I’ve been teaching a Preaching Lab this summer, where a bunch of men and women are learning the basics of preaching and then preaching a practice sermon. This week one of the participants asked me a good question about the sermon prep process and sermon notes, and I thought I’d share my answer.
Q: When you prepare your sermon, do you rehearse it, if so, how many times, and what does that look like? Is it a “full dress rehearsal”? Do you record or time yourself to make sure you hit all points in allotted time? Or is it more like a rough rehearsal and run through of your outline with guesstimations and or experienced gauging of each point? I think I struggle with this most, because if I just use outline as a backbone, I tend to go over time, but if I stick to notes, I feel stifled and like I’m reading cue cards. Just wondering what your prep looks like.
A: What I do now is very different from where I started and I don’t think I could do what I do now without starting how I started.
When I first got into preaching, I was expected by those who trained me to write out a full manuscript of the message. I didn’t necessarily have to preach from the manuscript, but I had to write it out. This was helpful because it forced me to organize my thoughts, see if they were clear, and think through smooth transitions. It was also helpful because I could read it out loud and gauge how long the sermon would be.
The challenge, however, was that I would often read big chunks from the manuscript during the sermon itself, which is disengaging.
I’ve always admired guys who can preach without notes (Robert Gelinas is one of my favorites). I think it’s more engaging and feels more authoritative, like you really know what you’re talking about.
So one time, about 7-8 years ago, I decided I wanted to try giving a message with zero notes. I figured I would either bomb or it would go well. The fear of bombing and freezing on stage with nothing to say drove me to really get to know the message. So I read the manuscript out loud multiple times, with an almost preaching voice. I created a simple, memorable outline and spent a lot of time learning it. Not memorizing words (I didn’t want to just recite it), but getting so familiar with the content that I could just talk about it.
Thankfully, I didn’t bomb and a number of close friends said it was the best sermon I had given to that point. The lessons were (a) the fewer notes the better and (b) I needed to get to know the content better if I was going to be effective.
When I started preaching weekly in 2009, I tried to do this same basic approach. However, I found that with the other time demands of church planting, getting to zero notes was really hard. So I would write out a manuscript and then turn it into a short, 1 page preaching outline. Over time, I stopped writing out the manuscript and just develop a preaching outline, typically anywhere between 1-3 pages (see an example here). I still work to know the big points and illustrations well so that I don’t have to be too tied to notes. Some messages are better than others.
As far as time and rehearsal, this also has adapted over time. I’ve had times when I’ve “preached to the empty seats” as a way to run things through ahead of time. Nelson Searcy says this “doubles the effectiveness of your preaching.” I still do this sometimes, but usually only if it’s a message that I don’t feel as comfortable with either because I think it’s going to be too long and I need to gauge what to cut or if it’s a particularly tricky message that I want to be sure to get right. For instance, when I preached on homosexuality last year I did a full run-through on stage with the staff in the room to practice and get feedback.
Time is one of those things that I have a feel for from lots of repetition. I can usually gauge about how long it will be from my notes. For somebody without as much experience, the best way to gauge time is to either read the manuscript or practice the sermon.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that I do still struggle to stay within the time (our worship leader could tell you, since we sometimes have to cut a song). Also, I tend to go longer on the second sermon than the first, partly because I think of more things to say and also because there’s a little more flexibility without another service coming. That said, I think around 35-40 minutes is a sweeter spot for me. My favorite preachers usually go about 35 minutes and I’m not as good as them. As Justin Anderson has said, “Sermons are not measured in minutes. They are measured in minutes beyond interest.” I’d rather go shorter and really pack a punch than ramble on. But sometimes I like to hear myself talk.
Hope this helps.