The purpose of points
In a recent Cornhill preaching class, we spent a bit of time discussing the purpose and value of giving clear teaching points or headings in a sermon. We tend to encourage students to make a habit of using headings and to work hard at them (although there are occasions when headings are a hindrance rather than a help (apologies for the compulsive alliteration; the subject seemed to invite it…)).
The following are a few practical reasons – some more compelling than others – why it is worth investing in good headings:
1) They give your congregation a sense of progression and momentum through the sermon and fuel their hope that they will indeed make it home for lunch. This, in turn, will help them listen more attentively.
2) They convey a sense that you have digested and got a clear handle on the material you are preaching. This is a subtle point, but it does help your hearers trust you as a competent teacher. It strikes me that John Stott exemplified this in his preaching.
3) Good headings crystalize truths from the Bible passage, and so make them easier to understand. For you as a preacher, the very process of articulating, refining, and simplifying headings often will lead to a clearer understanding of those truths for yourself as you prepare to preach them. This will improve the clarity of your sermon as a whole.
4) Good headings help the congregation to remember what they have heard and so continue to feed on the word in the following hours and days. If you are anything like me, you probably forget much of what you hear. I sometimes ask groups of students mid-way through the week what they remember from Sunday’s sermon at their local church. The results are not uniformly encouraging. Anything we can do to help people retain what they hear from the word must be worthwhile. (As an aside, this is one reason why overly long headings may not be advisable)
5) Good headings provide focal points for discussion when the church family talk about the sermon over coffee or lunch. It is great to develop a culture where the church family do chew over the word together and seek to encourage each other from the word after they have heard it preached. Faithful and clear teaching points can only help.
6) They help those who have drifted into a daydream (or indeed have fallen asleep…!) to re-join the flow of the sermon. We might like to think that this is a consideration not worthy of our congregation, but I suspect it is not.