On Using Notes

Here’s a question for you out there who preach/teach regularly in a church setting (I have in mind primarily pastors, but anyone may chime in!). What is your “policy” on using notes? If you use them, do you use a simple outline or copious notes that cover every jot and tittle of the text?

I have used both very detailed outlines and no notes at all. It really depends on how well I know the text. The problem I run into with outlines that are too detailed is that I feel anchored to the notes, as if I have to mention every little detail on the page. This can lead to dependence upon the notes that may detract from any Spirit-led spontaneity. On the other hand, using no notes at all may force a dependence on my own ability, which is not always so dependable! In light of this, I generally tend toward using a simple outline of major points with only a few major subpoints underneath. There are still times when I don’t use any notes at all, I just teach through the text.

So, how do you handle it?

Αυτω η δοξα,



12 thoughts on “On Using Notes”

  1. Jason,

    First of all: nice to meet you–in an digital sort of way. Your question is a good one, and the options you mentioned have been a point of debate with myself. I tend to follow a manuscript simply because an outline would allow my ADD to get the better of me, which usually means wandering clear off topic. (However, strangely enough, if I am teaching a Sunday school type class or a church elective, I use an outline).

    So, if I ever have to write a sermon, I will follow a basic week-long pattern which (I think) mixes my own thinking with necessary Spirit-led insight:

    *Monday: read and meditate on the text to be used
    *Tuesday: unload all of my thoughts from the previous day
    *Wednesday: reread the text and my notes to see what’s true to the text and what needs to be changed (or removed) from the manuscript
    *Thursday: a day off to pray about it throughout the day
    *Friday: commit the manuscript to memory and get a feel for the flow
    *Saturday: take half of the day off to pray, and the other half to make sure it’s in my head and heart
    *Sunday: preach the sermon

    Because the manuscript is committed to memory, the text on the pages serves as an outline of sorts but prevents the possibility of wandering. I also watch how what is being said lands on the people, which allows me to make necessary explanations/clarifications. Most importantly, I remain open for spiritual nudges regarding things I did not realize when the script was written. Usually, these nudges are other biblical texts I overlooked which are relevant to the heart of the message.

  2. Carl: Thanks for stopping by. Sounds like you have a good road map for knowing the text. I know guys who manuscript everything; I’ve just never been able to do that. I feel that once I’ve done the exegesis of the text and have outline the passage, I know it well enough to preach it (though there are times when this is not the case). BTW, I noticed there was no explicit mention of exegesis. Is it smattered throughout your study week?

  3. I need notes – I know that they say preachers who memorize their sermons and preach without notes make a better connection with the congregation but I need them – typically I write out a manuscript and then use that without reading from it directly. This way if there is something I want to say in a specific way I have it there. Otherwise I just refer to them without trying to be glued to them. I do agree though with the late James Braga that newer pastors need to pick one type of sermon (or one format to follow) and stick with that one until you have it down pat before you go off trying to use other forms (if that makes sense).

  4. Brian: That’s the main reason I never used a manuscript–because I would probably get lost trying to follow it too closely. My outlines, at times, became mini-manuscripts, so I started whittling them down to something more manageable. I am also fearful that the congregation would get the impression that I’m not engaging them if I were constantly referring to a manuscript. I like a simpler outline because it corrals my train of thought enough that I don’t lose sight of the end, but permits me some freedom for those connections that may come in the midst of preaching.

  5. Yeah, I guess I should have clarified the bit about exegesis. 🙂 Ever since late college, all through seminary, and now in doctoral studies, exegesis has just become an automatic thing. I had a number of really good professors who ingrained the discipline into my head. For the first couple of years, I hated learning it and trying to figure out how it works. Now, I don’t see how it’s possible to study without it.

    So, the short answer would be: the exegesis comes in on days two and three, when all the thoughts are being unloaded and when the rough draft is being checked. As far as the details of it go, I tend to follow the basic outline of Gordon Fee’s book on exegesis–especially the method for preaching.

  6. Carl: Good to know! I was worried you were a guy who might think “All I need is King Jimmy and the Spirit!” Glad to know you toil in the labor that is exegesis. I share your sentiments. When I first started learning about the art/science of exegesis, I was a bit lost; however, I don’t know how anyone can preach a text without doing it and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to learn under godly scholars this art.

    Where are you in doctoral studies? What field are you studying?

  7. No need to worry about me being of the “KJV and Spirit only” sort. I will, however, have to keep my sentiments about the KJV-only logic to myself. 🙂

    Currently, I have begun year-two of my studies at the University of Gloucestershire, which, sadly, at the moment is a tumultuous place to be. Aside from the various issues, however, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity of studying under Andrew Lincoln and (for the moment) Lloyd Pietersen. Both are exceptional scholars and wonderfully patient guides.

    As far as my field goes: I’m working, broadly, in New Testament theology and Pauline studies; specifically, the letter of 1 Corinthians; and most specifically, Paul’s understanding of the role of the Spirit and that role’s interrelationship with the cross, wisdom, and communal discernment in 1 Cor 2.1-3.4. I’m also analysing how three major interpretative models have dealt with that particular passage as well as how they handle the role of the Spirit in that passage.

    It’s an insane endeavour, to be sure; but I’m loving it. I guess you could say that I am trying to live out Chesterton’s observation: “The adventure may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane.”

  8. Carl: Yes, I’ve read a number of posts recently about the goings-on at Gloucestershire. I hope all is resolved there. I know of Lincoln through his WBC volume, but I haven’t read anything else that I remember (perhaps an article along the way).

    Sounds like an interesting area of study. I have been preaching through 1 Corinthians for several months now (just finished ch. 6). Given your subject, have you read Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence and/or Frank Matera’s New Testament Theology? If so, what did you think? I have them both in the review stack, but haven’t made it to them yet.

  9. I must admit that I have not seen Matera’s book yet; but knowing what I know about Matera, and now that I see the book’s contents, I will have to find a copy of it. Appreciate the suggestion. Udo Schnelle’s, *Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (2005)* has some good stuff on Paul in Corinth.

    As far as Fee’s book goes: I’ve worked through a fair amount of it; although, I have admittedly only focused on the chapters dealing with 1 Corinthians. (In fact, right before I saw your response, I just finished reading his comments on 1 Cor 2.4-5). In many ways, the treatment he gives is exceptional, in-depth, and worthy of consideration. However, I tend to disagree with him on a few minor points (such as the implications of “Spirit and power” in 1 Cor 2.4); but I think the differences boil down to denominational-theological perspectives.

    If memory serves me right, I think Fee just revised that book, which might be worth looking at for comparison.

  10. Carl: I’ve seen Schnelle’s works and would like to read some of them eventually, particularly his NT theology. I am anxious to read GEP, but I have several review books ahead of it. In my preaching through 1 Corinthians, I refer primarily to his commentary and David Garland’s (BECNT), which I really like.

    As far as a GEP revision, I am not sure. The review copy I received was reprinted this year, but I don’t remember any indication of a revision.

  11. My basic policy: know the text (original & otherwise) as thoroughly as possible, then use a type of outline-listing to keep me on task, if necessary. If the order is in the text itself – just use the text and forget the notes.

    That being said, I have taught, spoken and preached for years. In the beginning notes were more essential. The older I become (praise our Lord) the less I lean on them. I am however, meticulous about my time allotments. No notes is not an excuse to blabber on and on.

  12. Iris: Knowing the text thoroughly is a great starting point! I, too, find that the more I preach, the less I need to have copious notes before me. And, yes, no notes does not a license to run on and on!

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