Perhaps I am overly opinionated on this topic, but I am convinced that those who preach with little or no reliance on their notes tend to connect better with listeners. There are preachers out there who read their poetic sermon manuscripts but manage to communicate as if they are talking to people not paper. However, excellent manuscript preaching is extremely difficult and rare because preaching is primarily an oral event, not a written or read one. In most contexts, good content poorly communicated will not be heard by the majority of people listening. On the other hand, poor content effectively communicated will, regrettably, get a hearing. So it makes sense for preachers who have something worth saying about Christ and His kingdom to say it well. And while some highly skilled manuscript preachers can indeed say it well, preaching from a slim outline or, even better, with no notes at all is more likely to enhance communication of the preacher’s substantive content.
Public speaking is usually ranked high in the list of human fears. Public speaking without notes, then, produces an off-the-charts fear. So, why would I ask my students and colleagues to give it a try? Because it can increase our dependence upon God, liberate us from our deepest fears about speaking, and help us connect with our congregation at a deeper level during the preaching event. Here are a couple of ideas that can assist those who desire to preach without over-reliance upon their notes:
Prayerfully read and re-read the primary Bible passage from which you will preach. Prayerful exegesis may seem like an obvious first step, but many preachers quickly run to commentaries or internet illustrations without even giving God a chance to speak to them through the text he/she will be proclaiming on Sunday morning. See this step as one that is devotional, one that is aimed at deepening the preacher’s connection to the God who calls us to preach. As you read the preaching text, prayerfully ask God three questions: What are you saying to them historically (i.e., to the Israelites, the Apostles, or the Philippians)? What are you saying to me personally? What are you saying to us corporately (congregation, audience)? Take notes as God gives you certain impressions. After this, you can check your reflections and questions with a few dictionaries, word studies, and commentaries. But let God have the first word since he may want to lead you to a new discovery that is faithful to the text but not identified in any of your commentaries.
As you consider all of the exegetical discoveries, illustrations, and applications that flow out of the biblical text you’re proclaiming, think in terms of pictures. Picturesque language will not only help you remember what you want to say but will stick in the minds and hearts of listeners more than vague, propositional language will stick. As you think of the 7-10 spokes that will form your entire sermonic wheel, think in terms of pictures (kind of like I just did in this sentence). What 7-10 pictures will form your sermon? Instead of thinking “outline,” think pictures. I would also encourage you to actually think of the entire message as one big picture. Try and draw what the sermon is primarily intended to say and do. If there is a picturesque prevailing metaphor that drives your sermon’s main point, the sermon will be memorable for you and listeners. A picture is worth a thousand words. If you can picture it, then, you are more likely able to preach it without notes.
Now that you have all the pictures that make up the big picture of your sermon, you are ready to place the pictures in an order that allows for seamless flow. This is extremely important because a poor thought flow will challenge your ability to preach without notes and your congregation’s ability to remember what you preached. This is the point where lots of preachers seem to drop the ball. I confess that for too long I neglected prayerful and careful placement of the parts of my sermons. I threw the parts together haphazardly, assuming that as long as all of the ingredients were in the sermon bowl my work was complete. At some point I realized the importance of sequentially ordering the ingredients of the sermon. Resist the temptation to throw all the ingredients into the sermon bowl without carefully considering the ordering of those ingredients. The more your sermon structure flows, the easier it will be to preach the sermon without notes.
Once you have all the parts of the sermon in an order that flows, you are ready to practice preaching the message. Go ahead and speak it aloud, slowly and prayerfully. As you’re doing this, consider how you want to say certain things. Think about gestures that reinforce the words you are communicating. You may discover through practicing the message that your sermon is too long or too short, that something needs to be cut or added. Practicing the sermon will allow the flow of the parts to penetrate your mind and mouth, enabling you to preach without notes. I usually spend three hours prayerfully practicing and reflecting on the message. I do this to allow the sermon to impact me before it “lays a hand” on the congregation.
Ellsworth Kalas, one of my preaching professors in seminary, was committed to preaching without notes. He was an excellent preacher who was still preaching without notes as he moved toward 90 years of age. I asked him about this homiletical habit one day. “Dr. Kalas, when you preach without notes don’t you forget a few things you had hoped to say,” I inquired. He responded, “If I forgot to say it, then it probably wasn’t all that important to say.” When you preach without notes you might forget a few things you wanted to say but you will remember the most important pictures within the big picture of your message. Go for it!
1. Develop your next sermon as if you are going to preach it without notes.
Knowing you will deliver the sermon without notes will change how you develop the sermon. Now, go ahead and preach the sermon without notes. You can do it!
2. Solicit feedback from at least five people who experienced your sermon. Discern if and how your willingness to preach without notes engaged listeners at a deeper level.
Dr. Lenny Luchetti presently serves as Assistant Professor of Proclamation and Christian Ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University. He began his 15 years of pastoral ministry when he was 23 years old. During that time he has served as the Pastor of a small rural church, the Assistant Pastor of a large church, and as the Lead Pastor of a congregation that grew from a small to a large missional and multi-ethnic church during his tenure. Lenny has taught preaching courses for ministers since 2003. He has preached at churches, camps, and colleges in the United States and around the world. His passion these days is to invest in those who are investing in local churches.
Dr. Luchetti blogs at lennyluchetti.blogspot.com