One of the most common comments I hear after preaching is,
“How do you preach a 40 minute sermon without notes?”
People tend to be dumbfounded that I, and others who preach at our church, can do this.
The honest truth is that I think anyone could because it has to do with the creative process that I choose.
My creative process is both simple and complicated.
It’s simple because I do the exact same thing every time that I preach and yet it is complicated because it’s a long, multi-step process.
I decided to share the process in this post.
Now, you may or may not preach or teach in your role. Also, if you do, preaching without notes might be a good or terrible idea.
I’m less interested in a conversation about that and more interested in a conversation about creative process.
I would love to help you create amazing content – whatever that content is for you.
Anyway, here’s how I preach without notes.
1. Focused Research
The first step in my process is to start my research as far out as possible.
I want to start research at least a month before I preach and I would prefer to start much earlier.
A couple keys to my research process:
- 1. I always go to the same library
2. I always study at the same coffee shops
3. I always study at the same time
4. I always take notes the exact same way
5. I always study without distraction
Why am I so boring? Because repetition is the pathway to efficiency and mastery.
If you’re curious, my research always starts with an online search of the best commentaries.
I don’t have a huge personal library of resources so I use a local university library.
My most recent sermon was on John 11 so, here is the site I used…
My process is to screen shot this list, go to the library and pick only three to four commentaries.
My go-to series are Tyndale and the NIV Application Commentary Series.
I only choose 3-4 because I have to draw a line between exhaustive research and actually being ready to preach a sermon.
Occasionally, I’ll pull in another resource if the text is complex or confusing.
In this sermon, I pulled in Encounters with Jesus, mostly because I’d like to be Tim Keller when I grow up.
Back to my mundane process.
I always study at the same place, at the same time and structure my notes in exactly the same way because I’m trying to maximize as much creative capacity as possible.
It might sound strange but taking the decision of when and where to study off the table saves mental capacity.
Also, matching creative thinking time with my most productive time of the day is huge.
For me, this is the morning. I completely block out my schedule in the mornings.
Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings are sacred and no one can schedule a meeting with me during these times because they are my most productive thinking times and they are reserved for the creative work that I am called to do.
Also, I study at the same place and structure my notes in exactly the same way because, again, I believe that repetition leads to greater efficiency and mastery.
If you’re wondering, my initial notes always look like this:
I copy the passage I am studying from Bible Gateway and use comments in Microsoft Word to track all I am learning from commentaries and other resources.
Now, the greatest enemy to the research phase is distraction.
There is this notion out there called “multi-tasking.”
Personally, I don’t believe in it.
Whatever it is that you are responsible to create in your role – curriculum, a meaningful worship experience, a sermon, training…whatever it is, it will be so much better if you put away your phone and turn off your email and focus.
If you want to give this a try, schedule a 1 ½ hour block during your most productive time and focus.
Then, take a 15 minute break and focus for another 1 ½ hour block…and then move on to other tasks for the day.
In my experience, 3 hours of concentrated focus structured in this way, without distraction is more productive than 6 hours of distracted time where I’m checking my phone and watching emails come into my inbox.
So, whatever it is that you create…I would suggest that you make your process mundane because repetition helps with efficiency and mastery.
And, if you want to go next-level, remove distractions.
2. White Space
Alright, the next phase of my creative process is white space.
And truthfully, white space is important from beginning to end.
And what, you might be thinking, is white space?
White space is intentional time in which I am quiet and unfocused. There is no itinerary or agenda.
It is just scheduled time for my brain to go wherever it wants to go.
Some examples of white space:
• Going for a walk
• The shower
You see, there is a reason that all your good ideas come to you in the shower.
It’s because it is white space.
Your brain has amazing creative potential but it needs to be freed to unleash that creative potential.
It might sound crazy, but even when the pressure is on and deadlines are looming, I try to build time into my schedule for white space and without fail, it is during these times that the most important and creative ideas pop into my head.
Quite literally, white space provides the content that moves a sermon from a B- to an A-.
The point I’m trying to make is that white space is essential to any creative process.
If you want to improve your creative output, I would schedule white space into your day, every day.
It doesn’t have to be long, it can be as short as a 15 minute walk after lunch or choosing to drive to and from work without music or podcasts.
I’m telling you, it is worth the investment of time.
Well, I hate to leave you hanging but this post is getting too long!
I’ll share the rest of my creative process in my next post.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about the practices that you’ve developed that help you create amazing content.
I’m always looking to assimilate great ideas into my process.
Also, feel free to ask questions in the comments below. Thanks for reading.