Like most preachers, I’m always looking for good stories for my sermons. My last few sermons have been a bit story-less. I’ve also been looking for a place to file the stories I find, and then to be able to retrieve them later.

Evernote is my new sermon illustration database. I installed a “web clipper” so when I find a story or article or photograph I want to save, I click the button, I assign it to a notebook (for now they’re going into my “sermons” notebook), I add a few tags, and hit “save.” Later I’ll be able to search Evernote to find the one I’m looking for.

After a while, I might get a little more sophisticated. I might separate the illustrations into different notebooks, or get a better tagging system. But for now, this is exactly what I was looking for.


I’ve realized that I share more worship ideas on Facebook than I do on this blog because it’s so much easier to post on Facebook. So I’ve created a Facebook page called Fresh Worship. Not only will it have more posts, but it will be easier for you to add comments, ideas, or ask for help. If you’re on Facebook, join us!

Creative Worship Ideas: Epiphany

I have a tradition in my church to have a Christmas story in place of the sermon on the Sunday after Christmas. This year I’m doing things a little different. On the Sunday after Christmas, we’re going to sing Christmas carols and hear the stories behind them. The Christmas story was going to be the following Sunday, on January 2. I even had a story picked out. And then I read commentary on the story of the wise men in Matthew 2.

One particular idea struck me: that the magi, wise men from another country, were coming to worship Jesus. The commentary said that Jewish tradition expected a pilgrimage of the nations to the God of Israel as part of the end times, and the gospel writer Matthew saw that already happening in the response of the magi. Last week the carol Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was the focus of my sermon. I talked about “peace on earth” being at the heart of Christmas. I decided we would celebrate Epiphany on January 2, and the theme would be peace on earth throughout all the nations.

Various pieces of the service started to fall together, including some elements I’ve been wanting to use.

Several years back I used the story of “The Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke as my sermon. That will be my story-sermon this year.

I’ll have the children study the wise men in Sunday school.

Last year in the journal Reformed Worship, I had read about a church that gives “Star Gifts” on Epiphany. A star-gift is a star-shaped piece of brightly colored paper with a word, like “love” or “faith” or “time” printed on it. Everyone receives a star-gift in worship that Sunday and is encouraged to think about that word throughout the year. I’ll have the kids hand out star-gifts during the children’s sermon.

On msnbc.com, I found a slideshow of children from different countries, all living in New York City. Photographer Danny Goldberg talks about how he came up with the idea for the project, called NY Children.

In 2003, while driving across the United States, I stopped at a gas station in Mesa, Arizona and met Rana, a Sikh whose brother was lost to a hate crime in front of their family-owned gas station in 2001. In 2002, Rana’s second brother was working his taxicab in San Francisco when a thief took his life.

Rana’s response to these violent acts against his brothers was a refusal to hole up and live in fear. Rana said, “It is important for me to get out of my house and meet my neighbors.” By reaching out to those who might not otherwise know him, he hoped to reduce the danger to himself, his family and his community.

Driving later that night, inspired by Rana’s simple prescription to make the world safer, I was struck by the idea to photograph a child from every country on earth and find them all living in New York City. This is how I would bring neighbors together. I returned home to New York and sought the help of community builders, clergy members, educators, business people, politicians, journalists, artists, students and families. These photographs exist because of their stories, efforts and good will.

Someday I hope Rana can come to New York City and meet the children and families from NYChildren.

I’m going to show the photographs of the children during our Prayers of the People. We’ll pray for the children, the nations, our neighbors, and peace on earth.

I hope through these various worship elements we can worship the baby who came to bring peace to all the nations of the world.

Finding God at Sturgis

Two weeks ago I went to the motorcycle rally at Sturgis, South Dakota with my husband. We were coming home on Saturday, and I was going to lead worship on Sunday. So I decided to preach on “Finding God at Sturgis.” All week, my husband and I were on the lookout for God, taking photographs, reflecting, and sharing ideas with one another.

During the sermon on Sunday, I shared the photographs we had taken.

Here’s the link to my sermon, and here’s the photos that I included.

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How I Design a Creative Worship Service

Main graphic for service on the Lord's Prayer

My philosophy, which I learned from the Midnight Oil guys, is to have one graphic up for the whole worship service. I’m trying to tell the story, to get a message across, so I want all the creative elements to reinforce that message. I use a faded copy of the graphic behind all words. (I do that in Photoshop Elements, a program that costs about $80.) I don’t put nature scenes behind the words, or change the photograph with each verse of a song, or have motion backgrounds, because again, I’m trying to get a message across, not use creative elements just so people will so, “Boy, that was cool.”

Last week I was preaching on the Lord’s Prayer. I went to WorshipHouse Media to see if they had any good videos, and I found one for about $20. I could also have created a slide show in Photoshop Elements, but I liked the video. It was the Lord’s Prayer with a piano background. I was at first planning on using it after I read the scripture and before I started preaching.

I needed to find out the heart (theme, thesis, main idea) of the sermon before I chose a graphic. I had one picked out at the beginning of the week, but my sermon went in another direction. So I found this one at the end of the week. You can find graphics anywhere. Take your own photographs. Use google to search for an image (be careful about copyright). Go to worship sites (like WorshipHouse Media or other free sites). I usually go to stock photography sites because I can find what I’m looking for easier and the photographs are very high quality. If you’re just projecting the photograph, a resolution of 72 dots per inch is good (the smaller the resolution the cheaper the photograph), but if you’re going to print it, 300 dots per inch is necessary. I’m now using photographs both for projecting and for printing on cards, so I get the higher quality. They cost me about $5-10.

I wasn’t going to put the scripture passage on the screen. I lean more towards fewer words and more graphics. But I was playing with our new system to find out how big the type needed to be to be able to see it well (over 40 point type). I put one verse per screen, and I practiced reading the scripture from the screen. I loved it, because I was able to have more eye contact with people. And several people said they appreciated having it on the screen. So I’ll probably do that in the future. Again, I used my washed out graphic as the background.

During the sermon, I decided to have a slide with my main graphic and the phrase of the Lord’s Prayer that I was speaking about at the time. I don’t generally plan to have an outline of my sermon on the screen, but this worked well.

I thought about putting the video right before the sermon. I also thought about putting it right after the sermon as a “visual meditation.” I could have also used it after the prayers of the people when we normally pray the Lord’s Prayer. (This week we sang the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve had several people asking for that. “Fresh Worship” doesn’t have to be high-tech. It can be just doing something in a little different way.) We were having communion, so I finally decided to use the video during communion. It was about 2 1/2 minutes, so I played it once while we passed out the bread, and again when we passed out the juice. I heard that one of our four-year-olds was fascinated by it, although he thought the man with the arms raised was an alien.

I want the technology to be invisible. I don’t want people saying, “Oh, that was a great piece of technology.” I want the technology to help us worship deeper and remember the message longer.

I’m a visual person, so designing worship like this comes naturally to me. And because I know where to find resources, and how to use the technology (computer, screens, MediaShout software, remote, etc.), I find it easy and nourishing to my soul. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, take it slow or find someone else to work with for whom it does come naturally.

Creative Worship Ideas: The Lord’s Prayer

I’m preaching on the Lord’s Prayer this week from Matthew (Matthew 6:7-15). We just put in our new projection system, so I’m thinking about visual elements to use in the service. Since I haven’t decided on the heart of the message, I haven’t yet picked out a graphic. I have chosen a video. It’s from worshiphousemedia.com, the site where I find lots of worship elements. I’m going to play it right after reading the scripture and right before I start preaching.

The Lord’s Prayer video

As I’m speaking about “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” I might show this graphic on the screen. I created it at wordle.net.

Word cloud with names of God

Word cloud with names of God

Although I generally don’t put the scripture passage up on the screen as I’m reading it, and I certainly won’t start doing that until we have some people trained to run the computer, I might put each phrase of the passage up as I’m talking about it. Usually I use the screen for graphics rather than words, but having each phrase up might help people focus on it.

Why I Need the Resurrection

On the website Patheos, nine bloggers shared why they need the resurrection, in 100 words or less.

Kara Root, pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota wrote:

I need the Resurrection
because my sister is sick
and can’t afford insurance,
because I’ve told a weeping Haitian mom,
“No, I can’t take your son home with me.”
because I’ve been rushed off a Jerusalem street
so a robot could blow up a bag that could’ve blown up us.
because I’ve exploded
in rage
and watched their tiny faces cloud with hurt.
because evil is pervasive
and I participate.
I need the Resurrection
because it promises
that in the end
all wrongs are made right.
Death loses.
Hope triumphs.
And Life and Love

After my sermon this Easter Sunday, my lay leader and I are going to alternate reading some of these brief statements of faith. I’ll end wish the question, “Why do you need the Resurrection? What would you say, in 100 words or less?”