02 October 2012

Preaching without a net — once!

by Dan Phillips

Sorry if this seems entirely like "inside baseball" for fellow-preachers, but...

I do think there is only one right thing to do in the pulpit: preach the Word. But I do not think there is only one right way to do that one thing.

For me, usually it is necessary that I bring detailed notes. I started this practice ~35 years ago, and have never varied, except for the rare occasions when I have received literal last-minute notice.

The "don't quench the Spirit" argument has always been lost on me — that idea that the Holy Spirit somehow can't work in a preacher's thinking three months, three weeks, three days before a sermon. I'm confident that this is a lazy man's out at worst, or a defective theology of the Spirit and of preaching at best.

For most people.

Then of course there's Charles Spurgeon. But don't ever forget, he was a freak of grace. No one should try to do what he did, statistically speaking — waiting until Saturday to pick a text. If you're going to do that, you had better be Spurgeon.

And I'll just be a friend and tell you: you're not.

Nor am I. So for decades I've taken somewhere from 6-8 pages of single-spaced, outlined notes into the pulpit. At CBC, for the series of sermons through basic Bible doctrines, it's averaged eight to ten 8.5 X 11 pages of single-space notes in outline format.

I do this for three main reasons: first, to have a reminder for everything I want to say; second, to have it in logical and memorable order; and third, to keep me on track. I've sat under men given to rabbit-trails, and it hasn't been pretty. I know I'm a man of like passions, and my notes are how I avoid the pitfall.

That said, for me it was a big deal completely to break with tradition recently.

As I came to the end of the series mentioned above, I determined to finish the series with a wrap-up sermon. We had examined many of the main areas of Biblical teaching (the Word, the Trinity, Christ, man, the fall, Gospel, and on and on). I'm sure it felt very detailed to the gracious souls who come to hear, learn and worship.

But I wanted to do it all in one sermon so as to step back and take it as a whole, to give a feel for how it all fits together, how the grand tale of redemption starts, develops, and resolves, involving all those great truths in their constituent places.

How to do it?

I have sometimes felt that my outline was my enemy. That is, I have some great swelling idea from Scripture, and then when I sit down to tame it into an outline form, it seems to wither and die. Usually, this is simply part of the process, and I pray and work hard and labor until it comes back to life in a comprehensible, accessible form.

But I didn't want to do that this time. I felt strongly that the best way to do it would be to preach, for the first time ever, without a single note.

I think the only living soul I told about this was my dear wife, and that not without trepidation for what she'd say. She was emphatic: "Oh, absolutely. You could do that, no question." God bless her.

So as the day approached, I had trepidations of course. I mean, I'd never deliberately approached a pulpit without my 6-10 neat pages. This time, I would have nothing. Just the three-point outline I'd given the dear saints (the classic: CREATION, FALL, REDEMPTION), and my Bible.

I ran through it once in advance of Sunday, and soon realized: oh mercy, if I even try to do it like that, we'll be here for three hours. Easily.

Which, God love them, some of the dear souls at CBC would be OK with. But I love them too much to do that to them, so I re-approached it; or, I should say, I simply re-worked it in my mind.

How did it turn out?

Regular readers will know that I never know how to answer that question, beyond some lame joke like "There were no casualties or attempted coups." So, you'll have to judge for yourself.

For my part it was thrilling and a joy. I cringed with a bit of guilt when I saw how long it had taken; I had jotted time-notes on my outline, to pace myself. On the first part, I was actually ahead of schedule. Ditto the second. Clearly, the third part got me pretty excited. Which underscores, again, why notes normally help.

The effect for me was just what I hoped. I felt freer to try to walk my dear ones through this whole tremendous panorama with just that basic structure, plus the preparation of having worked out 21 tight and detailed messages beforehand. If I'd tried to reduce it to an outline, I think that in this one case it may have killed what I meant to do, what I felt would be helpful to do.

I'm glad I did it once.

But I may never do it again.

Dan Phillips's signature


Lynda O said...

Glad you mentioned the Spurgeon exception... as I read the paragraph about not quenching the Spirit in planning out a message weeks or months in advance, I immediately thought of a Spurgeon sermon I've read, where Spurgeon actually made that point, that he thought it was working against the Holy Spirit and the need of that particular Sunday, to plan his sermons out so far in advance.

Then as I read a little further, you mentioned Spurgeon. Yes, his preaching was unique, the textual style of preaching, unlike the usual expository preaching style which most prefer. Knowing at least some of Spurgeon's biography, though, I can confidently say that no preacher alive today has had the background and experiences that Spurgeon had.

Kerry James Allen said...

I've heard him called "The Prince of Preachers," but "Freak of Grace?" That's a new one!

And don't even think of trying what happened to him once when he preached an entire message in his sleep Saturday night, his wife took notes, and then he preached the sermon from those notes the next day! Maybe we'll include it in an upcoming "Dose" because it is so amazing.

"Take it as a rule without exception, that to be able to overflow spontaneously you must be full." CHS

I must not be full enough because I always use extensive notes.

DJP said...

Yes, Kerry; I mentioned that recently in the presence of a brother, and he pointed out that Spurgeon filled himself full all week. No TV, no intrawebs.

Milton said...

Perhaps the writer of the letter to the Hebrews also caught himself before waxing at too great a length in what we call Chapter 11? "Time would fail if we told..." :)

DJP said...



Nash Equilibrium said...

Here's the $64,000 question; How many people showed up next week?! (joke)

Aaron Snell said...

I used to use just outline notes when I preached, and I still do when teaching Adult Sunday School. (I've actually also gone up with no notes in Sunday school - though with plenty of thought and preparation - but would be scared to death to do so from the pulpit. Why is that?) But now when I preach, I take a 6-page, single-spaced manuscript up with me. What I've found in doing so is that I actually preach to myself while writing it. It's not just a way to organize my thoughts, like an outline does. I actually preach in my head while I write it - which also pushes the text deeper into my own soul.

Stuart Brogden said...

Those of us in my church that being taught and tested for possible service as elders/pastors/preachers are told to take to the pulpit with a full manuscript. As Dan said, the "Prince of Preachers" was a freak. A good one, but still a freak. I am a freak in different ways, so I always have a manuscript of my sermons :-)

Tom Chantry said...

Ed Clowney, who was pretty much the only worth-while homiletics professor I ever had, encouraged everyone to preach from manuscripts at least once. He said that even if manuscript preaching was not your best method, the discipline of preparing every word was useful for the young preacher.

I have sometimes wondered if the discipline of preaching sans notes is a similarly good discipline for the maturing preacher.

Stephen said...

Tom, I don't know when you went to school, but I am currently reading a book by Arturo Azurdia (Spirit Empowered Preaching) who says he learned most of what he knows by taking classes under Clowney. It's very good and I hear shades of Tim Keller's preaching methods, another Clowney disciple, all through it.

Dan, since you went in knowing you would not preach from notes, did you also not prepare a full manuscript? My exposition professor (the one that assigned the Azurdia book) is intentionally having us prepare two texts, one with only an outline and transition paragraphs, the other with a full manuscript.

Dan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DJP said...

Stephen, no manuscript. I glanced over some of the preceding sermons, but all I did for this was the three point outline.

Unknown, a roadmap is a good analogy. It's 12-point. I used to have a mix of 12 and 10, but no more.

Dan said...

Single-spaced typed text? Wow, you must have pretty good eyes. How on earth do you keep from losing your place?

I have found that an outline with main points generally described, key terms underlined in red, written out by hand seems to work best for me.

But you sure are correct that an outline helps reign one in. I look at my outline as being like a map to follow or maybe a blueprint for the house. I wonder what Paul or Peter did.

FX Turk said...

I can't walk up to a podium without every word previously written out. Let alone a pulpit. It's the only way I can be sure that I will hav said what I meant to say in the first place.

Robert said...

I'm with Frank. Even when I have taught I have at least the minimum of what I am going to say written before me. I am a rabbit-trail guy (in case you haven't noticed) and I need that to keep me in line.

Jim Pemberton said...

The Holy Spirit works typically best in our careful, prayerful planning - not in our spur-of-the-moment unplanned outbursts. In fact, taming the tongue requires holding it until we can formulate something better to say. Perhaps some remember Mark 13:11 or Luke 12:12. But the context is wrong for normal preaching among the saints. Rather, it refers to the time when believers are taken before the authorities. Otherwise, there is no indication that any preacher should approach the pulpit unprepared.