Sermon Notes and Faces: a Lesson from G. Campbell Morgan

downloadDr. Howard Moody Morgan tells an interesting story about his grandfather, G. Campbell Morgan.  He relates that on one occasion, “I was present in a church when he rose to preach , the lights in the main sanctuary were dimmed.  But Dr. Campbell Morgan stopped his sermon to say, “Will the ushers be so good as to turn on those lights again?  I have to see the faces of my congregation; indeed, they are generally a part of my notes.”[1]

It is easy for us, both as preachers and as congregants, to think of sermons as if they are mere monologues.  It must be conceded that in many cases, that is what they are.  Sometimes this is unavoidable.  With the ever present internet available to give you instant access to your favorite preachers, the rise of satellite campuses that receive simulcast sermons, and the trend towards large, dark sanctuaries, it is often the case that the size, number, disposition or mood of the congregation could not possibly have any bearing upon the preacher as he delivers his sermon; he is truly delivering a monologue.  The faces of the people are not a part of his sermon notes.

It could be argued that the best preaching is a dialogue.  Not necessarily an audible dialogue, but a dialogue in which the preacher is continually mindful of the faces of his listeners.  I am reminded of Matthew’s account of Jesus healing the paralytic.  Jesus says in Matthew 9:4, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”  Then we read that, “At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, ‘This fellow is blaspheming!’”  And Jesus noticed: “Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said…”

Two things need to be said about this episode in the ministry of Jesus.  First, the teachers of the law could rightly be said to have been speaking either “to” themselves or “among” themselves.  In other words, the text of Matthew’s gospel at this point is not clear whether they are individually rejecting Jesus statement or communally muttering about it.  Second, this text in no way requires any supernatural insight on the part of Jesus in order for him to “know their thoughts.”[2]  In this instance of Jesus’ public ministry we see him responding to what were in any case subtle prompts from a subset of his listeners in a manner that takes advantage of an opportunity to clearly address something that troubled them.

As a far less talented communicator and interpreter of both texts and people, I can nonetheless attest to the fact that on any given Sunday there is a bewildering array of mostly non-verbal comments directed at preachers!  Some folks are exhausted – the preacher can barely keep them awake.  Some folks are sad, others are angry.  Some are joyful and eager, others silently weep from grief or shame.  All of these faces are part of the preacher’s notes.   And, like Reverend Morgan and countless other ministers of the gospel, the careful preacher, through looking at those faces, is prayerfully trying to match his written notes up to the congregation’s varied capacities, dispositions, and needs.  He is trusting that the Holy Spirit will help him not only when he writes the sermon in his office, but also as he delivers it in the sanctuary.

Be sure that your face is in your pastor’s notes.  Show up.  Be a part of the dialogue – whether you are angry, sad, joyful, or miserable.  And who knows, God might just enable your preacher to know your thoughts and address them in just the manner needful for your timely growth and eternal benefit.

And preachers, “Turn on those lights again!”

Your Pastor,

Bob Bjerkaas


[1] Howard Moody Morgan, In the Shadow of Grace: the Life and Meditations of G. Campbell Morgan (Grand Rapids: Baker Boks, 2007), p. 116.

[2] For further discussion of these two points, see, Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, NAC (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), pp. 153-154.


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