Why I Don’t Trust Sermon Notes that Rhyme – And What I Do Instead

fingers 200cIf I was only allowed to give one piece of advice to pastors about how to make their Sunday messages more appealing to a younger audience, it would be this.

Stop making your sermon notes rhyme.

For generations, rhymes and alliterations were expected from public speakers. It made them seem credible, authoritative and prepared. And it was a helpful device for memory.

Not any more.

In a recent Q & A session with pastors, I was asked for ideas on how to reach and retain younger people in our churches. While I’m far from an expert on the subject, my church has a higher percentage of teens and 20-somethings than most, so I gave them my best attempt at an answer.

I offered a couple points off the top of my head while they listened and some took notes. But when I advised them to stop making their sermon notes rhyme, I noticed a subtle shift in the audience.

Some older pastors pulled their heads back in shock as if I’d told them to preach blasphemy next Sunday. But in one section of the room there was a younger group of church leaders who became like bobble-heads nodding up and down. Their response was so immediate and obvious I paused to point it out to the rest of the room.

“Am I right on this one?” I asked the young leaders. Their nodding increased. So I went on, supported by my bobble-head choir of young leaders, to explain why I no longer make my sermon notes rhyme or alliterate. 

 

Why My Sermon Notes Don’t Rhyme

1. People don’t need it as a memory device. If people want to remember what we said, they’ll check the handout notes in the bulletin, or listen to the podcast, or email us, or read the notes we uploaded to the church Facebook page, or record the message with their phone, or… You get the idea. People don’t have their best friend’s phone number memorized. They’re not trying to remember the points of our sermon.

2. People don’t care about what we care about. I hate to break it to you, but all that time pastors spend trying to make our last point start with the same letter as our first three points is wasted. We’re the only ones who care.

3. People prefer one practical idea over five points that rhyme. No one leaves church with the acronym we used ringing in their ears. If we give them one helpful principle, they’ll latch on to it. And if it’s applicable, they may even do it.

4. Rhyming feels phony. This may be the biggest reason of all. It was the one that really got the young bobble-heads going. Real life doesn’t rhyme.

The younger generation has given up on finding easy answers – some have given up on finding any answers at all. But even for those who are open to what the bible has to say, they know that real answers don’t all start with the same letter, or spell out F.A.I.T.H. Pastors think it’s clever – listeners think it’s fake.

5. It feels old. Sorry, but it does. And not in a retro, cool way. In a musty, tired way.

 

What I Do Instead

“But if I don’t rhyme or alliterate, how do I organize my points?”

Everyone prepares and speaks in their own style, so the way I do it may not work for you. But here’s what I do.

  1. Throw everything I want to say onto the page
  2. Arrange it into the most logical order
  3. Read through those notes and underline the handful of key points
  4. Edit each point into a simple, stand-alone sentence
  5. Keep sub-points to a minimum (they make a message feel like a college lecture)
  6. Replace two or three key words in each point with blanks (it engages people as they wait for the fill-ins)
  7. Print up handouts with the main points on them
  8. Use the filled-in points as slides on the screen while I speak

That’s it.

As an example, here’s an outline I used recently for a message on Romans 7.

  • God gave the law to protect us from harm
  • Our sin nature makes us want to break the law
  • As non-believers we have one mind and one nature – the sin nature
  • As believers, we have two natures – sin and the spirit – at war inside us
  • Fear has no power when we’re in God’s family

There’s nothing remarkable about that outline. But if you know Romans 7, you recognize it as a basic, applicable outline of that chapter in simple sentences.

And yes, you can preach a straightforward message on Romans 7 and keep a young audience interested. Just be honest about it. They don’t want easy – they want real.

I could have spent up to an extra hour of study time trying to rhyme or alliterate those points – but why? It would have meant that much less time to create content. And my congregation would have taken home an outline like this instead:

  • God’s Protection
  • Our Rejection
  • Sin’s Deception
  • The Believer’s Selection
  • The Family Connection

I know that feels a lot more like a sermon to some of us. But those five points are less real, less understandable and less applicable to real life than the five full sentences I used.  And the third point doesn’t really rhyme anyway!

(Gotta tell you, coming up with a way to rhyme those points for you was almost painful for me. I haven’t exercised those muscles in a long time.)

 

Real Life Doesn’t Rhyme

Instead of playing linguistic games, here’s an idea. Let’s produce better content.

Then let’s put it in a format that matches the way people really live their lives today.

Real life doesn’t rhyme.

 

So what do you think? Do you have any other preaching ideas we can use?

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(Finger Boxes photo from Tsahi Levent-Levi • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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20 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Trust Sermon Notes that Rhyme – And What I Do Instead”

  1. I have D.Min. in expository preaching and I have used devices like alliteration. It’s even taught in some of the text books we were required to read. But what you are saying makes good sense. Clarity is far more important for sermon structure than cuteness. Thanks! I needed this.

    1. I was taught the same way, Paul. And it made sense then. It may even make sense in some settings, still. But things are changing – fast. I’m glad this helped you. It’s always good to have another valuable communications tool in our pockets.

  2. I have D.Min. in expository preaching and I have used devices like alliteration. It’s even taught in some of the text books we were required to read. But what you are saying makes good sense. Clarity is far more important for sermon structure than cuteness. Thanks! I needed this.

    1. I was taught the same way, Paul. And it made sense then. It may even make sense in some settings, still. But things are changing – fast. I’m glad this helped you. It’s always good to have another valuable communications tool in our pockets.

  3. Karl, good stuff man! We have to unlearn from of those old habits. I’ll never forget a message I heard my college president give on the waterpots used at the wedding feast in Cana, the ones Jesus changed the water into wine in. He had three one world points… 1. Emptied 2. Empowered 3. Employed. I remember it because of its remarkably ridiculous nature as a message from a Bible College President!

    Yes, it was cute, and maybe even memorable, but it made no real sense to the teaching of that passage. I realized some time ago that my messages should be two things: encouraging/helpful, and engaging. Is that three things?? 🙂 If it’s not helpful and engaging, I’ve lost.

    I also like your complete sentences for points. Makes much more sense to the reader. They don’t have to translate the alliterated point in their minds.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. It is interesting how the “need” to rhyme or alliterate has made otherwise good speakers create bad outlines, just to make them fit the rhyme scheme. And you’re right about the alliteration putting an addition barrier between the speaker and the listener by giving them something they need to interpret. I never thought of it exactly that way.

  4. Karl, good stuff man! We have to unlearn from of those old habits. I’ll never forget a message I heard my college president give on the waterpots used at the wedding feast in Cana, the ones Jesus changed the water into wine in. He had three one world points… 1. Emptied 2. Empowered 3. Employed. I remember it because of its remarkably ridiculous nature as a message from a Bible College President!

    Yes, it was cute, and maybe even memorable, but it made no real sense to the teaching of that passage. I realized some time ago that my messages should be two things: encouraging/helpful, and engaging. Is that three things?? 🙂 If it’s not helpful and engaging, I’ve lost.

    I also like your complete sentences for points. Makes much more sense to the reader. They don’t have to translate the alliterated point in their minds.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. It is interesting how the “need” to rhyme or alliterate has made otherwise good speakers create bad outlines, just to make them fit the rhyme scheme. And you’re right about the alliteration putting an addition barrier between the speaker and the listener by giving them something they need to interpret. I never thought of it exactly that way.

    2. You’re right, Jeff. Cute and memorable does not equal meaningful. I liked your point about the complete sentences, too. I never thought about the translation aspect. No wonder it all seems so hard with all the hurdles in the way of our understanding. Maybe we’ve been taking the whole “run the good race” thing a little too literally.

  5. This is great Karl I must say I personally enjoy all the points beginning with the same letter etc, I do, I like it and it helps me remember, but I agree entirely with what you say! I must watch my p,s and q,,s when I am with you in November! Haha God bless you, I do enjoy your site.

    1. Thanks, Alan. Hearing from you all the way from Zimbabwe reminds me of another reason rhyming and alliteration doesn’t always work. It doesn’t translate to other languages.

  6. This is great Karl I must say I personally enjoy all the points beginning with the same letter etc, I do, I like it and it helps me remember, but I agree entirely with what you say! I must watch my p,s and q,,s when I am with you in November! Haha God bless you, I do enjoy your site.

  7. About seven years ago I was worn out from trying to alliterate all my points. I heard Andy Stanley talk about finding and presenting “the big idea”so I gave up the alliteration and stopped using my file of “all the words that end in “-tion”. Focusing on the one big idea has really helped me hone in on the main point of my messages. People seem to remember it longer as well. Since then Andy has written a great book called “Communicating for a Change” that deals with this subject in detail. I highly recommend it.

  8. Bummer.

    Now what am I gonna do with all these poems & puppy stories I’ve collected over the years?

    Seriously, though, my experience has been to move away from notes and outlines entirely. It creates great freedom in preaching, affords lots of opportunity to interact with the audience, and lets me follow the Holy Spirit when my “preaching plan” is interrupted.

    In seminary I was taught to manuscript every sermon. For many years I did just that. But in recent years I’ve moved away from manuscripts entirely. I put together an expository outline, write out the introduction, transitions and conclusion.

    I read it over several times before Sunday, but I step into the preaching space with a Bible and a just enough notes (with the main idea at the top) to help me find my way back should I lose the ball out in the weeds beyond right field.

    1. I wish I could do that, Bud. I’d love to be more extemporaneous. The late Isaac Asimov, though he was an atheist, was a compelling speaker. He wrote an entire chapter of his autobiography on the value of extemporaneous speaking. I tried to do it after reading his book, but I couldn’t pull it off. So I guess that’s two things in ministry that I’m lousy at – preaching extemporaneously and pastoring a megachurch.

      I don’t use a manuscript – that always comes across as too stiff when I do that – but I need a strong outline. I move around a lot inside that outline, but if I don’t have those high points to hit I can get lost and repetitive. Just more proof that we all need to use the tools that work for us.

      Sorry about ruining all those poems and puppy stories. 😉

  9. I’m so glad you posted this.
    I am currently preaching at a church of about 40, and am really trying to hone MY style and MY gifts to do something I never thought I would enjoy doing, preaching. But my family and I are really loving being at this small church. Thank you for putting out your “method” here. I loving hearing and reading what preachers really do. It makes me feel better about my method, and the reminder that I can learn, adjust, try new things.
    Thank you for the encouragement and saying what I’ve always thought about sermons.

  10. Young Preacher

    A Standing Ovation For A Kneeling Oration

    Text Acts 7

    I. Sinners Stoned

    II. Stephen Stared

    III. The Saviour Stood

    -only time Christ is seen standing rather than sitting at Rift hand of Father

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