It’s Notes or Nothing!

I heard a pastor the other talk about how he goes onto stage each week to talk to his church without notes. He walks up with nothing but the Bible in hand and the mic over his ear. He was proud of this. He even called notes “a crutch.” In his mind, using notes was breaking some rule of preaching. What rule that is I’m not sure. One rule I like to follow is good preparation, and I don’t see how using that preparation to your fullest is wrong.

Making sure your thoughts are expressed in words that your audience can turn into action requires clarity. And clarity is best established when you have notes. If you don’t use notes when you speak, you should! And here are three reasons:

  1. Keep On Track

Look, if you’re like me you like to talk…a lot. And when you start talking a lot, you tend to go from one story to another topic to a different idea all together. The only thing that keeps me on track when I talk is a good outline.

Every time I speak I have notes in front of me. I try to use them sparingly, but I always refer back to them to keep my place. I rehearse my sermon before hand to make sure I know what I’m going to say, but I keep those notes in front of me to make sure I’m on track.

This isn’t a sign of weakness but evidence of strength. As a communicator you want to stay on track. And strong communicators will have a plan set out in front of them and follow that plan.

  1. Play It Again

How many times have you asked, “Didn’t we say this already?” Or maybe you wondered, “Didn’t I preach this sermon before?” If you’ve got notes, guess what – you’ve got evidence!

Not only can you pull out your old notes, freshen them up and change the details for a new sermon, but you can also preach it again. As in preach the exact same sermon again. That will save you time in sermon prep right there. Of course I’m talking about preaching it to another audience. But even in the same audience, if it’s been five years you’ve got new people who have never heard that sermon before. If you’ve got the notes, then you’ve given yourself a chance to preach it again.

  1. Share With Others

When you were a kid and you had a friend over, what would your mom tell you before they got there? “Play nice and share.” She knew that if you followed those two rules then you wouldn’t get into trouble.

Now that we’ve grown up we think the first is still important but the second doesn’t apply anymore. But it does! The best sermon notes are those that get shared with others. In fact, the most prominent and successful preachers are those who share their outlines and notes all the time. And they don’t even charge for it!

So, share your notes with younger preachers who are just starting out. Share your notes with people in your church who lead community groups or teach Sunday school and need help preparing talks. Heck, go ahead and share your notes with the pastor across town. He may love it.


Now, one final note because I know what you’re thinking. You went to a conference or visited another church or watched a sermon online where the speaker didn’t use notes. They stood up with nothing but a bottle of water and talked for 45 minutes. But did they really? What you probably didn’t see was some monitor or teleprompter that had their notes on it. Don’t believe me? Just ask them.

The best communicators that I know use notes – whether written down in front of them or on a monitor. If you want to be one of the best communicators, I would suggest you do the same!

Do you use notes or do you try to preach from memory? How do you prepare your notes – full manuscript, outline, mind map, or something different?

Digging Up the Seed

Let me tell you a story.

Two farmers went out to plant crops. They both painstakingly prepared the ground, removing rocks and debris or weeds that could hinder growth. Then they carefully arranged the seed, making sure to plant them in the most productive patterns. The sun shined down on the ground and the rain fell to water the soil.

Then the two farmers went to bed.

As time went on, the first farmer diligently went about his business, making sure the ground was free of rocks and debris or weeds, watering the seedbeds daily, and going to bed each night. The second farmer did the same, but every night he would go out to his seedbeds and dig up the earth. He pulled the seeds out and examined them in the moonlight, gauging their growth from the previous night, before returning them to the soil.

After a few months, the first farmer’s crops were growing and would soon give him great abundance at harvest times. His silos would be full and his family fed. However, the second farmer’s crops never grew. Because he was digging up the seeds every night they never had a chance to firmly establish in the soil. The farmer had no crops at harvest time. His silos were empty and his family starved.

Now, let me tell you about that story.

Any long term goals take patience and perseverance. When you’re doing what it takes to reach those goals, you often wonder “Am I doing this right? Is it going to work out?” But just like the first farmer, you have no idea what is happening below the surface. You have no idea how your seed is doing – how it’s growing or maturing.

If your long term goals involve networking, you have no idea what others are saying about you when you’re not there. You’ve done all you can to make the right contacts – planting seed as you go – now it’s up to the soil of good intention to do the rest. You may go weeks without a contact, but the seed is still there, working its way through the earth.

If your goals are long term, then you can’t stare at the short term.

If your long term goals involve getting into shape, you can’t measure the success on a day-to-day basis. It’s what happens over the long haul that counts. If your long term goals involve education, you can’t complete that degree in one day. If your long term goals involve writing a book, learning a craft, or moving up the ladder at work, you have no idea what your short term patience and perseverance will gain you since you can’t see the future.

About a month ago I was frustrated. I felt like the wheels were moving a lot slower than I had hoped. Then God whispered to me one short sentence that made all the difference – “You don’t know the size of the seed you’ve planted.” You and I have no way of knowing the future, just like those farmers. They both prepared the soil, arranged the seed, and kept watering. But one was anxious while the other was patient. One worried while the other trusted.

When you’re in the middle, it’s impossible to see where in the middle you are. You may be a lot closer than you think but a lot farther away than you want. But you’ll never know the size of the seed until harvest time. Any worrying between now and then will only lead to disappointment.

What are you trying to accomplish right now that seems to be taking forever? What can you be doing now – through patience and perseverance – while you wait for the harvest?

Between Fear and Freedom

What are you afraid of? I’m afraid of heights.

Well, it’s not really heights I’m afraid of, it’s falling from heights. And in fact, the falling isn’t too bad. Falling can be fun, especially if it’s into something soft. It’s falling onto something hard that I don’t like.

Yeah, so I’m afraid of landing. And really, it’s not landing either. It’s the pain. I’m afraid of the pain of landing on something hard. I don’t want the pain.

And so, because I’m afraid of pain, I’m also afraid of heights.

Recently we bought our kids a trampoline. Jumping on that trampoline with my sweaty kids brought back an old memory of mine from when I was a youngster. I used to have this reoccurring dream about jumping on a trampoline. I was bouncing and getting higher and higher – ten feet, twenty feet, thirty, forty, fifty feet! And then…on one particular bounce that shot me super high…I started to drift over a bit and I could tell I wasn’t going to land on the trampoline. I was going to land on the hard ground. And right then, at the apex of the bounce right before my body went into a terrible freefall, I awoke in a cold sweat.

I forgot that memory, but I kept its fear. It manifested in my aversion to trust. I’m afraid of taking steps of faith, moving out into new heights because those new heights may include pain. The same swell of joy in a bouncing high risks a crashing low. I’m content to keep two feet planted on the ground and move straight ahead. But that’s a response to fear and it’s certainly not freedom.

Freedom is like the feeling you get as you go straight up in the air and then feel that freefall back to earth where you land and get ready for another bounce. Freedom is the feeling of being weightless and letting the earth pull you, push you, move you. Freedom is ultimately about letting God move you.

I’ve moved in freedom before. I’ve stepped out in faith and got run over. I mistakenly took those moments as cues to get back on the ground where it’s safe. I neglected to follow up each fall with faith instead of fear.

But here’s what I’m learning lately – Trust is the bridge between fear and freedom. Fear is a place of chains and shackles, of cement shoes that won’t move. Fear will keep you frozen in place and remove all hope. But freedom will set you free, let you soar on every bounce, a move as far ahead as you want. If you find yourself in a place called “Fear” and you want to get to the other side called “Freedom,” the only way across is trust. You have step out again and trust that God is going to be there.

Trust, for me, is like wearing a blindfold and walking across a floor of Legos barefoot. I imagine that I’ll be stepping on them even before I take a step. I can feel the pain and the pinch! I don’t want to trust if it means that I may have pain.

But the only way to guarantee you will be pain-free is to not move. Stand completely still. Don’t make a twitch. Not an inch! Right here. Trapped.

But if you want freedom – freedom to grow, to feel and experience life – then you’ll have to move. And when you move, if you move in trust, and even if you move blindfolded, you can move into great things.

Have you ever had trust issues? How do you deal with fear of trust in your life?

Looking for Shortcuts – or – How To Read the Bible for Content

How do you do it? That’s what I get asked. How do you get the most out of your research? Where do you go to get the information you need quickly? In other words, gimme some shortcuts!

Well, the truth is there are no shortcuts in research. When you start to cut corners, you end up with a product of poor quality. And your audience is going to see it! But the first place I always go to when I start researching a series or a sermon is (wait for it…) the Bible. You knew I was going to say that, right?

But people also want to know how to find the best scriptures, the most impactful narratives, and the greatest moments in the text. They want to know how to find out what’s behind the words as well as what’s plainly written. And many think that it takes years of study in a seminary, arduous Greek and Hebrew classes, and stacks and stacks of commentary to get the full picture. But the reality is focused and consistent Bible reading is the best way to get the most out of your research.

So, here are 5 tips for getting the most out of your daily Bible reading, or how to read the Bible for content.

1. Get Ready

Before you start to read, get yourself ready by asking some important questions, the 5 Ws: Who,
What, When, Where, and Why? Who wrote this and who are they writing to? What type of literature is it? When and where are they writing? Why were they led to write it?

You won’t be able to answer all of those questions, but any good study Bible will give you an overview before each book that will give you an approximation. Knowing these things before you dig in will help you answer questions as you go along.

2. Get in Order

Some people like to do a One Year Bible reading plan, and that’s fine. I prefer to be a bit more organized when I read the Bible. The problem with most of those plans is that they have you jumping all over the Bible, reading it in chunks that are a bit out of order. To get the most out of your Bible reading, try reading it in order.

Now, you’ve got to decide what order you want to read it in. The most obvious is to read it chronologically. That means you read the Bible as a history unfolding, taking in the events as they happen. Or you can read it in the order it was written. That means taking it in as those who followed God did, each book as God revealed himself more and more to us.

Another way to “read the Bible in order” is to read it according to themes. Reading the book of Hosea along with Romans and Galatians is very helpful to understanding Paul’s viewpoint. And reading the first half of Isaiah alone with the first chapters of Matthew and Luke will give you even more context.

3. Get Through It

Try to read as much as you can in one sitting. Some books are just too large to read through at once, but most books were intended to be read that way. The Epistles were written with the idea that the entire church would gather together and listen to it all together. I think we should try to do the same.

It’s easy to do that with the smaller books, like Ephesians and Philippians and definitely Jude and Philemon. But with larger books, try to read whole sections at a time. For instance, in reading Genesis, try to read the whole story of Joseph all at once.

4. Get the History

Know the background of what you’re reading. Know the social setting, the political context, and the lay of the land as much as you can. This means you’ll need to brush up on some specific areas.

Ancient History – this will cover at least the time of Egypt through the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in ancient Palestine. You don’t have to know everything, but getting a big picture of the major events will help tremendously.

Roman History – for the New Testament setting, knowing what is going on in Palestine during the time of Roman occupation will be helpful. Who were the main characters? Why are the Herods so important? What’s the deal with Roman soldiers and Roman money in Jesus’ teaching?

Religious History – get a background on the customs of Jewish worship and sacrifice. Get to know the Temple and priesthood as much as you can. Much of this is derived directly from the Old Testament text.

Redemptive History – this is the big one! Redemptive History is the big story that’s told from Genesis to Revelation. This is the story of God’s love for his people and how he redeems us, bringing us back to himself.

5. Get a Notebook

Finally before you start, grab a notebook and a trusty pen. You’ll want to write some things down. As you read certain truths will jump out at you. Write it down! You’ll begin to get inspired for a future sermon or series. Write it down! You’ll see some connections between texts that you didn’t see before. Write it down! Write all of it down.

Here’s the deal – if you don’t write it down, you will forget it. And the next time you speak about a certain subject you’ll be searching your brain for the answer. But you won’t find it because it’s hiding in the same place you put your car keys. But if you’ve got a notebook of ideas, it’s much easier to find that kernel of a thought. Then you can turn that thought into words that motivate people to action!

I hope these tips have helped you. The best advice I can give is to also get your heart and mind ready before reading. Just say a simple prayer that God would open your eyes, your mind, and your heart to those things your audience (and you!) will need to grow in your faith.


As a bonus, here are a few books that are handy resources for studying the historical background of the Bible:

Old Testament

Bible History: Old Testament, by Alfred Edersheim

Kingdom of Priests, by Eugene Merril

The Old Testament: Text and Context, by Victor Matthews and James Moyer


New Testament

New Testament History, by F. F. Bruce

New Testament History: A Narrative Account, by Ben Witherington III


Religious History

People of the Covenant: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, by Henry Jackson Flanders, Robert Crapps, and David Smith

An Introduction to Early Judaism, by James Vanderkam


Jewish Background of the New Testament

Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, by Julius Scott

Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, by Marvin Wilson

Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad H. Young


Redemptive History

The Art of Biblical History, by Philips Long

Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, by Herman Ridderbos


(note: some of these works are critical of the Biblical account and do not necessarily represent a true belief in the Bible as inspired of God)