It was youth Sunday afternoon. I was hanging out on the church grounds with my dad, waiting for the youth musical to begin. A car pulled up and a woman got out and walked up to me and asked, “Are you ready?” She was the lady assigned to pick me up to preach the youth service at her church that afternoon. The service my father forgot to tell me about. As a boy preacher, just into his teens, this was an indescribable crisis. But I got through it. Barely.
This early experience taught me to always be prepared to preach. And it taught me that I could actually preach without notes. My father was a manuscript preacher. And most of the preachers I admired as a boy were also manuscript preachers. I just thought it was the way to preach, with a manuscript in front of you. But that day introduced me to a whole new world, as it were. And as time passed, I began to hear other men I admired who preached without notes. I even heard about one preacher who actually moved the podium from the platform when he preached revivals, standing there with just a mike (and a Bible, I hope). I never saw him do it. But I was impressed with the idea that he could stand without notes and preach.
At some point, I made an intentional decision that I wanted to preach without notes. I still wrote complete manuscripts, for the most part. I just would not take any notes to the pulpit. My dad used to say that I would stand there “flatfooted” and preach. It became something I was very proud of. Not a good thing. And not something I feel the same way about anymore.
As an older and hopefully more mature preacher, I am less neurotic about whether or not I preach with notes. In fact, when I moved from Los Angeles to Jacksonville several years ago, I planned to begin preaching with notes. No one in my new church would know the difference, I thought. But it never really happened. I still basically write out a manuscript or extended outline and review it thoroughly enough that I do not have to carry any notes to the pulpit. But it is not a big deal to me anymore. My philosophy of preaching can be summed up in the words of Malcolm X: “By any means necessary.” If I can do it with nothing in front of me, fine. If I need some notes to make sure I stay on point, fine. The goal is that I am faithful to the text and clear in my presentation. Whether or not I am able to do that without a “cheat sheet” in front of me is irrelevant.
If a younger preacher asks me how I preach without notes, I usually try to share some of the “tricks” I use to remember the major movements of my messages. But I confess that I have been doing it the way I do it for so long that I am not really conscious of my process anymore. I just do what I do. I also try to encourage them to put a lot of effort into the preparation of the message. Good preparation is the birthplace of good presentation. After you have fully prepared yourself in the study, the best advice I can give is that you do what it most comfortable to you. It may be that you preach best with a full, word-for-word manuscript in front of you. It may be that you preach best with an extended outline or just a few reminders. Or maybe you are able to prepare your message and deliver it without anything in front of you except your Bible. Good.
Think yourself empty. Read yourself full. Write your way clear. Pray your way hot. And then go to the pulpit and be yourself. Remember, preaching is, to use Phillip Brook’s famous definition, truth through personality. So be yourself. Don’t preach yourself. But offer the best you to God when you stand to proclaim the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Two men were walking together to a preaching engagement. One of them pulled a manuscript from his pocket and began to review it as they walked. His colleague observed this and said, “What are you doing with that manuscript? You need the fire of God to preach. And there is no fire on that paper!” Without breaking his stride, the manuscript preacher answered, “You’re right. There is no fire on this paper. But I can use this paper to start of fire!”