On Preaching Without Notes

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  • We were hanging out at the church, waiting for the afternoon service.

    An unidentified woman pulled up. She was there to pick me up for the service I was schedule to preach at her church that afternoon.

    My father had told her pastor I would preach the meeting. But he forgot to tell me!

    So there I was. On my way to preach. Barely in my teens. Scared out of my wits.

    I preached the story of David and Goliath.

    This was my introduction to preaching without notes. A baptism by fire.

    More than twenty-five years later, I am used to preaching without notes. I still write sermon manuscripts. But I rarely use them in the pulpit.

    If I need the manuscript, an extended outline, or an index card of notes, so be it. I will not sacrifice content for style. But most weeks, if I have done my work in the study, I don’t need anything but a Bible when I stand to preach.

    Do you want to preach without notes?

    Here are twelve practical recommendations that will help you learn to preach without notes:

    Decide if preaching without notes is for you. It may not be for you. That’s okay. Some of my favorite preachers use full manuscripts in the pulpit. And it doesn’t seem to hurt their preaching. Likewise, you must decide what is best for you. Don’t try to go to battle wearing Saul’s armor. Go to the pulpit with your slingshot and five smooth stones.

    Preach with notes, sort of. Do not transition from using a full manuscript to note-free preaching cold turkey. Start with limited notes. Whittle your manuscript down to a page or two. Use just an extended outline. Take baby steps. As you confidence grows, try preaching without a safety net.

    Start as early as possible. Saturday Night Specials undermine effective preaching without notes. Last-minute study will rob you of clarity, creativity, and confidence. The more time you spend with the text, the more it will benefit your preparation and presentation. So don’t procrastinate. Start as early in the week as you can. Give your peak hours to study. And stay in the seat until the hard work is done.

    Study the text diligently. If you sweat in the study, you can relax in the pulpit. You may not remember every quote, reference, or list. But you can preach with confidence when you know the meaning and message of the text. Do a good job in the study. Then stand and explain, apply, and illustrate what you have learned.

    Have a clear sermon skeleton. An essential key to preaching without notes is to have a clear structure for your sermon. Call it an outline, movements, or whatever. You need to know where this sermon is going. And you need to know how you plan to get there. A clear path produces smooth preaching.

    Write a full manuscript. Preaching without notes is not an excuse for pulpit sloth. It is not a license to preach extemporaneously. You should write a full manuscript, even though you don’t plan to use it in the pulpit. The process of thinking through what you want to say and how you want to say it will help you preach clearly and confidently without notes.

    Make clarity the top priority. You will find note-free preaching to be more difficult, if your goal is to be cute or clever. Don’t stuff your sermon will filler material. Stick to the basics. Don’t try to be impressive. Work to prepare a message that your congregation will understand, not one that will impress your seminary professors.

    Internalize the material. You are not cramming for a test. You are preparing to deliver a message. Read the sermon through several times. Mark up the manuscript. Think through your transitions. Sing the hymn you plan to quote. Pray over the sermon. Examine yourself in light of what you will be preaching to others. Work to get it in your heart, not just your head.

    Master the material through word associations. I use word associations to memorize my sermons. If I can remember key words, I’m ready. For instance, I may use five words to remember my introduction: Quotation. Context. Text. Point. Transitional sentence. These words tell me to start with the quote, address the historical background, land at the text, state the point of the message, and then transition to the outline. I can work through the first page of a manuscript by memorizing these word associations.

    Practice the message. I trust you are beyond standing in the mirror to rehearse your sermon. But you should preach it aloud. As you exercise. In the car. While you are dressing. Use every opportunity to talk through the message. There is something about hearing yourself say the words that aids memorization. It works. Try it. But warn your family first, so they won’t think you are going crazy.

    Preach the message, not the manuscript. If you do not get to say everything you prepared, so what? The one who guides the preparation of the message, governs the presentation of it. And he has the right to edit your sermon as you preach it! Your job is to preach the message the Lord gives you as he leads you, not to say everything you wrote in the manuscript.

    Just do it. You will not learn to preach without notes if you never preach without notes. At some point, you must suck it up, face your fears, and trust God to help you preach what he has taught you in private. It is a step of faith, for sure. But God is faithful. Trust him to help you preach without notes. Then just do it!

    What advice would you give for preaching without notes?

    Your comments are welcome.

    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.