When is the Spirit leading?

Yesterday I posted on why I use a script when preaching. You can read that post here. My reasons weren’t exhaustive but provided a basis for why I favour fulsome notes in the pulpit.

The post sparked a bit of discussion on Facebook and Twitter. Most folk, with a few exceptions, seemed to agree with the principle of notes. Given the widespread consensus, I sense somebody should tell the homiletics lecturers who seem to insist that noteless is preferable en masse.

What I wasn’t expecting was the number of people who simply assumed that the noteless/minimal notes advocates do so out of a sense that the Spirit leads when they are free of their pieces of paper. Typical of such comments were these:

Worst of all the minimal-notes protagonists say, or imply, that to use notes is to limit the Holy Spirit. Of course it is they who limit Him by saying there is only one way to use notes – their way.

It seems to me to smack of arrogance to believe that you don’t need notes because you are so close to the Spirit that you will be able to come out with biblical, logical and applied truth on the spot. Few of us are that gifted. Far too many preachers are paid-up members of the Ramblers Association, and some I’ve heard are clearly ‘bored’ members!
Here’s what bothers me: the claim is often made that without notes you’re more open to the Spirit’s prompting or something of that ilk. But didn’t the Spirit guide you when you prepared the notes? If the answer is no, then you really shouldn’t be preaching at all. If the answer is yes then is the Spirit who guides in prep different from the Spirit who guides in delivery? In which case one of the 2 ain’t the Holy Spirit. Surely the Spirit who is with you in the study is the same One who is with you in the pulpit.

The other issue I take is that those who prepare without making a script are really only swapping written notes for mental notes! Either way, unless you’re speaking off the cuff, everyone is note-taking in various forms. In which case your issue isn’t with notes per se, but with stationery!

Now, I have no doubt that some advocates of noteless/minimal note preaching do take this view. In such cases, I broadly share the view of the first and last comments. It is a false dichotomy between preparation and delivery, presuming the Spirit only works spontaneously.

But, in my experience, most no note advocates – particularly those of a Reformed bent – aren’t making the arrogant claim that the Spirit only works spontaneously and when we eschew paper. Most believe that the same Spirit who guides the preparation of those who take notes into the pulpit also believe he guided their own preparation (that probably involved some paper in their office). Neither do they believe the Spirit necessarily must spontaneously guide them in their delivery for it to be him working. They have essentially memorised their prepared notes in a similar way to those of us that take them into the pulpit with us (perhaps more carefully). Essentially, they are convinced that the further away from their written notes they get, the better they will communicate.

Now, for the reasons laid out in my original post, I don’t agree with them. Or, more accurately, for me personally that isn’t true. But, as I said there, this is one of those adiaphora or indifferent matters. Essentially everyone has to do what works best for them. Scripture does not insist preaching must be noteless or fully scripted. As my friend said, let each one be convinced in his own mind. I am quite happy for everyone to do whatever makes for them to preach in the best way as they are able.

What I am keen to avoid, however, is suggested that noteless advocates are necessarily arrogantly presuming upon the Spirit or limiting his scope such as he only works spontaneously as we utter words we’ve not yet considered. Many who don’t take notes with them insist that the Spirit guided their preparation that was typically carried out in the same way as note-takers. Nor do they suggest that the Spirit won’t work if they use prompts on a piece of paper. They are simply making the case that, having prayerfully prepped their sermon, they will communicate it more effectively without notes. We may disagree with that position, but let’s make sure we are disagreeing with the actual position rather than one we’ve assumed they hold.

Interestingly, even Brethren Assemblies, who often do make such arguments about the Spirit’s leading, very often prepare what they will spontaneously say before the service. It was a running joke in those circles when I moved in as a child and the tradition from which my Dad’s family hail. Whenever somebody called the meeting Spirit-led and someone else pushed back that the songs seemed to be decided the night before and those giving ‘a word’ appeared to know precisely what they were going to say before they got up to say it, the response was a wry smile followed by, ‘yes, the Spirit led a few days ago’. Even many of the advocates of that Spirit-led position don’t really presume upon the Spirit as we might think.

Of course, the Spirit leads when we prepare stuff. No doubt, when occasions call for it, he can lead spontaneously too. But that doesn’t mean he can only lead spontaneously or that he doesn’t lead when we’ve gone to the effort of preparing too. Indeed, if we have a proper view of God’s sovereignty, not one thing happens without the Lord’s determined will for it to take place. That includes whether we prepare or not, whether we take notes into the pulpit or not and – despite either of those things – how he will choose to use it.

I do want to push back on any presumption upon God. The view that ‘the Lord will undertake’, no matter how shoddy my effort or desire to honour him, is not a good one.

I have experienced situations in which the Lord has granted me words to speak off the cuff. But that wasn’t a result of my presumption that he would work despite my not bothering to prepare. In one such situation, my PowerPoint notes couldn’t be used and I had to speak to a room full of Muslims on the doctrine of the Trinity and its implications. The Lord undertook but not as a result of my lack of preparation. In fact, I’m quite sure much of my prepared stuff remained in the back of my mind and was pulled to the fore (but that was no doubt the Spirit working too). I am in no doubt the Lord does this. But I do question the presumption that he necessarily will and that this can somehow be manipulated by a lack of preparation and effort on our part.

Likewise, I want to push back on the presumption that the Lord is only working in such circumstances. The fact is, the Lord is working all the time. Nothing happens that is outside of his control. He guides his people through scripture, circumstance and volition. This means he guides us when we read the Bible, as he opens and closes doors for us and through our own decision-making (which is also – despite what Molinists and Arminians want to claim – under the Lord’s sovereignty). If nothing happens outside of the Lord’s determined will, then all godly and prayerful decisions we take are Spirit-led. If what we are doing doesn’t contravene scripture, our circumstances allow it (how could we do it otherwise!) and it seems right to us, that is a Spirit-led decision – whether we make it spontaneously or not.

As I’ve said here, ‘everything is providential’ and as I argued here, we shouldn’t drive a wedge between God and his provision. All things are providential and all prayerfully made, scripture-abiding decisions are Spirit-led. That includes our approach to preparing sermons and whether we take notes in the pulpit with us or not.