I was asked this week what books I was taking away at Easter (a week's holiday then a five day trip to the US for T4G, but back at home base for Good Friday and Easter Sunday). I must confess I hadn't given this too much thought and so listed some books I need to read for reviews and for possible EMA stage recommendations. I was rightly told by Mrs R when I got home that work books should stay at work. She was right. When you're in ministry you're reading a lot and I find it is actually quite hard to take Christian books away and not be in work mode – so in order to relax and unwind I need to take some non Christian stuff. Good old Mrs R. If you're a heavy reader AND you find it hard to leave work behind, I recommend this – at the very least take some Christian material that is very different from the normal kind of thing you might read. I know some mighty men read John Owen on the beach, but for most of us mere mortals, something else works better to refresh and recharge our minds as well as our hearts.
(Please no postcards about my lack of spirituality)
Here, then is my reading whilst I am away. Not sure how much of it I will manage, but I will have a go:
- Between the assassinations by Aravind Adiga. I enjoyed his first book (White Tiger) and I love anything about India
- Double Cross: Ben Macintyre: this is the story of double agents in WWII. I love anything he writes and this is right up my street.
- God is back: John Micklethwait. This is more of a thinking book about the resurgence of religion
- Stonemouth: Iain Banks. Never really been an Iain Bnks fan, but I'm going to try again
- Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett. It's difficult to live in the east end of London and escape the Tate and Lyle factories down at the docks. I smell them as I cycle around. The syrup tin is not only the oldest recognisable trademark, but is also, to my knowledge, the only product in Sainsbury with a Bible text (and associated image) on it.
There, Robin, is your answer!
A few people have asked for examples of sermon notes. I'm extremely hesitant to do this because, quite simply, what works for me is unlikely to work for you. And vice versa. However, having written about sermon notes, I now feel under some sort of moral obligation to reveal my hand. Here are two kinds. The notes on the left I tend to use when I'm very familiar with my material which is not, sadly I confess, as often as it should be. The notes on the right are more common. I tend to use a full manuscript, as you can see, but I highlight certain words in my prep and tend to preach from the highlighted words. I used to go through a state of writing out just the highlighted words, but realised that I was only doing that for my own pride and satisfaction. For those interested, the notes on the right are annotated on an iPad from which I preach. Perhaps I might post on that another time. It will now be my life's work to get the notes of some of my colleagues onto the blog, as I don't want to face the ignominy alone.
Is preaching without notes the most authentic? Part 2
As a follow up to this post about preaching without notes, here are some more thoughts; I've had these because I've just listened to a recording of a sermon. I try to do this fairly regularly to keep in touch with guys and keep in touch with preaching. Contrary to what some people think, there is no PT model of preaching in terms of style etc and so listening to people preach is a great way of learning for oneself as well as hearing the general trends and issues that need addressing.
This particular sermon was one preached without notes and whereas my previous post was theoretical, this one is practical. I want to say again that preaching without notes is not necesarily more spiritual than preaching with. There is, of course, good preaching with notes and good preaching without. There is bad preaching with notes and bad preaching without. But preaching without notes, particularly if you're not suited to it, does not make the sermon necessarily better.
In this particular case, here are some of my observations. I make these cautiously. I wasn't there in person and I know that the Spirit of God takes even my rubbish words and uses them in preaching. Moreover there was lots of good content, it had all the right things. However:
- the sermon was very repetitive; key phrases kept resurfacing. Sometimes this is helpful; but at times it felt like these were just padding time and didn't add anything to the message
- there was little logical flow – more a series of separate ideas. Of course, good prep can negate this. As can even a very brief set of notes.
- sentences were often chopped in half. I'm not sure. Why this was. But it was. And after a while. It became annoying. It may be. Because the speaker. Was thinking of. His next line.
- there were no beautiful words. I know we're not making parliamentary speeches. And our speech needs to be for the farm boy as much as for the scholar. Nevertheless, as many great preachers have observed over the years – a nice phrase here and there with colour and warmth can really bring otherwise solid but uninspiring words alive. (There is a brilliant chapter here on Christian eloquence by John Piper)
- there was little variation. I like variation in tone and speed and volume. Sometimes using notes actually helps this – for example as a preacher feels a bit freer in a section he knows well
The observant will note, rightly, that none of these are necessarily faults of speaking without notes. I agree. And if someone is good at doing so, then all of them can be overcome. But interestingly, in this particular case, these weaknesses (which may be down to lack of confidence or experience) can all be overcome by using notes. So, I'm hestitant to make hard and fast rules for myself, let alone others. But preaching without notes is not the most authentic. This is true theoretically. It is true practically.
It’s all in the projection
Most of us preside over church meetings/services (choose your language as appropriate). And an increasing number of us do that in churches which don't use hymn books or printed sheets but by means of projection. There are good reasons for this being a good idea. People tend to sing into books/sheets. Most churches notice, when switching from paper to projection, that the singing improves and, I think, it is far easier for singing this way to be the encouraging corporate thing it ought to be.
But we'd be naïve to pretend that there were not issues with it. Chief among these is that we project words very poorly. We tend to do so in a way that allows people at the back to see them (very commendable), but that means that verses/sentences and thoughts are often divided. It's very hard to sing meaningfully when this happens. Here's a very basic example:
This is page 1 of my imaginary song. It's very hard to sing this with any gusto, and certainly any meaning without knowing what it is I'm supposed to be praising God for. So it needs page 2:
Ah, now it has meaning. But only when the two are joined together. You might think this is a stupid example, but here is a real one. Ironically, when we were growing up it was also a problem in our hymn book when the hymn crossed the page and we, as stupid teens, used to snigger at the split:
One wonders (if you didn't know the hymn) quite what point is being made. Slide 2 might not help much either:
These slides are not just meaningless without slide 3, they are quite possibly leading you to sing something you don't really mean. Of course, many people probably know the hymn. And no one would expect a hymn to big up sin! But what about those who don't know it? And, anyhow, how are we going to sing meaningfully without the full idea? So slide 3 is needed to complete one of the most glorious lines in hymnody.
So how should it look? Like this, I think:
Now, immediately you can see a problem. More-words-on-the-screen is harder to read. Font size has to be smaller. Both true. But I maintain that you must overcome those difficulties and project full ideas. Otherwise you'd be better off with books. I happen to like projecting song words – I think it has much to commend it; that's not the point of this post. But if you do project, you need to think about it clearly and theologically. How best can you help people sing together? It may be that you need more than one screen or repeaters. It may be that you need to invest time in arranging songs well. Both are jobs that might get little attention in church. But if singing is as important as we think it is, make the investment.
Human hands, God’s fingerprints
Just scanning through the latest issue of Leadership magazine and came across an article which was asking church leaders to explain how they 'planned worship experiences that generate worshipful people rather than spoiled consumers.' Kevin DeYoung's response is worth repeating in full and should be the mantra for every man responsible for leading God's people:
To be honest this isn't something we consciously think about. Our aim is not first of all to produce an effect in the congregation. Our first aim is to worship God in a way that is biblical and pleasing to him. Of course, we do think through the flow of the service. We want the music and the technical aspects to be conducted with undistracting excellence. But those are things we can control.
The real work is the work we can't control, the work only God can do. For real heart change, conversion, sanctification, and everything else that matters for eternity we rely explicitly and wholly on the Word of God and prayer. This is what God promises to bless and promises to use to build up his people: the Word spoken in preaching and seen in the sacraments, and the prayers of his people to unleash the power the Spirit's power.
Like the farmer who went to sleep and work up to find a crop, we trust the Word of God to do the work of God.
Can we see without special effects?
The same issue of Leadership I mentioned yesterday also contains an interesting article by John Ortberg. He is arguing that we do not need special effects to see Christ. Amen to that. But I'm not quite with him. See what you make of his conclusion:
Clearly in the Bible, spiritual leaders found ways to get people to pay attention. The prophets would use such props as plumb lines and cisterns. They would set a record for most days spent lying on one side. They would bury and dig up undergarments. They would marry women with shady reputations. Their lives often looked like something between performance art and reality TV.
Jesus himself was both a riveting teacher as well a prophet and a worker of miracles. But it's striking that Jesus and the other apostles would sometimes refuse to do miracles. They didn't depend on them for the essence of their message. It seems like celestial special effects have limited impact….. The danger of special effects is that we begin to demand them and to demand more and more spectacular ones. Our attention can be arrested by deeply dramatic moments. But our character cannot be reformed by dramatic moments alone. That demands a longer, slower, less glamorous process.
On the whole, I agree with his thrust. But I don't think it's quite the whole picture. True, occasionally the prophets did use 'props' – but he has outlined above pretty much every prop in all the many chapters of the prophets. Most of the time they spoke and it was always enough. The props might have illustrated the message but they didn't give it power. True, Jesus was a riveting teacher and miracle worker. But there was power in his words, not just interesting stuff. His voice called people to follow him and they dropped everything. His words spoke to demons and they were gone. Similarly in the preaching of the apostles there was power.
Longer? Slower? Less glamorous? Perhaps. But just as powerful. More powerful. Because what drama ever raised the dead? What prop brought power to a prophet's message?
Preach the word, in season and out.
Now, here's an interesting idea. Some churches/groups struggle in meetings without music even though they would like some. There's now an iPhone/iPad app that provides music for songs and hymns broken down into sections and the user can select which section to play in which order, even changing in the middle of a song. The tracks are mixable, so you can have vocals or no vocals, guitars or no guitars etc. It seems really high quality and the transitions between different segments are seamless. There's one free track at the moment – and though it is not a song I would necessarily choose, it displays the abilities of the app very ably. It can also project song words. Each song is not cheap, at £1.49 each. But once you have spent the investment, you have a really good resource. I'm liking this a lot and can imagine situations where it would be very useful – e.g. when we sing in our small fellowship groups (you do this too, right?). Importantly, you can tailor each song to your own style. So if you're dependent on a recorded track you don't have to follow their set up, instrumentation, or repeat pattern. Result. Oh, and it's fun to use!!
More info here or search for iSingWorship in the app store (app is free).
Princeton Library online
The Princeton online library is an enormous and valuable resource. It is full of rare and useful books, over 55,000 of which have been digitsed. I have been reading, for example, The war and preaching by John Kelman, lectures given at Princeton during WWI. The later chapters have got some great stuff. Here's some advice about spending too much time on the art of preaching rather than the content…
Conscious art in preaching is doubly dangerous. It is dangerous to the preacher. Such a state of mind in the preacher obviously distracts his attention from the main purpose of his work. We have enumerated here three objects of preaching: testimony, education and appeal. But none of these can be rightly attained so long as the preacher is also aiming at creating an impression by his art. That can never be a legitimate object of preaching, and it has ruined many an able sermon.
But sermons which reveal the art with which they are composed are equally dangerous with respect to those who listen to them. Hatch's Lectures are full of the most startling suggestion as to this in their descriptions of those long sermons of the sophists that were delivered for the sake of the applause they drew…He reaches his climax in the account of Gregory of Nazianzus' greatest sermon, where his audience was so wedded to its search for art and not for conviction, thatr he broke forth in despair in his closing sentence, 'Farewell – ye are nearly all of you unfaithful to God' which the congregation greeted with a final outburst of applause.
Not the end of books
First up a confession. I love books. I love the feel. I love the smell (especially of old books). I love the crack when I break the spine of a new book in order to read it comfortably. But I'm no technophobe. I also have a kindle and read books on that and Mrs R, for one, is glad that there is now more luggage space on holiday rather than having to lug 20 hardbacks away with us.
So, I was saddened but not surprised to read last week that the Encylopaedia Britannica will be no more. When stocks of the current run (about six months worth) are depleted that will be it. It's certainly the end of an era. But it's not the end of books. You see the world wide net is brilliant for some kinds of books – chiefly reference and searchable resources. But it is not, and nor will be soon, the medium of choice for reading. The interweb undoubtedly helps my sermon prep – and I'm not talking about sermoncentral.com. Check a fact here. Brush up on a news story for an illustration there. Around the periphery it is immensely useful.
But at the heart, despite loving technology, my sermon prep is still paper based. And, though I have eBibles, my Bible will always be so. I may use an iPad for notes, but I will stand in the pulpit with a Bible in my hand.
And, as an article in the Times said last week, that's good news on more than one level:
“I am a bit heartbroken,” said AJ Jacobs, who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for his book The Know-it-all. “I loved the idea that all the world’s knowledge could be contained in those pages.”
The explorer Ernest Shackleton took a volume on his doomed expedition to Antarctica and is said to have burned it page by page to keep warm.
“You can’t do that with the internet,” Mr Jacobs said.
Is preaching without notes the most authentic?
In the IX marks journal there is a largely positive review of David Murray's How sermons work. I enjoyed the book (five of your English pounds well spent), but there were one or two places where I did not agree entirely with the point being made. I notice that Aaron Menikoff (the IX Marks reviewer) thinks the same:
Is it true that the preachers deemed most “authentic” shy away from sermon notes? I don’t think so. Yet Murray warns preachers not to use exhaustive manuscripts since “this age prefers to be spoken to personally and relationally. There is nothing more authentic than a man preaching eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart, without anything intervening” (149). This is a small point and it’s hardly crucial to Murray’s task. Still, it is a point I hear regularly, and I’m not sure it is accurate. Authenticity in preaching does not stem from the use or lack of notes, but from a preacher so engaged in the Word, so convinced of its relevance for today, so gripped himself by the power of the gospel, that his conviction is powerfully and spiritually evident—notes or no notes.