Handwritten sermon notes

Mon, 18/09/2023 - 14:05 -- James Oakley

What notes do you preach from?

It's a question young, aspiring preachers often ask of those who have been preaching for longer. That's because people want to know the "right" answer to that question. In particular, people often ask: Do you preach from a full script, or from notes?

No right answer

There is no right answer, because it will vary according to your personality, context, and the kind of talk or sermon you're delivering.

In every sermon, you're wanting to aim at two things.

  • Say the right thing. You've prepared hard (I hope). You've worked out the best way to structure your talk. You've worked out how to explain the details. You've identified illustrations that will bring the truths to life. You've decided how to start and how to finish. Having done all that prep, you don't want your mind to go blank as you deliver the talk, so that none of the careful thinking you've done gets into what you say. So unless you know your material by heart, you need enough notes in front of you to prompt you, so that the material you've prepared is what you deliver.
  • Say it well. Preaching is not just speaking the right words from the front, and hoping that they'll somehow land in the hearts and minds of those listening. Preaching is communicating. When you communicate, you make eye contact. Your facial expression reflects what you're saying. You adjust pitch, pause and pace. You read the cues as to how you're being heard, and adjust. If people didn't quite follow something you said, you notice, and find another way to put it. In short, you engage.

If all you had to do was say the right thing, you'd use a full script every time

If all you had to do was speak engagingly, you'd use the barest of notes every time.

The challenge comes because we need to say the right thing engagingly. The exact occasion will shape the balance. A event that requires you speak for precisely 4 and a half minutes probably needs a full script. A 10 minute evangelistic talk to kick off an open discussion may need no notes at all. Your personality and ability will also shape the balance. Some people can recite the screenplay of all 3 Lord of the Rings films from memory, and have a good stab at Blackadder as well. Others just can't. Be you. Play to your strengths.

When I was studying on the Cornhill Training Course, it was led by David Jackman who started it with Revd R C (Dick) Lucas. We met in an office building near Borough High Street, but it started in St Peter's Church Cornhill. Dick used to preach every Tuesday lunchtime for city workers. David told us how students would arrive on a Wednesday for Cornhill, and scrabble around in the vestry wastepaper basket looking for Dick's material. They were disappointed. They found a few scraps of paper with indecipherable jottings on them.

The course is currently led by Nigel Styles. I heard Nigel tell a group of ministers that he always preaches with the fewest notes he can manage. For him, this is a full manuscript!

It is our responsibility to communicate engagingly, but don't idolise it. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) preached almost entirely by reading from a full script. Sermons like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", mightily used by God to bring revival across New England, were read by candlelight.

My own story

What notes / script you need will change through life and ministry as well.

Initially, I preached from a full script. If you do this, print at a decent font size. Print with wide margins so your eye can scan a whole line at a time (and so possibly take in two or three lines). Use at least 1.5x line spacing too, so your eye doesn't cross the lines.

And write what you would say. Don't write, then read, an essay. Work out how you would preach the sermon, and write the words you'd say. If your sermon isn't perfect grammar, it doesn't matter. Nobody speaks with perfect grammar.

Then I tried to devise a system of printing in two columns. The right hand column had my full script. On the left, I'd reduce to notes. The idea was that I'd preach from the notes, and if I ever needed to refer back to the full script, I could glance across. That was never a great success. I had trouble working out what notes I needed to jog my memory, and the notes were too sparse. With decent line spacing and font size, and with wide margins, I was two paragraphs to a page. You don't get much notes on each sheet of paper.

So I ended up never using the notes, and going off the script entirely. So I gave myself permission to ditch the notes and revert to a full script. With time, I got quite good at taking in several lines at a glance, so I could look around the room as I spoke, with lots of eye contact. Most people wouldn't necessarily know I was reading.

Then came Covid, and lockdown. I was preaching to a camera. Every time you even glance down at your notes, you look away from the camera, and it shows. I realised I had to preach from notes, the briefer the better. So that's what I started doing. Probably, before lockdown, I was looking down at my script far more than I realised, and it took a camera to make me see that.

So I developed the system I follow  now.

A Plea for Handwriting

Which brings me to my point. What I do now, mostly, is write my notes by hand. I write on A6 postcards, back to back. For a 25 minute sermon, I  usually need 3-4 postcards (6-8 sides).

I can write some key sentences in full if I wish. I can just jot headings in other places. I can lay things out on the page in a way that will help me see the structure of what I'm saying. I can use arrows to link things. I can use my own shorthand, summarising words with fewer letters ("J" instead of "Jesus", "msg" instead of "message"), using symbols (⇨ for implies / which means, ∴ for therefore, ∵ for because, ¬ for "not", and so on). The result is notes that are easy to follow while I'm preaching.

But more than having complete control of the layout, there's something about writing by hand that helps the material to go in. I remember much better if I've actually written it. I doodle thoughts earlier in my preparation with an actual pencil. With graphite in it.

Computers are a wonderful blessing. But our default is to type notes, and when we're ready to hit "print". Somehow, I've found, when it comes to preparing notes to preach from, this does not serve me well. I remember my material less well. And the way the notes are laid out on the page is less than optimal for finding my way around my notes as I deliver the sermon.

So this is just a plea really: Use computers well in ministry. They help in so many ways. But maybe consider that writing by hand has something going for it. Find the level of notes / manuscript that works for you. Handwritten notes may not work for you. But it may be an option you haven't even thought of, and I'd say it's worth considering.

Just a thought.

For those curious, I've attached my notes from last Sunday's sermon on James 1:13-18. You'd struggle to preach from those, I take it? That's the point - they're my notes, the style of which reflects my style and delivery. But hopefully you can follow the notes enough that they shed light on what I've been talking about. james_01_13-18-notes.pdf

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