A news item crossed my desk recently about a long-time friend who had spoken at a seminary and counseled these young and future pastors never to carry notes into the pulpit. “Immerse yourself in the message,” he said. “Look the people in the eye, and connect with them.”
It was not bad advice. My friend and I graduated in the same seminary class, and together we have eighty-plus years of experience in the pulpit, and we probably agree on the business of trying to preach without notes. Where we disagree is that I don’t think it’s the right counsel for everyone.
Most of the sermons I’ve heard from others and almost all the messages I’ve preached over these four decades could well have been presented without notes, but not all of them. A few have been deep, some have been highly technical, several have heavily quoted authors and authorities, and more than one or two have relied on fine points of doctrine that needed to be stated just so. In every case, the speakers took notes into the pulpit and used them effectively. To require these messengers of the Lord to leave all notes behind puts an unfair and unnecessary burden on them.
Or so I think. I could be wrong. And that’s my point. My friend was giving his opinion; this is mine. His listeners and my readers are free to consider both and make up their minds, no matter how persuasively or not my friend and I make our case.
Preachers are all different. They have different personalities and a multitude of styles. They preach various types of sermons. And their churches are as diverse as they are. They do not all have the same needs.
Furthermore, sometimes I’m different. I don’t always need the same thing I did last week. My preaching changes. I grow, I learn, I move, I adapt. One piece of advice hardly fits even me, much less all preachers everywhere forever and ever, amen.
That’s not to say God’s Word does not give excellent and lasting instruction to those of us who dare to preach. One evidence of the inspiration of God’s Word is its applicability, that it fits all of us all the time. What else in our world can we say that about?
But, interestingly enough, God resisted the temptation, as though He ever was tempted, to get too specific about the task of sermon building, construction, and delivery. In Jesus’s day, we are told, the speaker sat while his congregation stood. That being the custom of the day, we would expect somewhere in the Bible to find instructions on how to sit, where to sit (in front, the middle, off to one side), how high to sit (elevated, lower, eye level), when to stand, and how long people could stand before needing time to rest. But, we give thanks, the Bible is silent on this subject.
Nowhere in the Word are we told whether the preacher should speak loudly or softly, conversationally or oratorically, fast or slow, whether to tell stories or stick to the precepts, to wear a suit and wingtips or a sweatshirt with sneakers, insert quotes from others or stick to one’s own material, reuse sugar sticks or stay current, borrow outlines or make up your own, use notes or not, alliteration or not, to print fill-in-the-blank outlines in the worship bulletins, project the sermon points on the media screen, or even whether a sermon has to have points. How, I ask, tongue firmly planted in cheek, could a loving God have allowed these oversights in His eternal Word?
The answer of course is that this “oversight” is actually a part of the beauty of God’s Word and His ways. In the scriptures, He gives the basic details of our assignment; the rest is left to individuals who go forth to serve under the direction and tutelage of the Holy Spirit. “He leadeth me in paths of righteousness” refers to the study as well as the pulpit.
That is why seminary educators cannot prepare young preachers for everything they will face when they get “out there” on the field. It would be impossible. Everyone except the novice pastor knows this. His (or her) frustration on reaching their first assignment usually lasts three or four years, about the same length of time as the seminary program, before coming to terms with the beauty of God’s plan. If his professors are successful, they give him a foundation on which he erects a structure of ministry according to the blueprints of the Word, the superintendency of the Holy Spirit, and the zoning conditions of the community where he serves. (I’ve probably milked that metaphor enough.)
One of the odder aspects about preachers is that once we find something that works for us, we think everyone ought to do it that way. Or, it doesn’t work and we are surprised anyone else still uses it.
How many times have we heard experts tell us people will not listen to lengthy sermons, that fifteen minutes is the rule. “If you can’t say it in fifteen minutes,” one said in my hearing, “you can’t say it in an hour.” Which, if you stop to think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Exceptions abound. Flying lessons come to mind. Or Hebrew conjugations, the five points of Calvinism, or Romans chapter 8.
A couple of summers ago, in a short sabbatical from my pastorate, I visited some outstanding and successful churches in the middle part of the country. In all, I heard fourteen sermons, not a one of them less than thirty minutes long. Two were fortyfive minutes. Every one of them was effective, although, to be honest, some could have lost a little length without incurring structural damage.
I once heard a pastor confess that he spends an hour in the study for every minute he preaches on Sunday. At the other extreme, another testified before hundreds of us, “Give me the Bible and put me in a closet with a pencil and some paper, and in two hours, I’m ready to preach!” Both men led large and, as far as I could tell, successful ministries.
I have no problem with what they do, if it works for them. Just don’t hang it out there as the way, the truth, the life for all of us. It isn’t. In fact, I’m not sure there is “one way” to preach.
Unless …. Perhaps the only way to leave this is that the best way to preach is “your way.” Whatever that happens to be. Discovering that way is one of the great joys of the preaching ministry. The bad news is that most of us labor for years before realizing we have found our way and that it is good for us. Then, we start looking for a seminary somewhere that will put us on the chapel program to tell others how to do it.

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