Script, Notes or Nothing?

I have always worried about being too dependent on my notes. When I first started preaching, I used bullet points, then I stopped for a few years due to the pressures of work before beginning to preach more regularly again. When I started preaching the second time, I found myself using a full script. I write in a fairly chatty style anyway so it never sounded too formal, but something inside me always wanted to be completely free of notes. Now I use 16 point, double spaced bullet points so there’s something there in case I get lost but I have to translate it into words on the spot which I hope gives it more immediacy and power.

I’ve just read Andy Stanley’s book ‘Communicating for a Change’ which is brilliant, but one of the challenges he makes is for the preacher to internalise the message, that’s a euphemism for memorising the message! I find this incredibly difficult on a weekly basis and I’m not convinced it’s really necessary. I have seen preachers without notes ramble on without shape or structure for a very long time, I have seen one preacher who had clearly written his sermon verbatim and then memorised it. When he preached it looked above the congregation as if he was reading from an autocue at the back!

So, I was relieved to be reminded by Josh Harris in the second round of his ‘Preaching Notes’ that there really is no right way to do it. It’s a great series of posts. He has a pdf of the actual notes as well as a podcast of the sermon itself from a wider variety of preachers. Every preacher he showcases familiarises themselves with their message. None of them are dependent on their notes, so in that sense, they’ve all internalised the message, but apart from Mark Driscoll’s post-it notes everyone uses notes of one kind or another. The other amazing thing about these preaching notes is that most of them look unwieldy and almost impossible to use. Some are in tiny script, some densely packed or condensed. Some have been scribbled over time and again!

I have found it hugely reassuring that even some of the best preachers, at least from the US, don’t follow the rules when it comes to preparing sermons and writing notes. How do you do it? Let me know.


21st Century Preaching

I read this helpful article by Krish Kandiah this week on the impossibility of preaching. I had the privilege of being at vicar factory whilst Krish was on staff. I still remember his stand out carol service talk one Christmas. So, he’s a practitioner, but he’s also a thinker and his blog is certainly worth a read.

His point about the way the Internet and social media are changing the way we think and rewiring our brains is profoundly significant. Increasingly we know where to access knowledge rather than how to think for ourselves. He’s right to say that this is bound to affect the way we learn and process information. Preachers need to be aware of these wider cultural developments. We can’t bury our heads in the sand.

He’s right too when he challenges preachers to continue to learn, adapt and develop in the same way that the medical profession has to keep up to speed with the latest developments in medicine. At St Paul’s all our preachers spend some time together in a discussing ideas and thoughts and collectively creating the sermon together. This is a new discipline for all of us, but one I think we are all benefitting from. I certainly think the congregation is!

Of course, preaching isn’t purely pragmatic and responsive to the cultural trends it emerges from. We need to be constantly asking ourselves theological questions. Preaching is a distinctively Christian art form with it’s own history and theological integrity. For example, a sermon is not a lecture, neither it is a presentation. So we at least need to ask ourselves, and settle in our own minds whether, for example, Power Point or Keynote slides change the talk from a sermon into a presentation. In this technological age we need to ask other questions too. What is the relation of the sermon to the speaker? Is the sermon embodied, physical communication? If it is, does the multi site model of church, where the speaker is projected onto a screen at different venues change the form of communication or is it merely a helpful tool? What about the podcast? Martyn Lloyd Jones for years refused to allow his sermons to be recorded for this very reason. Shane Hipps in his book Flickering Pixels reiterates the well known point that the medium is the message, and its true to say that a seventeen foot tall head projected onto a screen is likely to carry more weight that the six foot preacher live on stage! For me, these are as much theological as pragmatic questions.

So, it’s right to experiment. We make regular use of props now during talks, which on the whole have proved to be memorable for the congregation and a helpful focus for the preacher. But we must be rigorously theological as we reflect on what works and what doesn’t. I’m not convinced by the idea of interactive sermons with questions before, during and after because I think there remains a sense in which the sermon is a word from the Lord that needs to be heard, but further discussion and life application through midweek small groups, has in my view got to enhance learning, transformation and discipleship.

If you have any other ideas or suggestions, or experiments you’ve seen work well, post a comment and let me know.


Text or Passage?

I have a confession. I am something of an old fashioned preacher. I’m not very good at the modern therapeutic motivational talk. If I can’t start with the Scriptures then I have no idea where to start! That means, I am by default an expository preacher. Now, outside certain circles that doesn’t win you an audience and, to be fair, I’ve heard some terrible expository sermons in which the preacher did little more than read the passage back to the congregation line by line as if we couldn’t read it for ourselves! Having said that, I’ve also heard too many sermons where after 30 minutes the preacher remembers they haven’t read the Bible, reads out a passage that has no relation to the rest of the talk and then carries on without another reference to the passage. They might deliver a great talk, but in my book at least, you can’t call that a sermon!

I say that because I’m an expository preacher out of theological conviction! I believe that Jesus Christ as attested to by Holy Scripture is the Word of God and therefore people don’t want to hear my thoughts they want to hear what God is saying to them through the Scriptures. But what does that look like in practice?

One thing I find interesting is this: modern expository preaching is quite different from traditional expository preaching. Today, what is considered a good expository sermon will be shaped by the structure, flow, and argument of the passage. The emphases of the sermon will be the emphases of the passage and the application of the sermon will be the application of the passage. This modern approach was made popular in the UK and the US by two great British preachers. John Stott at All Souls Langham Place and Dick Lucas at St Helen’s Bishopsgate were both incredible preachers who defined a movement and continue to exert a huge influence today. Tim Keller, for example often acknowledges the influence of Lucas on his own preaching.

But this approach is something of a departure from the older evangelical tradition of preaching from a text; a single verse. Read any sermon by some of the great preachers of the past such as George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd Jones and you find they tend to preach verses rather than passages of Scripture. Now, obviously this has both pros and cons.

Preaching from a passage ensures your own thoughts and ideas, your hobby horses and hidden agendas are all held in check. It is often said that preachers all have one talk in them. Modern expository preaching extends the range just a little bit! I do wonder though whether the modern expository sermon asks too much of both the preacher and their congregation. Pulling together the flow of a complex passage into a compelling whole is extremely difficult and I have heard enough awkward, unwieldy wooden sermons to know not everyone can do what Stott and Lucas did, or what Keller does. There can be such a determination to faithfully expound the text that the congregation hear a flat, dry exposition of the passage rather than a sermon, with so many points that no one remembers any of them even if all of them are alliterated! This sort of preaching can be overly dependent on the delivery and personality of the preacher.

In contrast, preaching from a verse simplifies matter significantly both for the preacher and the congregation. I realise there is a risk the preacher hangs all their theology onto every verse, but that is not what Spurgeon did. He still did the hard exegetical graft but he boiled his sermon down until it was sweetly concentrated in one simple point from one verse that everyone could take home. If you’re a preacher who finds it difficult to wrestle a whole passage of Scripture to the ground, try preaching from a text or verse for a change. See how it effects your preparation.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not saying stop preaching passages and start preaching verses. For me, the issue is not whether we preach from a passage or from a verse. I enjoy preaching through passages and preaching on verses. I enjoy listening to both types of expository preaching too. I suspect a mixed economy is the way forward. We do both at St Paul’s. The real issue is how many points we make in the sermon. I am increasingly convinced that the three point sermon has had it’s day. It is just too much to ask of the congregation. A good sermon should have only one point that is driven home throughout the sermon, whether the preacher is preaching a verse or a passage.


My Favourite Art Form

I love preaching, I’ll be honest with you. I love listening to great sermons. Live, or via podcast, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll listen to great preachers whichever side of the pond they come from and whatever wing of the church they call home. I listen to Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll. I listen to Tim Keller and Francis Chan. I even listen to a few Brits like Joel Virgo, Nicky Gumbel and the Bishop of London!

There is nothing like listening to a well crafted talk full of beautiful language, memorable phrases, powerful ideas, evocative metaphors, compelling stories, and new perspectives. I love painting, poetry and sculpture, but the sermon is undoubtedly my favourite art form.

Of course it is so much more than that. A sermon like that, takes hold of your heart, fuels your imagination, forms and shapes your desires and affections even as you listen, and sets you on a new path for the week ahead. I am sure Tim Keller is absolutely right; a sermon can change you in your seat. Great preachers don’t guarantee church growth, but there is no doubt in my mind they remain a key factor. Sermons really do matter.

I love thinking about preaching too. Each week I preach I am conscious of the new things I learn and discover. The ideas that work, those that don’t. I am hungry for feedback from those who’ve heard the sermon and I always listen to the podcast of my talk in order to see where improvements can be made for the future. There are podcasts of my own sermons on this site so do have a listen and let me know what you think.

I am still on a learning curve and I do my best to keep it as steep as I can. I read books about preaching. I go to conferences about preaching, I listen to talks about preaching. I’ve recently joined the staff team of St Paul’s Shadwell, a fantastic church in East London. One of my priorities here is to oversee the teaching, and strengthen and deepen the preaching at the church, so a lot of fresh thinking is taking place. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be posting different articles looking at some of the issues I’m wrestling with. Do let me know what you think whether you are a preacher yourself or on the receiving end of a sermon every weekend.


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