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Preaching Without Notes

Several years ago I made the commitment to preach my sermons without the aid of notes. Seminary is very permission giving about what any preacher chooses to take into the pulpit. In other words, there is no right way to do it. Some will take a full manuscript, some will use a skeleton outline with bullet points, and then there are those like me who commit the sermon to memory.

Speaking from memory has elicited some interesting comments over the years. Some have suggested that I extemporize (wing it) my sermons. Others have inquired as to whether or not I have a photographic memory or possess some kind of special gift. I am not an extemporaneous speaker nor would I consider myself particularly or uniquely gifted. But there is a simple trick that I learned from one of my ministry mentors who always preached without notes.

Are you ready?

They secret sauce, for me at least, is to write the sermon using pen and paper. Once the manuscript is complete, I copy it by hand at least twice. Writing the sermon in longhand helps me connect with it in a way that I have not be able to accomplish with a keyboard. Once this part of the process is complete, I rehearse it aloud and spot check the clarity of my communication as well as my memorization. At this point, I am reinforcing my memorization by speaking it aloud and hearing it aloud. That’s it.

You don’t have to be particularly gifted to preach without notes. It just takes time and commitment. The benefits of doing this work are, in my opinion, worth the effort. Here are some of the benefits I have found preaching without notes.

First, I feel a great sense of ownership in the sermon. The entire process of prayer, preparation and delivery requires me to internalize the material in a deeper way than if I just clicked print and walked away from my desktop. The sermon becomes so internalized that I have found that I am free from distractions such as crying babies or people excusing themselves to use the rest room. My sermons may not always be preached verbatim, but I have never “forgotten” my sermon.

Second, preaching without notes gives me the opportunity to meditate on my content wherever I want, whether it be while driving or waiting in line at the grocery store.

Third, it provides a sense of freedom in my delivery. When I am tied to my notes I am, by default, tied to something physical, like a pulpit for example. Anything that limits me physically on the platform is a limitation to my communication. Limitations include confidence monitors and video technology, for that matter, which is not fail safe.

Next, memorization infers that I care deeply about my topic and that I care about my audience enough to make the effort. Someone may disagree from time to time with what I say, but no one has ever accused me of inadequate preparation! Preaching without notes adds credibility to me as a communicator and builds trust with the listeners.

Finally, preaching without notes helps create a two way conversation with the listeners. Because I am free from notes, I am free to focus on eye contact and making purposeful gestures that are natural. If I can focus on the congregant’s non verbal responses, I can determine whether or not I’ve connected with them in a meaningful way. If I read a manuscript or am heavily tied to notes then at best my eye contact is 50%. The more tied to notes I am, the more the sermon becomes a one way conversation where I talk “at” the audience instead of “with” them.

I do not intend for this post to sound like I have the only way or that anything shy of preaching without notes is wrong. But I do think it’s the best way. And I think you can do it, too!