Special Delivery — Preaching Without Notes

My love language is Words Of Affirmation.

(If you don’t understand that reference, check out Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages where you’ll see that all of us speak & receive love through one of the following: physical touch, quality time, acts of service, gifts, or words of affirmation. I didn’t have to read the entire book – a quick glance at the chapter titles told me how I receive love. “Yep, there’s my picture right under Words Of Affirmation.”)

And that fact has everything to do with how and why I learned to preach without using any notes.

While a student at Asbury Seminary, I served a ministry internship at Wesley United Methodist Church, a small African-American congregation in Georgetown, Kentucky.  The pastor there, Rev. Elgan Reynolds, was exceedingly generous with his pulpit, allowing me to preach once a month.  The net result was that I was preaching live to a church at the same time I was taking beginning courses in homiletics.

For those early sermons – both in class and with congregation – I prepared a full manuscript.  I had not developed some of the patterns and practices you’ve read about up to this point in the book, but I was still writing out sermons of approximately 2000 words.  When my preaching turn came at Wesley, I would take the manuscript up to the pulpit with me, lay it upon the open pulpit bible with great subtlety, and then preach from it.  When I came to the end of a page, I would (I thought) deftly slide “used” page over so that “new” page would appear, just waiting to be preached.  My eye contact with congregation was relatively good, though I must admit in retrospect that it was important for me to share all of those words I had so diligently prepared.

Well, the response to those early sermons was encouraging.  My professors liked them.  My classmates seemed impressed.  The congregation was appreciative.  Even my Texan family, to whom I would send tapes of the talks, were full of support and compliments.  You could say that everyone liked those sermons.

With one exception.  Rev. Reynolds himself.

He never told me that I preached well, he refused to compliment either my content or my delivery, he resisted any temptation he may have had to encourage my efforts.

Remember: my love language is words of affirmation.  The very words I was not getting from my senior pastor.

Mired in this love deficit, I decided to watch Reynolds himself carefully the next time he preached.  My main takeway?  He stood up and preached.  No notes.  Full freedom of movement in the pulpit, full ability to extemporize, complete eye contact with the small but eager congregation.  After the Sunday of study, I came up with an idea:  “Next time I preach, I won’t use any notes.  He’ll HAVE to love me then!”            So, armed with what from the perspective of hindsight and maturity are admittedly mixed motives, I wrote, scribbled, memorized, and internalized my way into a sermon from Romans 10:5-13.  I do not remember the point, much less the points, but I do remember the delivery:  noteless.  More than that, I remember the response from the un-impressable Rev. Reynolds: when I sat down in the pulpit chair after delivery, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You’re going to be OK.”  Love language spoken; love itself received.

I’ve never preached with notes since.

            Along the way, I’ve learned the truthfulness of Joseph Webb’s assertion:  “It takes some courage, at least at first, but the payoff in the pulpit and in one’s congregation will be nothing short of astounding, as one will discover the first Sunday one is willing to try it.”  (Preaching Without Notes, p. 12)

The pages that follow will include my process for taking a sermon from written manuscript to note-free delivery.  The process is idiosyncratic and personalized, no doubt; yet I firmly believe there are take-aways that any preacher 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

I do not believe that sermons should be memorized.  If that were the case, then only robots could deliver them.

On the other hand, I very much believe that sermons should be internalized.  That way, pastors can preach them.

Memorization emphasizes word-for-word recitation of a prepared script.  Because of the human impossibility of such a feat, memorization leads inevitably to frustration.

Internalization, by way of contrast, is more thought-for-thought delivery of a designed piece.  Internalizing a sermon moves it from the page to the brain and ultimately into the heart.  Once a message settles into the heart, having it emerge from preacher’s mouth is almost effortless.  (Though of course, the more effortless it looks, the more effort it took!)  Far from leading to frustration, internalizing leads to liberation.

When I internalize a message, I will memorize a few key sections, I will memorize the arc and the flow, and I will most definitely memorize a few support sentences.  For example, in the For The Gospel sermon I referred to in Chapter Six (Heaven isn’t a reward for those who are better.  It’s a gift for those who’ve been bought.), I had crafted a couple of sentences that had both biblical truth and rhetorical punch:

Paul takes a personal confrontation and turns it into Gospel proclamation.

God’s not grading on a curve.  He’s grading on the cross.

Because I knew those sentence combinations had potential for both truth and impact, I made sure I memorized them.  They were delivered in the sermon exactly where the manuscript called for them.  As far as the rest of the talk, it was internalized … I was quite sure of the flow, rhythm, and phrasing of most of it, but I did not worry for a minute that something I had written would somehow go unpreached.


Foundational Premise #2:  If you forget where you are in the sermon, the only person who knows is you

Let’s say you have accepted the challenge to preach without notes, have ascended to the pulpit, begun your message and … two thirds of the way through, you have forgotten what is next.  What to do?

Well, in that moment of internally high drama, you do well to remember:  No one knows that I’m lost except me.  No one!  When this happens to me, I keep talking, walking around what I have just said, and without fail the next block of material appears in my mind (details on that below).  All along I am remembering:  they don’t know anything is wrong.  The benefits of noteless preaching more than outweigh the cost of occasional forgetfulness.

In a recent Simplify The Message & Multiply The Impact preaching workshop, I led the group through this precise conversation.  One of the group members offered this insight: “Letting go of my manuscript is like letting go of my ego.  Sometimes I feel like the people MUST HEAR all these words I’ve so carefully prepared.  But now I realize they don’t have to hear them all.” 

            So I told her:  “THAT’S going in the book!” And our group marveled at the wisdom of letting go of your ego, trusting God’s Spirit, and connecting with God’s people.

Foundational Premise #3 … ah, that’s in the book!

The preceding is an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact, which is available NOW wherever books are sold online and officially “drops” from Abingdon Press on February 4.