Stupid. Yup, I’m afraid those fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines are simply stupid.
Obviously, that’s not the intent. Those who use fill-in-the-blanks do so with good intentions. They say filling in blanks keeps listeners engaged and helps them remember what they hear.
Trouble is, these assumptions are problematic. While some people may enjoy monitoring sermons for missing words in an outline, many others find the hunt for mystery words actually distracts from the heart of the message.
And what’s the evidence that filled-in blanks lead to higher retention and/or life application of a message?
If fill-in-the-blanks really worked, you’d use them everywhere. You’d hand out fill-in-the-blank papers to your children: “Don’t forget to pick up your ___________ and put them in the ________.” You’d issue fill-in-the-blanks to your new office workers: “You’ll find the printer ink in the _________ on the ________ side of the __________ room.”
You know that wouldn’t work. It’s stupid.
What’s more, use of fill-in-the-blanks sends troubling hidden messages. If you agree our chief ministry goal is to help people grow in relationship with the Lord, what do fill-ins imply? If you were pursuing a real relationship with another person, would you use fill-in-the-blank handouts?
I’m afraid fill-in-the-blank outlines diminish the nurture of a love relationship to a tedious academic exercise or a distracting puzzle.
So, a few recommendations:
1. If you wish to send people home with key thoughts on paper, simply provide them—without the silly blanks.
2. If you wish to accommodate people who like to take notes, simply give them a blank sheet of paper. They’ll note key thoughts that matter to them.
3. If you wish to truly engage and involve your people, follow Jesus’ examples. Let the people do some of the talking. Encourage questions. Use active experiences.
We’re not here to play theological Trivial Pursuit. We’re here to build friendships with Jesus.
I couldn’t agree more. I hate fill in the _____________ sermons. I end up doodling on my __________ while I am waiting to get the correct answer. I too agree that if you want someone to retain some important/specific point, just write out what you want them to know.
Finally, for those who give out fill in the ______________ sermons, please don’t collect them back after your message to see what has been written, as if you’re grading school work. It is very annoying.
Valid points, however, I will disagree somewhat with your premise. As a Senior Pastor I came to a church that had been spiritually starved. The use of the fill-in-the-blanks sermons notes has changed the mindset of my Church. I have asked on several occasions if they want to discontinue and they state boldly no!
Could it be that all churches are not created equal and this method does work in certain settings.
Keep up God’s Work,
I couldn’t agree more. I attended an excellent 13-week Christian financial seminar recently that furnished handouts with fill-in-the-blanks. So much attention and energy was focused on picking up the missing words to fill in the said blanks, plenty of other good material was lost on our hearing
Agreed – the fill in the blank outlines are an insult to most people’s intelligence and I think they do distract from the heart of the message. I love the use of multi-media to engage the senses of the listener and think that when possible allowing people to make comments and ask questions is great also. So throw away the whole idea of the silly fill in the blank and rid the pews of them totally.
You’re exactly right! While kudos to all the folks who put the effort and planning to use them, fill-in-the-blank sermon notes are nonetheless like all those horrible worksheets we had as kids – ugh.
If you were pursuing a real relationship with another person, would you use fill-in-the-blank handouts?
Thom, at the terrible risk of sounding snarky, would you use a 15- to 60-minute monologue? Sermons themselves seem to contradict the Church’s core mission to me, and I can’t find any biblical merit for them in a church’s regular meeting. Other places, yes, but not there. Any thoughts?
Thank you for your bold challenges to The Church. I understand that your posts are not about personal attacks, but are meant to encourage deep, meaningful thought amongst the priesthood about our practices in leading others to Christ. Please keep the challenges coming, harsh words and all.
I attend a wonderfully energetic church which uses fill-in-the-blank sheets during the sermon. I have to say that I don’t get it. People are more concerned about filling in the correct word rather than listening to the message. It’s almost a game. Sort of like Sermon Sudoku.
If this is the only way we can keep people engaged, we’re in trouble.
Here’s my ___ cents: I attend Saddleback Church and enjoy the fill in the blank notes. I find it helps me pay attention to the sermon and is not distracting. I think Jesus used something similar by leaving the ending to his story of the prodigal son blank.
OK, my first impulse was to fill in your title blank with the word helpful. I’ve used the little sheets and the PowerPoints (with the correct answers filled in) for years. Interestingly, about two months ago I decided to do a first-person series for Sundays this Lent without the blanks and PowerPoints. I know I’ll get some complaints, but it will be interesting to see what happens. Will people be forced to listen more carefully? Will (heaven forbid) different people hear the message a little differently, like how it might apply uniquely to them? And, horror of horrors, might someone be so confused that they’ll have to listen to the podcast of the sermon to get something they may have missed? I like Jackie’s idea about having something printed and available to people, but I rather think I might like to try emailing something like that to our people on Monday morning. Maybe sort of the rest of the story for people to think about in relation to the text for the week. Or maybe a blog on our website (I know that’s not creative, but hey, I’m over 65). In the meantime, let me know and I’ll be glad to send you the answers for this week’s fill in the blanks.
I LOVE your idea of having a the rest of the story to follow up your sermon! I think a blog is likely the best forum to do so, as that puts the onus on church members to seek it out (rather than adding more responsibility to already busy church admin staff).
I tend to agree that, in most cases, being provided with fill-in-the-blanks gives me the sense that the preacher thinks I’m too dumb to identify the key points on my own. I enjoy a sheet that provides the sermon title, the key Scripture, and possibly the couple points that are the focus. All the rest can be blank and I will fill it up.
As a South African, this is a totally foreign concept to me. I’ve never come across a church or pastor that does that here. Many have handouts of some sort, but usually with main points, or some Questions for further study or discussion, and some space for personal notes.
While I understand that some people may find it helpful, for remembering the sermon, I certainly wouldn’t use it.
As for the comment by Bill Goff about the prodigal son: I’m not sure whether that is the same thing. Is there only one correct answer to how the story ends or is it actually something to stir up discussion and deeper thinking?
I have a response and one question that relates to what Rob said on Feb. 24th, specifically: Interesting choice of words [i.e. stupid]I know you do it for effect to get a reaction or to make people think but I also think you could do better then use the word stupid.
My response? Calling others stupid sounds derogatory. Did you intentionally choose that word to get a reaction or is that just the best term to communicate your point? I’m wondering(?).
Jill (Hi to Joani)!!!
Thanks, Jill, for your question. My use of stupid refers to the device itselfñfill-in-the-blank sermon handouts, not any person. As I stated in the post, I believe those who use fill-ins do so with good intentions.
I personally like the fill in the blank notes and the easy to see answers on the power point screen; however, even if I didn’t like them, I don’t see the need to degrade individuals who find the fill in the blank form as a useful tool. As an educator, fill in the blank forms or guidelines with power point screens help various individuals by
focusing our individual attention to the topic and providing an additional framework for listening (not just auditory)
providing an overview of what to expect and allowing each individual’s mind to tap into their own personal prior knowledge on the topic before hearing the material
providing visual feedback for those individuals who are not auditory learners or who suffer from a hearing loss and therefore might mishear similar sounding words
providing a visual reminder for those of us who suffer from distractibility, attention deficit, and good ole day dreaming (I wonder if Thom would ever admit to his mind drifting off during a lecture or sermon?)
providing a place to write questions or connections that are sparked by the sermon
providing a written handout that is for the most part written in our own words as a reference for review later in the week (Any sermon fill in the blanks I’ve seen leave plenty of room for additional notes,
doodle space, and the unthinkable to do list items that seem to distract us from paying attention. Surprisingly, writing those distracting thoughts down does actually allow the listener to refocus on the sermon.)
In conclusion, the more modalities in which a person interacts with new material, especially material that is delivered primarily by lecture format, the more likely the individual is to remember the material.
Long live the fill-in . . . If you’re not interested in the form then leave it behind, practice your origami, or fold a paper airplane.
JE, you’re supporting my premise that many churches treat faith as an academic subject, rather than a relationship.
Thom, I see your premise; however, I don’t see faith as the either-or premise you propose but rather faith encompasses both relationship along with knowledge and understanding. As my knowledge and understanding grows my relationship deepens and as my relationship deepens my knowledge and understanding grows. For some individuals relationships are easier to develop first and with the relationship in place knowledge and understanding increases; however, for those individuals who have been hurt by relationships and are more timid and closed off, growing in knowledge and understanding, hearing the Word, can help them move to growing in relationships. Just not an either-or premise for me.
Definitely I agree that fill-in-the-blanks sermons are not a good thing for me. I don’t want to be in school with a worksheet during a sermon being taught what to write in the blanks. We’re supposed to think outside the box, not limit ourselves to guessing what word(s)someone wants us to put in the box. The first time I saw one at church so many years ago, my grandmother sitting beside me was astonished to hear our pastor refer to the prodigal son as the lost son, because her understanding of the definition of prodigal was wasteful and extravagant, and her understanding of the story’s message was that both the frugal and the prodigal sons were loved and blessed by their father; it just took the prodigal son longer to figure out the value of his inheritance, and that’s what they were celebrating. Her take on the parable opened up great family conversations and a fresh understanding for me of the tremendous love Jesus has for all who come to Him with gratitude, contrition and joy, which I’ve never forgotten. That’s what sticks with me best: taking a fresh look at some story or subject together, and listening to others tell of details they’ve noticed, which I missed. Just as Thom mentions in his recommendations, I think it’s wonderful to let the people do some of the talking to find out what your fellow churchgoers are thinking and feeling about things.
It’s interesting that I have never seen fill in the blanks used for a sermon. I have seen them used as part of a Bible Study or Sunday School type thing. I have ADD and I think that having to listen for fill in the blank answers might frustrate me while trying to pay attention to the sermon!
I used them for 10 years. 2 people in the church really loved them. My wife complained they were stupid the whole 10 years. Are you saying she was right? I never thought much about their effectiveness–the cool churches were doing it, so we did too. 248 people would probably really like it if we stopped, my wife especially–she just wants a blank page to take her own notes. At least she still listens to me!
I know this is a really old post, but I was perusing the site and wanted to comment. I feel that the Fill-in-the-Blank forms have their place. For a good handful of folks like me who tend to be more easily distracted, it makes it easier for me to focus on the message being given. Yes, it does put more emphasis on academics than on relationships, but I believe Christianity needs both. It needs good Biblical scholarship (academics) and relationships.
That’s my $0.02
Isn’t that kind of like saying, “If PowerPoint were effective, we’d use it everywhere?” Just because I don’t use PowerPoint to tell my wife that I love here, that doesn’t mean it’s not an effective communication tool in the appropriate place.
People have different learning styles. For some, outlines with blanks are a great help. For others, they are a distraction.
(And yeah, I’m another who just found this old post, based on a friend’s recommendation. Sorry to miss the party 🙂
Grace and peace,
Preaching is among others things a dramatic art form. Good drama required the building of tension by posing a difficult to solve problem or a difficult question. You remove the creative tension from your sermon if you provide all the answers before you verbalize them. I with hold words on the hand out for the same reason I ask my media staff not to project my statements before I say them.
In defense of hand outs many people give me positive feedback including the ESL people and those who are hearing impaired. Please think twice before you call things stupid, it makes you look _____________________ .