The Preacher's Toolbox: The Lively Skeleton

Reading Time: 4 mins

A solid structure, a lively skeleton, inarguably makes your messages more life-giving. They will be clearer, more interesting, and easier both to follow and to remember.

You never know what you will find in the church basement. Like grandma’s attic, there are often untold treasures if you are willing to suffer a few sneezing fits from the dust. Recently, I happened upon one such find.

It is a booklet entitled “The Lively Skeleton,” by the late Gerhard Aho, a longtime homiletics professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was the fourth in the series “The Preachers Workshop,” published by Concordia Publishing House in the 1970’s. The contents of this particular booklet are also reprinted in their entirety in the recent book Lutheran Preaching? Law and Gospel Proclamation Today (CPH, 2023), but I have the genuine article in all its seventies, lime green glory. And I must say, this thing is a hidden gem.[1]

“The Lively Skeleton” aims to demonstrate the use and value of outlines (“skeletons”) in preparation for preaching. For his purposes, Aho defines an outline as:

“The skeletal form which enables the preacher to plan a sequence of thoughts in a way that the whole sermon is presented coherently.”

He otherwise refers to it as “the structural design of a sermon.”

Aho’s thesis is that, far from constricting the proclamation, structures keep the sermon from becoming “an unintelligible blob.” I have heard plenty of sermons which fit that description, and Lord knows I have preached my share as well. “Far from being a limitation,” he writes, “form and structure liberate a man to proclaim the Word clearly and persuasively. The outline frees us to be preachers.” In other words, this skeleton is lively.

I have written before on the classical canon of Structure (Dispositio), and touch on the topic often in this column. Here I would like to briefly summarize a few of the benefits to using structural designs in sermons that Aho identifies. If you are sufficiently intrigued, I encourage you to check out his full treatment in Lutheran Preaching? or rummage around in your church basement to see if you can find a copy of the lime-green booklet for yourself.

The Strengths of Skeletons

Aho names no fewer than eight benefits of employing skeletons (there is a Halloween joke in there somewhere), but here I will touch on only four of them. Some of those he identifies apply primarily to the preacher, some to the hearer, and some to both.

The first benefit of a structural design, he says, is it clarifies your thinking. He writes:

“By making the sequence of thought clear, the outline prevents the sermon from becoming a random collection of anecdotes and observations which could just as well have started in the middle or at the other end.”

Good outlines are like good directions: They ensure you know where you are going and how you will get there.

Good outlines are like good directions: They ensure you know where you are going and how you will get there.

This clarification benefits the hearers no less than the preacher. As Aho notes, congregations like to know “where the preacher has been, where he is, and where he is going next.” We, as preachers, must constantly remember that the sermon is an event-in-time, not an essay-on-a-page. The clarity of structure enables the hearers to better follow along.

This points to a second benefit of structures: They help to keep the congregation’s interest. Citing Halford Luccock, Aho laments “the Jericho Sermon,” in which:

“The preacher, following the plan of Joshua’s capture of Jericho, marches around the outside of a subject seven times making a loud noise. The preacher is convinced the walls will fall down. For the hearer, they rarely do.”

An effective outline, by contrast, maintains interest by “assuring progress of thought” and providing a sense of movement.

A third benefit of structural designs, which is again a blessing both to the speaker and the listener, is they can provide periodic moments of mental relief. Writing nearly fifty years ago, Aho laments that, “The attention span of the average hearer is short, no more than three to five minutes.” Doubtless today we would pin that closer to three to five seconds. In any case, the natural breaks between movements in the structure of a sermon (the joints in the skeleton) help the hearer to reclaim his focus and the preacher to catch his breath. Without a skeleton, warns Aho, the sermon becomes “an undifferentiated glob that promotes fatigue.” Incidentally, this also describes the entrees at many church potlucks.

One final benefit of using sermon structures which Aho mentions is of very practical concern to working preachers: “The outline helps the preacher to work more efficiently.” Because you know not only what ground you are covering but also, just as importantly, what ground you are avoiding, you can focus on shoring up the actual content of this particular sermon without chasing down fruitless rabbit trails (fun as those can be).[2]

To be sure, efficiency is not the be-all, end-all in pastoral ministry. Jesus never commanded, “Thou shalt optimize.” In a world of limited hours in a week, however, it behooves the preacher to make effective use of his preparation time, if for no other reason than he is liberated to be inefficient in his time ministering to the flock or enjoying his family.

These Bones Can Live

No sermon is saved “solus osseus,” skeleton alone. As Aho admits, “Good structure does not guarantee good preaching.” You still need “solid substance clearly generalized and concretely particularized, truth said well to arouse interest and to suggest new meanings for people’s lives.” Unlike a house you are looking to flip, for a sermon it is not enough to just have good bones.

Yet, a solid structure, a lively skeleton, inarguably makes your messages more life-giving. They will be clearer, more interesting, and easier both to follow and to remember. So, do your hearers a solid and make these bones live.


[1] Aho, Gerhard. “The Lively Skeleton.” St. Louis, MO: CPH, 1977. Professor Carl Fickenscher at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne tells me they still use “The Lively Skeleton” in homiletics classes, so maybe it is not so hidden after all.

[2] Following rabbit trails does have its place, but it is primarily in the Study stage, when you are gobbling up any and everything of potential interest. For more on this, see here.