During our South Carolina vacation last week, our 30-year-old daughter asked me early one evening, “Are you going to go practice your sermon, Daddy?”
On the one hand, the question is 100% understandable, as she grew up waking up to the sounds of early morning sermon practice in an adjacent room. And, if an early morning practice was not possible, she also grew accustomed to me disappearing for 45 minutes (usually just before dinner) for that day’s rehearsal.
On the other hand, the question was a bit laughable because I arranged my schedule last week so there’d be NO sermon rehearsal, as Devin Tharp gave the weekend message.
But that “going to practice your sermon” time has been a staple of my weekly routine for more than 30 years because preaching without notes has been my Sunday standard during that same time. How is it that I go from written manuscript to note-less delivery?
The process is idiosyncratic and personalized, no doubt; yet I firmly believe there are take-aways that any preacher or speaker wishing to maximize impact can implement. The process involves personal discipline, memory tools, and understanding of what Fred Craddock calls sounding out the sermon. Yet none of the techniques I will describe will have lasting impact without understanding the foundational premises behind preaching without notes.
Foundational Premise #1: The Difference Between Memorizing And Internalizing
Foundational Premise #2: If you forget where you are in the sermon, the only person who knows is you
Process Emerging From The Principles
1. Write The Manuscript. As you well know, preparing a manuscript featuring both biblical accuracy and rhetorical precision has been the subject of the previous six chapters of the book. Yet I find this twist interesting: a manuscript’s main purpose is to disappear. As Dr. Jerry Mercer, my first preaching professor at Asbury, told us, “Write your manuscript out and then leave it at home.” It took a few months to embrace that wisdom, but I have been living it ever since.
I make sure that my manuscripts have narrow margins and double spacing – the better to scribble on during the week.
2. Daily Rehearsal. In my typical work flow, I am preparing one sermon a week while internalizing another.
Here’s what I mean. I spend 15-20 hours per week working on chapters One-Six of this book; exegeting, sweating, praying, and wordsmithing my way to a 2000 word sermon manuscript. But the message I am preparing is typically for two months hence. That means I am always eight weeks ahead in sermon design and preparation – which goes a long way to preventing ulcers and allowing the rest of our creative team to add color and music to what I preach. I brought my first four sermons with me from seminary to my first appointment and have slowly gotten more and more ahead through the years – in particular, by preparing a sermon during even those weeks when I knew I wasn’t preaching on Sunday. So that’s the message I’m preparing.
Yet during that same week, I am internalizing the message due to be delivered the next Sunday. It is often one that I have prepared, printed, and then placed in a file two months prior … and then I pull it out on the Monday morning before Sunday delivery. I then take that printed sermon and rehearse it at my home, in front of a mirror, early in the morning, before I ever go to the office. I do that with the sermon every day of the week. This process allows me privacy (no one in the office hears my strange practicing) while also getting the week’s most important work done first thing in the morning when I have the most energy and focus.
With each rehearsal, I arm myself with a purple marker to add what brings clarity and eliminate what is unnecessary. There is nothing that is necessarily biblical about choosing purple; I just find it less obnoxious than red. This rehearsing and purpling often makes what gets delivered on Sunday quite a bit different from what had been prepared eight weeks earlier.
3. Sounding The Sermon. Verbalizing the sermon as opposed merely to reading it over has another benefit: you get to hear the sound of the words you have prepared. We’ve already discovered the unique skills and joys of preparing for an aural medium, so why not prepare aurally? I hear words that don’t work as well together when spoken as they did when they were written; I hear of the adjustments needed to make the message flow, and, on occasion, I even hear how the bottom line into which I had poured so much blood, sweat, and tears wasn’t as good as I thought it was eight weeks earlier.
4. Saturday Prayer. After the final verbal run through – yes, every day Monday through Saturday, which means that I work at least 30 minutes or so on my Friday day-off – it’s time to get serious about the sermon and the Sunday to follow. I lay the manuscript on my bed, lay my hands over it … and pray first of all for three pastoral colleagues who are especially dear friends. They are at different stages of their ministries with differing kinds of responsibilities, but I have long sensed that I should not even think of praying for my sermon without first praying for theirs. So that’s what I do.
Then, with my hands still laid upon my printed sermon, I pray a fresh anointing and a supernatural impact on what will happen on Sunday morning. Sometimes I pray in English, sometimes in Spanish, and sometimes in what I think Paul would call “tongues of angels.” But I pray, relinquishing the results to God. Many years ago, while I was very early both in ministry and in developing this process, I heard God say very clearly to me at the conclusion of one of these Saturday night prayers:
“Don’t ever preach without praying like that.”
So I haven’t.
The preceding is an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact, released in February by Abingdon Press and available here.