Jesus — His “power,” His “presence,” His “perseverance.”
I entitled one of my favorite sermons, from Hebrews 9:25-28, Living Under Christ. “Do not underestimate the single sacrifice of Christ,” I lectured in my first points. “Understand the just judgment of Christ,” I waxed eloquent in the second movement of the sermon. “Underline the radiant return of Christ,” I boomed on my last point as I brought the sermon to a halt. I invited the listeners at the point of climax to come “under” conviction and fall “under” Jesus’ control. I am not sure but I think I said something about getting their hearts “under” our church fellowship. Looking back now, I am confident they squirmed, anxious to go home “under” their roof and not “under” my complex preaching.
I felt pretty good about the sermon when I finished. After all, my seminary professor once asked me where I found my outline when I preached to the class. And just a couple of Sundays earlier a medical doctor while leaving commented to me, “You always preach good outlines.” He did not say I preached good — just that I had good outlines.
On that particular day I liked my own preaching (which is not always the case). Yet not many in the congregation seemed interested while I spoke. A few slept like Eutychus in Paul’s triumphant sermon at Troas. I feared they would fall from the loft before I finished. I knew that Paul could resurrect them, but with me they would not rise to walk again. When I preach, sleep may carry my listeners to another world but I cannot bring them back to the real world.
I cannot circle the date on the calendar, but after one of my “I feel good, they don’t feel so good” sermons I began searching for some answers. I read a few books on creating the sermon, skipping over the parts on outlines.
I listened to a few tapes of preachers who pastored large churches. I carefully followed their logic. I did note, though, that their outlines were not quite as cute as mine.
I even watched preachers on cable television. I could get preachers from Atlanta and Houston, from Tennessee and California. Those preachers dressed nice. They spoke clearly with their diverse spiritual gifts. They hurled their sermonic points at a target. Their sermons made sense. However, I could not always, when they concluded, recite their outlines. Hmmm.
The more I thought about these preachers the more I realized they told good stories. Their styles differed, but they always seemed to relate personal, newsworthy, or contemporary stories.
Then I saw Forrest Gump. No, I didn’t call the athletic department at the University of Alabama to see when Forrest scored touchdowns for the Crimson Tide. Neither did I get in my car and drive to Alabama to find his house. Nor did I spot him at a bus stop in a small town. I saw him in the movie Forrest Gump.
Life is Like a Box of Chocolates
I watched the movie with my wife. I laughed when Forrest laughed. I cheered when Forrest raced for touchdowns. I nearly cried during the Vietnam war scenes. Surround stereo sound awakened my ears to the songs of yesterday, too. These scenes touched the story of my own years growing up in the late sixties and seventies. I cringed when curse words entered my ears. I almost hid my eyes during a few questionable romantic scenes. I sat mournful when Forrest’s wife died.
On the way home, I asked my wife, “Did you like the movie?”
Her reply was a definite “Yes.”
“I liked it too,” I said. Then, referring to the movie, I said, “but those were sure some bad times during the Vietnam war. I guess I didn’t realize how bad they were since I was so small.”
We drove home. I observed over the next several weeks that my wife told everyone that she liked “the story.”
My outlined sermon gave way to “story” in the following weeks. I kept the congregation awake with stories of people in places who experience life. When I mentioned Forrest Gump, smiles glowed on faces. I knew I had related something understandable to them. I had learned the value of a good story to raise the sermon from the dead. I had learned the old philosophy of Preaching 101: know your audience.
As Forrest says, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” The same holds true for preaching; you never know “what you get” — that is, who is going to hear your next sermon. But rest assured, they will have different tastes, likes and dislikes, and needs. If you peek in the chocolate box you might find out what you’ve got. Know the people. Prepare accordingly.
Now, when preparing sermons, I think of the people to whom I preach. I find stories that preach to them. These stories connect the biblical stories to their world. Well-told stories, at least for me, make application easier. Also I have another source of illustrations. The source? Movies. (The ones in good taste, of course.)
Stupid is as Stupid Does
During my sermon search I concluded that my crafted works of the spoken word came across as complex thoughts. A quick review of my outlines seemed to shout, “Too much, too soon, too fast.”
I grew up a city boy. I had calculus in high school. I read the poets and writers of old. I mastered Greek in the hallowed halls when getting a college education. While in college I pastored a small country church where high attendance peaked at twenty-eight. One Sunday, low attendance plummeted to seven. Nevertheless, I loaded my guns with all my analytical training. I even added a few conjugated Greek verbs to wow the “under” flow crowd.
No casualties occurred from my fired shots, but I did get a sermon from one of my parishioners.
“Pastor,” he said in his Texas twang, “I’m a farmer. When I feed my cows I load the hay in my truck. I go to where the cows graze. Then I give them the fodder for food. Preacher, what I don’t do is unload the whole truck when just a few come to eat!”
As he turned away he heehawed with side-splitting laughter. I drove the thirty miles back to my college dorm. I paled with the unction of stupidity. Embarrassment washed over me. I kicked myself for trying to impress the congregation. They did not care about mathematical theories, ancient poets, or Thayer’s definitions. Their lexicon contained words of a different sort. Their hearts needed the simple Gospel of Jesus.
I think it was F. B. Meyer who once remarked, “The art of exposition is the art of elimination.” Now I eliminate stuff from preaching. I tell a few stories. I aim to keep the Gospel simple. After all, momma always said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”
A Promise is a Promise
I still use outlines when I preach, but I am not so hooked on all “p” words or neatly-aligned points. I strive for one-point sermons. I attempt to weave the one point of the biblical passage throughout the message. The movements of the sermon support the one point. The stories cast light on the shadows of the sermon. The stories form a lead into the application.
Recently my eldest daughter and I were going home after a morning service. To my surprise she said, “Dad, I liked that sermon today.”
After I recovered from shock, I asked, “What did you like about the sermon?”
“The stories,” she replied as she turned her face away with a smile.
My sermons reach people of all ages now. I activate the left side of their brains with the promise –that is, the one truth that summarizes the sermon. I awaken the right side of their brains when I unfold stories. This keeps them interested in what the Scriptures might teach. This method links my hearers with the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus.
When Forrest Gump survived Vietnam, he then went to the coast to start a shrimping business. He had promised his battle buddy that he would do such a thing. He shared that truth with his mother. To those who tried to reason with him on some other career choice, Forrest simply said, “A promise is a promise.” When it comes to preaching, give your hearers the promise of Jesus’ love — and tell them the story. Promise, too, never to slay them with sleep again.
Do Your Best with What God Gives
Forrest Gump did the best he could with life. Though saddled with an IQ of 75 he still overcame the obstacles of life. He performed his best. He ran hard on the football field. He heroically risked his life to save others. He worked hard to achieve in business. He loved others unconditionally. He even believed in God. Such character qualities evoke identification with the movie’s audience. Forrest Gump moves the heart emotionally.
Good preaching also identifies with the hearer. It stirs the congregation emotionally to consider a biblical motif or to follow Christ-like principles. Stories “show” the listeners the theme of the sermon. Yet this kind of preaching only reaches maximum effect when it is done naturally.
Early in my ministry I tried to imitate successful preachers rather than to speak naturally. I never mastered the “preacher voice” and do not intend to. Many ministers sound so unnatural in the pulpit. Others hurt their throats trying to thunder like Moses.
My attempt at preacher imitation came in trying to alliterate and inflect sermons like some prominent preachers. I never preached Spurgeon’s sermons but I sure tried to turn a phrase like he did. My preaching became mechanical, unnatural. How happy I became when I learned to preach naturally. I relaxed. I began to enjoy preaching.
Forrest Gump comes along and gives us advice for preaching: Believe God, tell your story, do the best you can with what God gave you. Relax. Be yourself. After all, it seems strange to do your best with something God did not give you. Could you really be anybody else?
Death is Just a Part of Life
Not long ago a church member came by for a visit. His welcome visit afforded me a reminder about preaching.
“Pastor,” he nervously spoke, “a few of us feel you could use some work on your invitation. Be clear. Invite the people to salvation. Ask them to join the church. By all means, pastor, we feel you should also encourage people to pray at the altar. God’s house is a house of prayer.”
The caller left almost as quickly as he came. At first I thought he came to enlighten me on the “proper ways to give an invitation.” Then I wondered if he disliked my style. The more I thought about our conversation, the more I realized his desire included decisions during the altar call in our church. His words had opened my eyes.
Sermons by their nature summon us to “decide.” They urge us to decide to follow, to change an attitude, to respond to a challenge, or to correct actions in life. The prayer at the altar challenges us to decide life’s priorities before death. And why this mention of death?
Forrest Gump hit the nail on the head when he says, “Death is just a part of life, something we’re all destined to do.” Life’s ultimate decision confronts us: “What happens when we die?”
Preaching echoes the story of Jesus which prepares us for the time when our own story ends. Death happens. Forrest’s heroism finally leads him into an endzone where not even he can reverse the score. Grieving, he stands over Jenny’s grave, tears washing his face. Preaching equips us for such a moment. It furnishes us with meaning which carries us beyond the grave.
The movie ends much as it began: a white feather floats effortlessly. Gump muses while talking to the tombstone, “I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all just floating, accident-like, on a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both happen at the same time.”
But the gospel story points us towards the destiny of Christ and heaven. The gospel story tells us we live for a reason, that we are not carried through life by a gusty wind. Its story-telling proclamation urges personal change of heart and soul, a first step towards Christ that sends us on our journey to meet Him face to face.
Forrest Gump caused me to reflect on life and death. I did not walk the aisle to make a decision, but I did begin to consider the power of story. Though the movie beamed fiction, now I paint pictures with words that tell the story of Christ. I call the congregation to someone real and life-changing — the Lord Jesus. And I invite my hearers to “decide.”
Gump (whose name, by the way, means stupid or foolish person) unveils how God can use the foolish of this world to herald good news. The apostle Paul groaned, “… it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). That is also the gospel according to Forrest Gump.

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