Surviving Without My Sermon Notes

My tablet had been plugged in and charging all afternoon, or so I thought. I was as prepared as I could be for our annual Carols by Candlelight service on the Sunday evening before Christmas. It is a great evangelistic opportunity and, despite smallish numbers attending, I reckon that one third of those who joined us this year were unsaved.

But, as we began the service, I discovered that my tablet was completely without power – and my sermon notes were on it! I still don’t know what had gone wrong but I learned – or re-learned – a very valuable lesson.

The debate over whether preachers should use notes or not – and if so how full should those notes be – continues to rage and the truth is that there is no right or wrong answer. It all depends. It depends, among other things, on the preacher, on the occasion, on the text. My personal experience is that a more closely reasoned exposition of a passage often requires fuller notes, whereas with other sermons more of an outline with headings will do the job.

When, on this recent occasion, the realisation dawned on me that my notes were not available, I prayed, “Lord, help me” and, as the first carol of the evening was being sung, made a quick note on a piece of paper that was in my Bible, of my remembered outline of the sermon.

I was preaching on the angels’ message to the shepherds (Luke 2), taking the angels’ song as the praise response to the lone angel’s message about the birth of a Saviour. I had four headings to unpack that message, namely:

  • What: What is a Saviour?
  • Why: Why do we need one?
  • Who: Who is this Saviour?
  • How: How does he save us?

And they were now the only notes I had in front of me as I preached. And yet, what liberty I had; what a sense of the Lord’s help as he brought back to my mind all, or at least much of, the material I had prepared, not to mention new thoughts I had not consciously considered.

You see, at the end of the day, the key is not how full your notes are but how well prepared you are and how well you know your message.

But, as I thought about this further, I compared some of my recent sermon notes with some from about 6 or 7 years ago and noticed that my recent ones are much fuller than the earlier ones, and that led me to another realisation – the fuller my notes, the more I depend on them for some reason and, as a result, the less liberty I often experience.

So, my resolution at the start of 2022 is to work harder at having less notes in front of me as I preach. But that requires more – not less – work in preparation.

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