The cliché “three points and a poem” has a negative connotation for a reason. Three-point sermons sound the same after a while. If the letter you use to alliterate your points is the only thing that changes in your outline structure, you’re going to lose your captive audience.
But there are benefits to three-point sermons, too.
The number three gives your congregation the sense of a complete unit. It’s why your mom counted to three, it’s why we award triple crowns in sports, and it’s why carpenters build three bedroom houses. In a sermon, two points feels like there should have been one more, but four points feels like a random list.
So let’s not throw out the three-point sermon baby with the cliché bath water.
Instead, let’s identify a few three-point outlines that your congregation will find interesting.
Resolve what appears to be a contradiction
This is the “coin” approach. Your goal is to show how two seemingly contradictory ideas fit together. The contradiction captivates your audience. They will wonder through the whole sermon why the two ideas aren’t opposites.
Your first two points explain each side of the coin, and your third point explains how they go together.
Point #1: One side of the coin
Point #2: The other side of the coin
Point #3: How the two sides go together
Jesus’ parables that have three characters or two opposing characters fit this mold perfectly. Some of Paul’s “by no means” passages in Romans would work, too. This could also be a good way to address the paradoxes of Reformed theology (faith and works, divine sovereignty and human will, etc.)
Tell a story
A three-point outline is just enough points to create a narrative. You can generate a great deal of interest by introducing conflict into an ideal state of being. Your people will listen because they want to hear a happy ending.
Point #1: How things were meant to be
Point #2: How those things were messed up
Point #3: How those things get fixed
Genesis 1-2 fits the bill nicely here. The seven letters in Revelation work, too, with their structure of commendation, “but this one thing I have against you,” and then a charge to conquer.
The textbook three-point sermon takes you through explanation, illustration, and application three times, once for each point. A way to change things up is to go through those steps once, with big sections for each.
Point #1: Explanation
Point #2: Illustration
Point #3: Application
This requires a bit more work to maintain attention at the beginning, but it pays dividends toward the end. You’ll have to set up your first point in a way that makes your congregation genuinely curious about what the passage means. Then the illustration in point two proves that we face the same issues today. Finally point three teaches how to live in light of God’s grace in the passage.
This version will help you on those passages that don’t break down very nicely. If you find yourself spending tons of time working on the transition from an exegetical outline to a sermon outline, use this version.
Why does this work?
These three-point sermons contain two built-in qualities that keep attention: tension and progression.
Tension is that “how will this problem get fixed” feeling. These outlines generate tension with contradiction, conflict, and curiosity.
The outlines above also contain progression, which means they lead your audience somewhere. Your three points, though they may be parallel in structure, should never be parallel in significance and intensity. That should build throughout the sermon.