Preaching without notes is the opposite of “winging it.”
In my case at least, it is the result of a highly personalized (OK, maybe even somewhat OCD) process that’s built on these three premises:
- Internalize, don’t memorize
- If you get lost during delivery, you’re the only one who knows
- Engage with people, not paper (or for iPad preachers, congregation, not screen).
The Process Emerging From The Premises
1. Write The Manuscript. As you well know, preparing a manuscript featuring both biblical accuracy and rhetorical precision has been the subject of six chapters of my 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 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.
The Head Scratchers series in 2014, for example, began with a message on Jesus’ claims that the kingdom advances forcefully and the violent bear it away. The original bottom line was wordy, clunky, and certainly not one that got my adrenaline flowing on Tuesday thinking, “I can’t WAIT to give this on Sunday!” Yet in the sounding out process, I realized what I had been trying to say all along: Sometimes Jesus has to conquer his friends before he can conquer his enemies. Cleaner, smoother, counter-intuitive, and not at all cumbersome. It’s also a line I would never have conceived of without daily, verbal, rehearsal of my sermon manuscript.
4. Thursday Crib Sheet. For about an hour on almost every Thursday, I go through the sermon manuscript and take detailed notes on it. Using an impossibly small script, I jot the notes down on a half-sheet of paper … as if I was preparing to take those words onto the platform with me. I never do, of course, but something about that laborious notes on notes helps me internalize the flow and logic of the message. It is the most tedious – and likely the most vital – part of the entire process.
One other value of “crib sheeting” is how it allows me to internalize where blocks of material are located within the sermon manuscript. When preaching, I often “see” paragraphs or pages from the printed sermon itself … and such mental “sight” allows me to maintain the designed flow of the message.
5. 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.
6. Sunday Read Through. After all that, there’s still Sunday morning. I have two quick read throughs on that day – one while I eat breakfast and the other when I arrive at the church. For those of you counting, it all means I have nine opportunities to internalize the message: six spoken rehearsals, one crib sheet, and two quick reads. Is that overkill? Perhaps. Obsessive? Probably. Or is it … having the intensity of effort match the weight of subject? I hope so.
The end result of the process is not only a sermon that values people over paper and eye contact over manuscript accuracy. It’s a sermon in which the preacher immediately has relational currency with parishioners – many of whom are surprised to discover that at Good Shepherd we have neither a confidence monitor nor teleprompters!
And, more importantly, the kind of sermon in which I have repeatedly experienced this truth: The more prepared you are, the more spontaneous you can be.