With or Without Notes

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:

PRAYER

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.

PICTURES

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.

PLACEMENT

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.

PRACTICE

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.

CONCLUSION

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!

EXERCISES

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

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19 thoughts on “With or Without Notes

  1. Way to go Keith! As you may know, preaching without notes means more not less preparation. It’s hard work, but worth it when we get to look into the eyes of our people and receive the sermon they are preaching back to us.

  2. LENNY!!!

    Great article…and I completely agree (and not just because I’ve still got some papers that haven’t been graded). I’ve been preaching this way for about three years now and the most that I have is a rough outline taped to my Bible (a really rough outline) that I can refer back to “just in case” I lose my thought for a moment. One of the things that I have found is that, as an introvert, I tend to internalize my sermon and my thought patterns all week so that, by Sunday, I’ve got it all memorized.

    Andy Stanley has a great book on this subject called, “Communicating for Change” and he talks about the importance of preaching on, what he calls, a road map approach instead of a manuscript approach. It might be a good book to consider for your preaching class (lots of great thoughts, nuggets in it).

  3. Lenny…well said man of God. Communicating God’s word effectively requires building a relationship with the audience at the same time. Preaching without notes is one of the keys to that dynamic. Keep up the great work.

  4. Thanks for keeping this topic of delivery on the table for discussion, Dr. Luchetti.

    May I say that another of Kalas’ instructions simplifies sermon preparation, sermon delivery and sermon receptiveness: unity. Sermons in evangelical circles range from haphazardly assembled Bible studies to Bible commentaries read out loud. May I submit that a sermon is a place for ONE point central to a passage to be presented rather than three or five. People can keep that one thought through the week and begin practicing it. This one central point may be supported by minor points, but these little sub-points must always be in support of the main thesis of the sermon. The difference between bullet points in a sermon (sometimes three equally-treated propositions beginning each with the same letter) and supportive points all related integrally to the main thesis may seem trivial, but it won’t be to the congregation. They will catch the thesis if it is well supported by every aspect or “picture” you refer to. With a three point sermon you are really gambling that one of the three will stick.

    If you say one thing you can likely remember to preach it well without notes and your congregation will be able to follow you and make application to their life.

    • Erik, I couldn’t agree with you more. If the sermon is too haphazard in the mind of the preacher to preach it without notes, there is likely no chance that the congregation will grasp and remember the thrust of the message either. I do think we live in a day when less is more. Perhaps multiple point sermons have a place, especially when the sermon has a didactic purpose to educate/inform people on a particular topic. But I agree with you that single focus sermons based on one biblical text are sorely needed in the life of the church today.
      Thanks,
      Lenny

    • This is so true Paul. I spent about three hours of my sermon prep time on delivery. Of course, if we hope to be less reliant on our notes it will also have some bearing upon how we contruct the sermon too. Constuct the sermon so that the content is not only theologically profound but also communicationally effective.
      Lenny

  5. Great challenge. I write a full manuscript…this forces me to think. Then I practice it enough so people won’t know I have one. Lots of people think I preach without notes.
    The one concern I have about planning to preach without notes is that lots of us get really busy. We can’t afford to “wing it” when it comes to the Word!

    • True…I’m an advocate of preparing a manuscript and then, of course, preaching with minimal or no reliance upon the manuscript. If we think of our manuscript as 7 or so moves we can internalize it enough, I think, to preach it without notes. Thanks for your thoughts John.
      Lenny

  6. This concept works well for me. My most valued critic reminds me when my notes become too valuable during the sermon presentation.
    I will reread this article several times this year. Blessings

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Lenny, and with the comments afterward here, particularly Paul Tillman and John Bray (two fellas I tend to like anyway!)

    However, I will say that I come to this agreement very reluctantly. As you know, I love to write as much or more than I love to preach… and so researching and writing a sermon is as much or more fulfilling to me as delivering it, which is often not true for pastors, who enjoy eating the sausage but don’t always like the making of it.

    So, I’ve learned that my beautifully crafted and worded manuscript is just a prelude to turning words into an oral event… which you aptly note is the nature of preaching. It’s never as “good” in my mind as the manuscript was for me. But then again, the sermon isn’t about me anyway. Another things I have to re-teach myself every time.

    • Dave, thanks for adding your wisdom to the conversation on sermon delivery. You’re not the first “word-smither” to suggest your angst over preaching with limited notes or no notes at all. I can’t imagine people like Barbara Brown Taylor or Tony Campolo preaching from anything but a manuscript, but they can pull it off because their words paint pictures we can see instead of platitudes we only hear. Few, I know you agree, can pull this off. I do think the practice of developing a complete manuscript can enhance our preaching, even if we distill a thin outline from which to deliver our sermonic baby. In short, completing a manuscript helps our content and not preaching from it tends to help our delivery.
      Lenny

  8. Lenny-

    Thanks for the encouragement and the advice. I took both Dr. Kalas,Dr. Pasquarello and Dr. Ruth at Asbury for preaching and all of them have really different preaching styles.

    I do preach from a manuscript normally (I am in the pulpit at least once a week), but I have gone from a really brief outline on a post-it in my Bible.

    I once began a sermon to a new group of people by explaining my manuscript as “If I don’t have this, I might end up talking about Bigfoot…” I have really struggle with using a manuscript and I still make the decision to have once most of the time.

    I do this for a couple of reasons;
    1. I was told by several people (both teachers and folks in the pews) that they were unaware of my manuscript except when I turned a page. It has never been described to ME as distracting, but I have been distracted by others preaching from a manuscript.

    2. I have a slight speech impediment and I stutter in conversation and for some reason I have never had this problem with even having a manuscript to go back to occasionally.

    3. I really try to use present tense language and limit my use of certain words, and the manuscript helps me do so. I also try to be extremely deliberate with my language. The manuscript allows me to do this. I tend to default to certain words without it.

    I really respect those who don’t use a manuscript, but I have found it works well for me. I tend to look down about once every 4-5 sentences. It also helps me to make notes for certain linguistic emphasis.

    I just wanted to comment on how I have struggled through this and the decision I have made. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. As I said, some can get away with preaching from a manuscript but not many. I also think most prechers benefit from writing a manuscript, though in most cases I don’t advise preaching from it during the event. The tension in developing a manuscript and then preaching from an outline or no notes at all. We tend to fall too much in love with our cleverly crafted manuscript and don’t want to miss any of our word-smithing, which may often lead us to read our script. The preacher may feel better about not missing a word from the pages, but the people to whom we preach feel as if we connected with paper and not them:-)
      Lenny

  9. Lenny, thanks so much for your work. I have been challenged within for some time on this subject. You might be the cause of this internal battle, as I witnessed you preaching the entire Sermon on the Mount without notes. Thanks! Then I have twice now received God’s message through Dr. Jim Lo. I would say he is just the opposite as he holds his notes (manuscript) in hand reading from it.

    I believe I find myself some where in between. I would like to be further away from notes but find, at times, that when I do I often end up “lost” in a trail of thought while preaching. I would guess the more that I move away from the notes this might become less distracting, to me.

    I believe this is a matter of preparation time. Many of us, like myself, not only have to work at this, as it does not come natural but we also are having to work additional jobs. By the time we develop the sermon there is little to no time to develop the presentation. Any additional suggestions?

    • Kevin,
      You bring up an interesting aside-many of us are not full time preachers or pastors and have many other responsibilities during the week besides preparing a sermon.
      Everything I see becomes a part of one of my sermons. Conversations, an eagle flying overhead or a thought revealed during my prayers find their way into sermons. Even a sermon that I feel is not up to the mark will often elicit a reaction from my audience. When I study for several hours and then write for 5-7 hours, I don’t have time to commit each of my 50 sermons to memory. I hope to have time to practice it twice with the visual aids and timing.
      Actually I am old enough not to have any more room in my brain! A sermon where I can chattily communicate my message is more of a testimony than a well thought out sermon that is a teaching tool. I appreciate the awesome preaching method of Pastor Mark Wilson from Hayward, WI but I doubt I will ever reach his ability.

  10. Dear Lenny, Where I appreciate what you are saying, I don’t believe that we all need to preach the same way.
    I preach with a manuscripted sermon for several reasons. I am 59 and feel an urgency to correctly communicate my message for a half an hour every week. Some of us are not blessed with great memories or instant recall so I hope you can understand why I don’t want to waste time as I wander off on a rabbit trail. Secondly I look at preachers like Billy Graham who mentioned in his book “Just As I Am” that one time he lost his manuscript and another time there was no lecturn for his sermon and it made his delivery difficult. I have watched his sermons and his eyes are distinctly reading his sermon. There is no doubt that he preached the same message thousands of times, many times he preached it many times in a day- but he prayerfully wrote out his sermons each time.
    My sermons take a week in prayer and study. If I find short remarks from the internet I try to make them interesting and catchy…but with my sermons I am trying to elicit a continuous flow of thought for my congregation, whether they realize it or not. That thought pattern may last for weeks or for months and will culminate in a full gospel position. Perhaps because I am old, perhaps coming to the pulpit from a management/supervisory situation or perhaps because I haven’t taken the requisite preaching class yet, I believe my preaching is not a sequence of individual pieces but a whole assembling picture puzzle that leads up to Jesus, and Him Crucified. Andi

    • Andrea, thanks for your friendly and thoughtful push-back. While i appreciate the ministry of Billy Graham, I think it’s easier to get away with a lack of eye contact in a stadium than it is in most church settings. I agree with you that a sermon is one complete Gospel picture…that’s my point exactly. If we can think of the painting of this complete gospel picture in 5-7 brush strokes, it’s a bit simpler to remember. My fear is that good gospel content gets diminished in the hearing when it is primarily read and not passionately communicated. Perhaps there are some settings in which people are good listeners who don’t need connection during delivery. But most, I think, look for the sermon to feel more like a dialogical experience than a monologue lecture. Thoughts?