I pray that God’s Word convicts me and is true in my heart so that I can preach with conviction and passion.
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When I went to seminary, I was trained to write out a full manuscript for my sermon. In class, however, we were to preach without notes, just relying on the Scripture passage we were preaching from. When I was an associate pastor, my senior pastor preached from a full manuscript which he had in the pulpit in front of him.
Because of my inexperience and my insecurity—couched in the desire to be correct—I developed the habit of preaching from a manuscript. Once I became a senior pastor, I discovered that it hindered me from connecting with the congregation and left me with the feeling that I was BORING. During this period of discovery, I starting using PowerPoint when I preached. It allowed me to step away from my notes and make better eye contact with the congregation and led to several comments from folks who said they were visual learners and the slides helped them remember the sermon better. Over time, I abandoned the manuscript and committed myself to using PowerPoint or visual aids to help people learn.
Recently, one person asked me how I could preach without notes. He was amazed I could remember everything. I explained that my PowerPoint slides were my notes. In addition, I can remember more from a picture than I can from a manuscript or bullet point outline. And I have been doing it for 15 years and have trained myself to not need notes.
In Rick Reed’s book, The Heart of the Preacher: Preparing Your Soul to Proclaim the Word, he includes a chapter on “Fear” where he advocates for preaching without notes. Because of the burden to preach accurately and the fear of embarrassing ourselves if we forget, he asks the question, “Why should we torment ourselves (and our hearers) with attempts to preach free from our sermon notes? Here’s the answer: to free up our delivery and increase the impact of our sermons.”
Gareth Malone is a choral music specialist in the U.K. In his Guide to Classical Music, he makes an interesting observation about instrumental soloists: they usually play without a score. The rest of the orchestra may have music stands and musical scores in front of them, but not the soloists. They stand on stage with nothing between them and the audience.
Why do these soloists forgo a copy of the music, especially when they have such an extensive amount of playing time? Malone explains the decision to play without a musical manuscript as “mainly a form of sustained communication with the audience.” He notes that if a soloist stays “hidden behind a music stand with their head buried in the score it can make it harder to reach the audience.”
Reaching the audience pushes soloists to play without a score. Reaching the audience should also push preachers to get free from their notes. Looking people in the eye helps you connect with their hearts. Just try having a conversation with someone while looking down as you speak. How does it go?
The desire to connect more deeply with our hearers should move us to get free from our sermon notes. Our motivation is not to impress but to impact. We don’t seek to draw attention to ourselves but to better serve our listeners. Ironically, when tied to our notes, we actually draw more attention to ourselves.
As Reed goes on to point out and as I have discovered from years of practice, getting free from sermon notes is more about internalization than memorization. When I spend time daily immersed in the text and thinking about what to say and how to say it, the passage and sermon is constantly percolating in my mind and heart. Add a few well-crafted PowerPoint slides, and I can not forget what God has laid on my heart. As a result, I am much more able to make eye contact and speak to people’s hearts rather than just their heads.
In his book, The Heart of the Preacher: Preparing Your Soul to Preach the Word, author Rick Reed identifies one of the tensions that I wrestle with periodically—the desire to be significant.
In a chapter entitled, “Insignificance,” the author explains,
Most pastors will always be relatively unknown. We may serve a city church lost in a larger metropolis. We may serve a rural church, located on the outskirts of obscurity. Sure, we’ll be known to the people in our congregations. But beyond that—not so much. Our sermons may be on our church website, but they won’t go viral.
Most of the time, that’s just fine. Most of the time, when busy serving Christ and his people, we don’t think too much about it. We enjoy our calling and find satisfaction in serving. Besides, we went into ministry to be faithful, not famous.
But sometimes, unexpectedly, something will surface our latent insecurity, hearing about the exponential growth happening at a friends’ church or reading an article by a seminary friend who now leads a high-profile ministry. We can feel diminished by a comment made at a pastors’ lunch, or even the well-meaning words of one of our kids in the backseat. As we compare ourselves with others or with our own unspoken hopes and dreams, we suddenly feel small and unimportant. We find ourselves facing the heart test of insignificance.
I can certainly identify with what the author has presented. When I graduated from seminary 35 years ago, I aspired to be on a church staff for 5-10 years and then teach in a college or seminary. When I became a senior pastor, I aspired to lead a church of 500-1,000 and train pastors around the world. When I published my first article, I aspired to write and publish best-selling books. I have realized very few of the dreams.
Today, I pastor a church under 200 people. The magazines I used to write for are now out of print. I wrote a book manuscript that received several, “Thanks, but no thanks,” responses from publishers. I have never been invited to speak in a college or seminary chapel as a “successful” pastor. I do teach an occasional online course as an adjunct professor and go to Russia once a year to teach a 3-day course for pastors and leaders.
I recently reread a book by Pastor R. Kent Hughes, Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome. It reminded me that God has called me to be faithful, not successful. Ultimately, he is the one who will evaluate my ministry when I stand before him, not my peers or the general public.
Author Rick Reed concludes his chapter on Insignificance with a helpful thought.
What should we do on days when feelings of insignificance darken our outlook and diminish our joy? How should we respond when our hearts become restless and discontented with our ministry placement? We must preach to our own hearts. We must remind ourselves that it is too soon to know the significance of our service. Serving with passion and faithfulness is what God asks of us today. This is what makes a Christian well-known to Jesus. This is how we become, like Paul, a well-known unknown.
I need to take the lessons from Rick and Kent to heart and focus on serving Christ faithfully.
One of the Christmas gifts I received was a book by Rick Reed, President of Heritage College and Seminary entitled, The Heart of the Preacher: Preparing Your Soul to Proclaim the Word. In the Foreword, Pastor Bryan Chappell introduces the concept of “heartload” as an explanation for pastoral burnout.
A decade ago, about thirty percent of all North American seminary graduates were leaving pastoral ministry within the first five years. It was assumed that the main reason was pastoral burnout—being “expected to work long hours to serve declining congregations with diminishing finances, weakening denominational commitments, lower biblical literacy, and smaller staffs.” While fatigue was certainly a factor, it was discovered that “workloads were not as damaging as ‘heartloads.’ The Moses factor that more and more preachers were facing was heavy workloads combined with a sense of being unappreciated for bearing them. It is one thing to feel the weigh of the burdens of ministry, but quite another to be blamed for the burdens.”
Chappell goes on to point out that it’s not just fatigue that leads to failure.
Good research over the last decade has disclosed that such factors are still at work in modern ministry. At the same time that pastors’ workloads have been increasing, they are easy-target explanations for the diminishing congregations, finances, and loyalties. Local preachers are increasingly compared to the master communicators on radio and the internet. As lessening denominational loyalties lead to increased church shopping and hopping, ministry are too often judged for their “effectiveness” rather than their faithfulness. As pastor respect diminishes throughout the culture for a variety of reasons, pastors and their families experience increased scrutiny and insecurity. Ministry seems increasingly dangerous, and ministers feel increasingly unappreciated.
Chappell concludes the foreword with a personal statement. “I know the pain of personal attack, the pressure to succeed, and the disappointment of not meeting others’ expectations. I know how bitterness can grow in me when complaints about me multiply in others.”
The sentiments expressed in the foreword certainly captured my attention as they resonate with my own experience. I look forward to reading the book and seeing what the author suggests as a means of strengthening my own heart.
A. W. Tozer wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Your view of God will determine how you worship God. If you view God as distant and uncaring, you will live life in your own power. If you view God as welcoming and caring, you will come into his presence and bring your concerns to him. If you view God as a judge who grades whether or not you obey his list of rules and regulations, you will seek to earn his approval through your performance. If you view God as a compassionate, you will draw near and desire to maintain a close relationship with him.
How you view God will determine how you worship him. That is the emphasis of the author of Hebrews in 12:18-29. Throughout his letter, the author of this book has portrayed the superiority of Jesus Christ. He has also warned his readers not to forsake Christ and return to the rules and regulations of the Old Testament Law. Both elements are evident in the end of chapter 12. He paints a contrast between two ways of worship (18-24) and emphasizes that worship through a relationship with Christ is better than anything the Old Testament offered. He also issues a final warning not to turn away from God and return to the Law (25-29). His point is that because of the blessings of the new covenant, we should worship God with reverence and fear.
Your view of God will determine how you worship him (18-24). The author uses Mount Sinai and Mount Zion to contrast two approaches to worship.
|Mount Sinai||Mount Zion|
|Motivation||The fear of the Law||
The grace of the Gospel
View of God
|Basis for worship||Rules & regulations||
Verses 18-21 paints a vivid picture of the physical display of God’s power and glory when the Law was given on Mount Sinai. The people were so thoroughly awed that they stayed away and did not want to hear God speak. Even Moses feared and trembled!
Verses 22-24 paints a much more welcoming picture. Believers can worship God in full fellowship and joy. In heave, “you have come to”: (1) the city of God; (2) angels; (3) fellow believers; (4) God the Judge; (5) Old Testament believers; (6) Jesus: and (7) forgiveness because of Jesus’ sprinkled blood.
Our perspective of God will affect our approach to worship. We will avoid a god who keeps us at arm’s length and passes judgment. We will come close with great joy to a God who offers us a relationship based on grace.
We are to worship God in reverence and fear (25-29). Throughout his letter, the author of Hebrews has contrasted the superiority of Christ with a series of warnings not to walk away from him. This is the last of five warning passages in the book.
|2:1-4||“Pay attention lest you drift!”|
|3:7-4:13||“Beware of a hard heart!”|
|5:11-6:20||“Don’t stray from the path of spiritual growth!”|
|10:19-39||“Stand firm in the faith or be judged by God!”|
|12:25-29||“Don’t turn away from him!”|
The author gives two instructions in this section—Obey God and Worship God! When God is speaking, we had best listen. If God punished Israel when they didn’t obey, how much more will he deal with us if we reject him (25). Because we have an unshakeable kingdom, and because is a consuming fire, we should worship him with reverence and fear (26-29).
Our view of God will determine how we worship him. Because of who God is and what he has done, we are to obey him and worship him with reverence and fear.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA, on December 29, 2019. It is part of a series of expository sermons on the book of Hebrews. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.