There is no easy way to answer the question: “Should the preacher provide interactive outlines which the congregation can use to fill in the blanks?” So much depends on the personality of the preacher and the style of delivery. The same goes for the congregation. Some on the left-brain end of the spectrum learn best by cybernetic activities such as filling in blanks. Those on the right-brained end of things like a little more conversational style married to more jolting, creative techniques of learning.
Some years ago, we attended a church with interactive sermon-note guides. While we liked the pastor of the church a great deal, I often found myself frustrated by the guides and how they seemed to require a lot of interaction as we studied the outlines before the sermon actually began.
My wife is a bit more left-brained than I am, and while I am grateful for the balance this brings to our marriage, this difference between us caused us to approach the fill-in-the-blank sermons very differently. If the sermon sheet we received in our Sunday bulletin said: “Point Two: Trust Christ and you will have _____________,” she almost instinctively knew the missing word about to be revealed in the digitally outlined sermon was peace, while I want to write an existential experience.
It’s partly because I think the sermon is about to reveal something wonderful, deep and intense; she thinks all fill-in-the-blanks note sheets are there to deal with sermon simplicities. She is so good at this that I often asked her if she had called the pastor on Friday to get all of the answers ahead of time.
Futhermore, this particular pastor used alliteration in his outlines; I constantly was befuddled by the fact that I seemed to over think his alliterative sermon note blanks: Barbara would come into the service, pick up the sermon sheet and read, “Trust Christ, and you will have _______, _______ and _______. She would study the Scripture about to be exposited, then confidently write into these blanks: peace, perseverance and power in prayer. Once again in trying to be a bit more creative, I would write in things such as perfection in priestly purpose, penitential piety and a positive plan for practicing the presence of Paul’s pastoral passion.
The misery of being so often wrong on sermon sheets made me feel bad because what was so obvious to Barbara, who has less formal theological training than I do, was that she was so much better at Pulpit Scrabble than I was. I think we lost the blessing often by trying to fill in the words well ahead of sermon time—but then, what else are we to do while the giant digital projection on the Jumbotrons says we still have seven minutes and 33 seconds before the service begins?
Such huge “Our service will begin in …” clocks are seven minutes of hell for all us worshippers with Attention Deficit Disorder. Seven minutes is a lot of time to waste, so what is there to do when you’ve already read through the order of worship? There is nothing to do, so you try to get the blanks filled in while you drum your fingers on the Samsonite chairs of your multiple-purpose sanctuary.
If you’re stuck on a really hard blank once the praise and worship begins, it really can play havoc with your singing. It’s hard to give up a reluctant blank and focus on “Our Lord is a Mighty God” when you’re trying to recall words that have yet to be declared in your notes.
The result of all this pain and suffering has led me to conclude that Interactive Sermon Notes are good for some, but they are not for everyone. They are for those more passive, less driven disciples who can reign in their curiosity and wait on pop-up revelation. It’s great when the style of sermon delivery fits us. It is truly wonderful when the pastor’s mode of preaching and the listener’s mode of learning are in one accord. Then heaven itself is just a _______, _______ and a _______ away. (Try hop, skip and jump here).
Calvin Miller is a preacher and teacher of preachers and best-selling author, as well as a contributing editor of Preaching for 25 years.