I’m the kind of guy who gets ticked when I can’t find my keys. That’s not to say I go into panic mode, it’s just that I have a hook for my keys in my home by the front door, and so on the rare occasion when I can’t find them I become perturbed because, well, this is where I put them, this is where I should have put them and should always expect to find them. Similarly, early on in my preaching career I found myself getting frustrated when I was in the midst of study or sermon preparation and I’d remember a meaningful or relevant idea or quote for that particular teaching but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I had read it, seen it or heard it. That’s when I started adopting simple practices and habits to keep ideas, quotes, and sermons organized.
When it comes to collecting quotes, I most often begin with highlighting. Now, not everyone uses a highlighter while reading and some people highlight way too much, coloring almost everything they see on the page (you know who you are), but whatever your approach the key thing is how you return to the material. Sometimes I’ll highlight some memorable insights or illustrations while reading and because they’re simple enough, I’ll remember that there was something related in that book by that author, and this will be enough to get me to pull the book off the shelf, flip through the highlights, and find the quote I was looking for.
When reading more dense material, like when I worked through Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, after reading every chapter or section I will go back, find my highlights, and type them out and save them in their own document on my computer, and occasionally attach bold topic tags (like #hashtags) to certain quotes, for example: #Salvation #Eschatology #FreeWill. That way, when that particular work comes to mind I can either find related quotes simply by scrolling through the document on my computer or, as I did this past week, I can scroll through the document randomly and just read for inspiration.
The last thing I do to collect quotes is keep a running document on my phone. Whether it’s a scene in a movie, something I heard on the radio, an inspiring podcast or lecture, or a conversation I had with someone that day, as soon as I can I’ll open up my “Quotes” document on my phone and plug it in and come back to it later.
In a similar fashion, when I’m collecting or generating ideas for a sermon series, or an article or blog post, I’ll often scribble them down (long-hand) in my notebook and then, as soon as I can, add them to my “Ideas” document that I have saved on my desktop. This is sort of a ‘catch-all’ document that is always in flux, always shrinking and growing from five pages to twelve pages or more. When the time is right to actually use a sermon series idea that I made notes about in my desktop document, it is removed and takes on a life of it’s own elsewhere while I continue to throw new ideas (and even some lengthy quotes) in there a couple times a month.
Again, the key thing is how you return to the material. Just because you were at a conference or you were listening to a podcast and you were inspired to preach a five-week sermon series on “Healing” (Healing for the Soul, Healing for the Mind, Healing for the Body, Healing for the Family, Healing for the Earth), and you make extensive notes about it, does not mean this idea has to be your next sermon series. It can wait. Let it simmer. Give it time. Maybe there will be other ideas, quotes or illustrations that come along that you can attach to that idea. The important thing is that you gave that idea a place to hang–you put your keys on a hook so that you’ll know where to find them.
It’s the same with research and completed sermons. It can be incredibly useful to file your ongoing sermon preparations and research, and completed teachings, in such a way that you’ll not only know where to find them, but you will be able to connect them with new material in the future, and know what you may have missed. I very rarely do topical sermons, the vast majority of the time I’m inspired by the lectionary or I preach through a book of the Bible, which is why I organize most of my research and sermon material on my computer by ‘Books of the Bible’ or the ‘Church Calendar’ as you can see here:
Now there are a couple independent documents in there, and a couple of topical sermons series’ (like the one on Fear), but for the most part what you find are all my sequential sermons from any book of the Bible or time of year (Advent, Lent, etc.). In some cases I make copies of sermons (like topical ones) so that they can appear in more than one folder.
One of the greatest advantages of this is knowing where you left off, or what passages of Scripture you have yet to preach on or would like to re-visit. Five years ago I preached through the gospel of Mark and, when it came to Lent of that year, I went through as much of the passion narrative as I could. Inevitably, sections and whole chapters had to be skipped. When it came time to plan my Lent series for this year, I went back and found that I had at least six weeks worth of material saved for passages I had never preached on. So now I know I’ve preached on almost every word in Mark at least once.
But five years is a long time to wait to use material and research I had saved, but let me tell you, it was worth it. A lot had changed in five years, so now I was able to re-visit the gospel of Mark with fresh eyes. We live in a culture of immediacy, as soon as someone sees a movie they have to tweet about it, as soon as a new season comes out on Netflix we have to digest and discuss as soon as possible; but the word of God, and the process of preparing a sermon, takes time. We need to learn to let it sit and simmer.
Last October I was preparing a sermon on Exodus 18. Early on in my research I thought I knew where the sermon was going so I retrieved this perfect and profound quote from Stephen Seamands’ book, Ministry in the Image of God, a book I had read (and highlighted) three years earlier. By the end of that week, however, the sermon manuscript had gone another direction and so I removed the quote and saved it in my desktop document. Then last month I was preparing my third sermon for Lent and I knew the manuscript needed something, a really good quote to bring it home, so I opened up my desktop document and began to scroll through, when – – voila! The quote from Stephan Seamands couldn’t have been more perfect and relevant, and all it took was time. All it took was the Holy Spirit showing me, and reminding me, where I had put my keys.
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