Should Andy Stanley have used Sermon Notes for His “The Bible Told Me So, Not” Sermon

In August, Andy Stanley delivered a sermon that has upset many because he appeared to question biblical authority. You can hear his message, “Who Needs God? The Bible Told Me So,” here, read a negative critique by Albert Mohler here and read a positive one by Frank Turek here. In this post I’m not critiquing whether or not he undermined biblical authority. I will leave that to people a lot smarter than me. However, I do suggest in the post that this latest evangelical brouhaha offers a lesson to us preachers in favor of using sermon notes, or a manuscript, especially when we speak on difficult and potentially controversial topics.

First, some caveats.

  • I only met Andy once when I sat next to him in a church service 25 years ago.
  • I attended his dad’s church while earning my engineering degree at Ga Tech and I heard Andy speak a few times.
  • He is without a doubt one of the Church’s most gifted leaders and communicators today.
  • I’ve read lots of his books and have learned much from them.
  • The attendance at my church would probably fit in his church’s chapel, if it has one.
  • I don’t question Andy’s commitment to the Bible nor his heart for God.
  • And, I believe that with recent new insights we’re learning about how the human brain works, pastors must craft their messages with those insights in mind. I believe this so strongly that I’ve earned a master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership and my last book unpacks how we can learn from intersecting neuroscience with biblical truth.

So what I suggest may seem like an ant telling a lion what to do. Even so, I raise these two questions.

  1. Is it wise to write out a manuscript for messages that deal with sensitive topics?
  2. And if it is, should we stay close to script during those messages instead of speaking off the cuff?

Pardon one more caveat: When I’ve seen Andy speak I notice he doesn’t use notes. If he does, he masterfully uses them. So, I am assuming he does not use them but speaks more extemporaneously. I could be wrong. But if I am close to correct (I also assume that Andy prepares well but speaks off the cuff more than most pastors would) here are 4 reasons why using a manuscript and staying close to it is smart, especially when dealing with controversial topics.

  1. The human brain is wired to lean negative. Our brain has five times more circuits that look for the negative than circuits that look for the positive. 2/3 of the brain cells in an almond shaped part of the brain involved in the fight-flight response, the amygdala (there are actually two of them), are wired to be vigilant and look for the negative. The brain more easily encodes negative emotional experiences than positive ones and more quickly recalls such negative experiences.
    • The implication: When we speak about volatile subjects in our sermons, we increase the chance that our listeners will attribute negative connotations to them, thus amplifying our message in ways we don’t intend. When we write out our manuscript, we can more carefully craft statements about volatile subjects and potentially lessen the chance of being misunderstood.
  2. Writing out a manuscript can help us avoid sloppiness in saying things that could potentially hurt others. Andy may write out his messages. Again, I’m making some assumptions. But in the last five years, I’ve changed how I craft my sermons. I now write them out as full manuscripts and I use them from my iPad when I preach, although I’m familiar enough with them to not be glued to them. Writing them out forces me to think deeply about how I need to address difficult to understand issues.
    • The implication: The Bible actually did ‘tell us so’ long before neuroscientists told us this. Words really hurt (Death and life are in the tongue, Pv 18.21). In fact social pain registers in the same areas of the brain that physical pain registers. When someone with great influence uses words than can easily be misunderstood and potentially hurtful, those words physically and psychologically hurt. For a 6 year old girl or 65 year old saint who came to faith after hearing the song, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, and is then told those words are not true… that experience can be profoundly hurtful. Writing and using a manuscript can help us avoid this.
  3. The larger the platform, the more we must take care to be clear and graceful. Andy’s platform is ginormous. Whereas hundreds of thousands of people tune in, read, and follow Andy, on a good Sunday we live-stream to about 25 viewers and my total Twitter followers is probably equal to the number of views he has per Tweet. Even with my small platform, I still must be clear and graceful.
    • The implication: What I or any other pastor says can instantly be re-tweeted or posted on Facebook and the entire world can know it, if it wants to. Soundbites are now ubiquitous. And, in today’s world, it seems that reality is not the issue. Perception is. Writing out and using a manuscript can help us more carefully craft our words by thinking about how they could be quoted and repeated in cyberspace. It can force us to ask, How would this soundbite be heard out of context?
  4. Sloppily stated statements can throw the listener’s brain off track so that the full message gets missed. When listening to a speech or sermon, the average brain goes in and out of attention every 12-18 seconds for a bit to engage internal dialogue that seems more interesting (salient) than what it is listening to. In fact, recent research has shown that goldfish have longer attention spans than humans. When our brains are shocked and they go into reflective What did he just say? or I totally disagree with that! mode, it can cause the listener to miss what follows the shock statement, the unpacking of the statement.
    • The implication: Writing out and using a manuscript can help us catch those potential shock words or phrases that can disconnect our listener from us. With a manuscript we can remind ourselves to intentionally slow the pace and pause to give the listener time to catch his mental breath before we continue, thus giving the listener time to hear the entire context.

So, this latest ruckus gives an opportunity for us communicators to put the manuscript back into our sermon toolboxes.

And the hackneyed phrase, Hindsight is 20-20 still bears repeating. Could a little old fashioned manuscript have avoided this ruckus and resulted in Andy’s message being simply another great one? We will never know.

But, if you write out or use a manuscript, how has it helped you?

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