A first-time worshiper guest threw that question at me on their way out the door last Sunday. No, I didn’t know what they were talking about either. But I’ve become the master of the follow-up question.
“What do you mean by that?”
“You didn’t use any notes when you preached.”
“Oh, he had notes,” her husband quickly added.
I chimed in, “Yes, I did have a few notes.” But then they were out the door.
Honestly, I did have a few notes. I usually have a sticky note on the page opposite my sermon text with some words to jog my memory during the course of the sermon.
How do I do that? Good question. Maybe I should start from the beginning.
I’ve been preaching for close to twenty-eight years (thirty if you count a few seminary and vicarage sermons). When I first stepped into the pulpit, I would carefully outline and write out each sermon, and then practice it until I could do it from memory. This is how I was taught to prepare in my seminary preaching classes, and it served me well for about twenty years. In my first parish, I discovered that if I practiced a sermon six or seven times, I could remember most of it from memory.
Somewhere around eight to ten years ago, I read some books or journal articles about the difference between writing a paper and writing a sermon. I learned a few things about the difference beween written oral communication, and decided I should focus on the latter. At the same time, I came across the idea of storyboarding, used by the creators of movies. I immediately knew that this would be an effective way of preparing a sermon. Each slide was a point, illustration or transition for the sermon, and made it even easier to memorize. One word for each slide was all I needed to remember, fitting easily onto a sticky note, and after three or four practice runs, I had it down.
Have I answered the question, “How do you do that?” Perhaps. Lots of study of a text, a 140-character summary, a storyboard and practice is pretty much how I get my sermons together. Experience helps a lot, too. when you are preaching weekly, you get into a groove, a rhythm of sorts. Pastoral ministry helps, too. Knowing your audience is a help. And over time you develop your unique style or voice. You aren’t preparing and preaching as though a professor were looking over your shoulder, but as if you were serving up a meal for some hungry people.
I almost always use the sticky note now. I don’t always need it, but it’s helpful. The sanctuary is filled with any number of distractions on a Sunday morning. I’ve preached through everything from screaming children to thunderstorms to ambulances arriving for someone who has passed out during worship. The note(or notes) help me get back on track.
I can vividly remember sitting in church about thirty-two years ago, listening to a sermon and thinking, “I’d like to do that.” And now I am. It turned out to be a lot more work and a lot more rewarding than I ever imagined!