This article made me think about my sermon notes.

I came across this article in my Twitter feed this morning. “Preparing Oral Preaching Notes — An Example from Ruth 1” by David Prince.

It intrigued me as I’m always trying to find the best way to order my sermon notes and  feel like I have never really found the perfect solution!

Last night I ‘preached’ a devotional message at a Church Meeting, perhaps only for seven or eight minutes. I used only the slightest outline, but found myself thinking that there is a kind of liberty and freedom that comes from a just a brief outline that helps you remember where you are going and the points that need to be made, but no more.

The notes I used last night look like this:

Sermon note 1

Last night having such simple notes meant that I could [and did] reverse the order of the message so that I could conclude by thinking about the way that God has made himself immanent in the ‘sanctuary’ of Jesus.

Twenty five years or so ago when I began preaching I would only carry a few post-it-notes into the pulpit, attached to the page where my Bible would be open. As I began full-time ministry my notes drifted up to about two sides of A5 paper for most sermons. More recently I have been taking something of the order of 2000 words into the pulpit, but of late I have been consciously trying to pare them back, aware that having notes that are too full can be counterproductive.

These days I use an outlining tool called “Tree 2” and take something that is not really a full manuscript, but nevertheless quite detailed, into the pulpit with me. Here are two pages of my notes from this last Sunday.

Sermon note 3 2

Sermon note 2 1

The first column just contains my main points. On Sunday as I spoke on Hebrews 2:18, the first column just contained the main structure of the sermon as follows:

  • Outline

The second column contains a sketch of the unfolding argument, and the third any detail that I feel that I need to have with me. Over the years I’ve consistently used a double asterisk “**” to indicate an illustration.

The red pen notes will be scribbled on to my notes as I pray through the notes before leaving for church on Sunday Morning. I would sometimes use highlighters too, but didn’t feel the need this last Sunday.

The red pen is chosen for contrast. I want to be able to look away from my notes, but come back to them and know where I am. I tend to have a visual memory and colour and contrast helps me do this.

The system I am using right now still isn’t perfect, and to be honest I have lost my place a little from time to time. David Prince’s article has certainly given me cause to think about whether I can either modify or perhaps redesign the kind of notes that I use in order to better serve me in the task of preaching.

There are a few more considerations that I take into account in thinking about notes.

First, on Sunday mornings at present I need to preach essentially the same message twice. It seems to me that fuller notes help me to do this better. I think fuller notes probably reign me in on the second time through where I might be tempted to extrapolate.

Second, I have a tiny study with, on the one hand, no filing cabinet but, on the other hand, a computer with effectively boundless storage and very good search capabilities if you use words! In fact I’ve found many times that Spotlight Search is far far better than my memory then when I want to see how I did something before, or want to re-use an old illustration.

I like to write by hand. (In fact most of my early preparation is hand written) I suspect that hand written notes are better remembered, and I suspect that hand writing may contribute to the creativity of preaching, but even if I could keep them they are quite difficult to use in future.

Third, there many be some general wisdom, but everyone is different. I’ve appreciate Tim Keller’s preaching so much over the years. Here is an example of one of his manuscripts. I don’t think that would work for me!

Maybe I’ll post again if I come to any conclusions!



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